I made a resolution this January: I’m re-reading some of the many books that have meant something to me over my not quite four decades of reading. As I do this I learn something about the person I used to be at several different ages. I’ve also discovered how online resources can replace something that I have missed in reading as an adult: the college seminar.
Learning to Read
Not unlike many a devout reader, I found much of the curriculum of elementary school a bit tedious. In fifth grade I found I could prop Laura Ingalls Wilder novels in my lap and the teacher wouldn’t see me reading. At least that’s what I convinced myself. In retrospect, I believe he allowed me to do this to keep me quiet. At that point in my life, reading was a solitary act. I devoured a plot then moved on to the next one.
In high school I had my first exposure to animated discussions of literature. The first I clearly remember concerned the wild rose beside the prison in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. I have a bit of a contrarian streak and had a bad habit of disagreeing because I could. In my junior year I was asked to leave the room for insisting Bartleby’s cookies must have been loaded with an opiate. This observation, a rather trenchant one I felt, explained all of his behavior and shed a fascinating light on Melville’s writing.
Despite my obnoxious behavior, I loved the discussions. In college I decided to study English literature because it felt like I was getting away with something: reading, discussions, and then spouting off about some wild theory in a paper. Not surprisingly this sort of behavior did not lead directly to gainful employment in the finance industry, or any other approved career path. It led to graduate school.
The Middle Ages
Surely you will be shocked to learn that the erudite scholars of the school for wayward youth that I attended did not find my witticisms so entertaining. My creativity and occasional vitriol were out of place. Discussions were peppered with names I was only passingly familiar with: Foucault, Derrida, Kant, Hegel, Habermas etc. My thoughts mattered only in the context of a much larger discussion. Maybe I was in over my head.
I sought out a somewhat obscure corner of the department to pursue my studies. I chose to write my thesis on The Book of Margery Kempe. Kempe was a mystic who lived from 1373 to roughly 1438. With the help of two unidentified amanuensis she wrote what is often described as the first autobiography in the English language. Most interesting to me, she was a bit of a loose canon. Her book and her life were two big fingers in the eye of the established religious orders. She, a woman, dealt directly with God, without the intercession of the male church hierarchy. Her descriptions of rather intimate encounters with God made me titter. I wrote about how male authors and editors consistently “re-textualized” her to fit their purposes. The single surviving manuscript is filled with marginalia correcting errors and highlighting important passages. These were written by monks and not surprisingly ignored the racy bits that I found so interesting.
My work on Kempe took me to the library where I attempted to immerse myself in the critical conversation. Now a great deal is online and in less than fifteen minutes I located more than I had found in a summer in the library. A particularly useful resource is maintained by a few professors at Holy Cross. Oddly, my thesis isn’t mentioned in any of the bibliographies I found. I had failed to take part in the larger conversation.
After leaving that stint of graduate school I left behind the discussions. I certainly didn’t stop reading, but the chances to actually argue about that reading came less and less often.
The Internet and my Resolution
One of the first books I choose to re-read this year was Thomas Pynchon’s V. When I first read V. in college I felt as if I had discovered a masterpiece that others had ignored. Trying to ferret out the plot line and catch even half the allusions challenged me, but just the attempt made me feel smarter. I poured through everything Pynchon had written. For one very long month I read Gravity’s Rainbow along with the reader’s companion, trying to figure out what was going on. Even though I didn’t really discuss these books in class, I wrote about them and thought I was part of some club.
When I decided to go back to V., I picked up my father’s old copy from sometime shortly after I was born. He had gone through underlining, marking and making connections. My experience was something like that of looking at the marginalia from The Book of Margery Kempe, except that I knew the author. Sometimes I thought he was off track, but much of the time he noted things that hadn’t occurred to me. This led me for the first time in quite a while to begin looking for what other people had to say.
I turned to the Internet for information. I sort of knew where Malta was, but why were the names so funny? How are all of these V’s connected? I found all the members of a great college seminar online. There are scholars and obnoxious people who just throw out negative comments (opiates in Bartleby’s cookies?). People who can’t let go of a single topic or reference and see everything in that light. I found essays by people not involved in academia who have devoted a huge chunk of their lives to decoding Pynchon. I didn’t participate in the conversation, and I may not ever, but it allowed me to continue the experience of the book. Rather than reading as I had in grade school, just for plot. Or as I often do, just for escape or amusement, I found I could burrow into the meaning in a way I miss.
It turned out that my father’s copy was too ratty to read, so I went to the library and got a copy. Many times I found myself in bed with a library book in my hands and my ipod touch at the ready to look things up and find out what everyone else had to say. I have now continued this habit and it has greatly enriched Middlemarch and Joyce’s Ulysses. Actually I think it made Ulysses almost readable.