In “Life on the Mississippi,” Mark Twain reminds us often that — at least back then — the great river was prone to unpredictable changes in course, cutting across long sandbars or “bends” to shorten its route whenever it wanted, destroying entire towns and villages overnight; the storied history and eventual fate of Napoleon, Arkansas, for example, figures from the beginning through nearly to the end of the book.
Like the river he loves, Twain’s prose runs wherever it wants, turning in directions that may or may not seem profitable to an onlooker at any given moment. This doesn’t read like something deliberately written, though it was — supposedly it was the first-ever manuscript turned into a major publisher in typewritten form. No, it reads much more like a raconteur raconteuring his heart out, without structure or purpose or plan. It’s by turns too rigid and too anecdotal, sometimes hilarious, sometimes cranky (as in: demonstrating the characteristics of a crank), sometimes sentimental, sometimes riveting, and very occasionally even boring.
I imagine that this is what Twain’s lectures must have been like.
The good parts are among the best of Twain — which, by my lights, means they’re very good indeed. Folksy understatement cracks me up every single time, as does folksy exaggeration. Twain is the master of both, and of combining the two modes into one sentence, too, which really makes me slap my knee.
The boring parts are boring.
In sum total: not as necessary a read as I’d always thought it would be, given how often it’s quoted in PBS documentaries and the like (you can’t help but hear that Ken-Burns-Documentary-Voice when reading parts of it). But still a good enough read all the same.
If you decide to pick it up from Gutenberg (where, after all, it is free, and legally so) — don’t sweat the details; skim for pleasure; skip whole chapters when you feel yourself drowsing. There’s nothing here that needs close study, and the thing isn’t connected enough to itself that your comprehension of it will be harmed by inattention. I skipped the tabular parts, myself. I imagine everybody does. Also all the appendices. Also the stuff about business.