robertogreco + loreneisley + williamfaulkner   1

Reverting to Type: A Reader’s Story |
"It did become my thing. I transferred to what we thought of as the University of Alabama, the one in Tuscaloosa, largely because it had a better English department. I double-majored in English and history, and at some point decided — what considerations went into the decision I no longer remember — that I wanted to go to graduate school to study more literature. So I attended the University of Virginia. I developed a historical sense — my love for Browne’s prose led me to spend most of my time in the seventeenth century, until a relatively late encounter with the poetry of W. H. Auden made a modernist of me — amassed a repertoire of critical gestures, learned to invoke the names and terms of High Theory in the proper ways and at the proper times. I was initiated into the academic guild; I became a professor.

It wasn’t always easy, of course. In my last weeks as an undergraduate one of my professors had taken me aside and whispered to me the sacred names of Barthes and Derrida, and told me I should make fuller acquaintance with them. I dutifully wrote down the names and immediately forgot about them. Since none of this Theory stuff had previously been mentioned to me in my undergraduate career, how important could it be? So when I plunged into my first graduate classes — including a theoretical survey in which we read Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Gramsci, Georg Lukács, Horkheimer and Adorno, Husserl, Heidegger, Ricoeur, Jakobson, Althusser, Brooks, Frye, de Beauvoir, Kenneth Burke, and, yes, Barthes and Derrida, among others — I was immediately transformed from a confident critic-in-the-making to a lost lamb, baahing reproachfully, petulantly.

Ten weeks or so into my first semester I decided that I just couldn’t cut it and needed to drop out. But I was a newlywed, and had carried my bride hundreds of miles from her family, set her down in a strange town, and effectively forced her to hunt for compartatively menial jobs, all to support this great academic endeavor of mine. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her how miserable and incompetent and just plain lost I was.

Our apartment in Charlottesville had a small windowless room that I used for a study. One evening after dinner I went in and closed the door and tried to sort through the vast pile of photocopied theoretical essays I had bought at Kinko’s on the first day of class. (We could violate copyright in those days, too.) But it was useless. I could scarcely bear even to look at the stuff. My professor had copied from his own well-used books, and every essay was full of confident underlinings and annotations that seemed by their very presence to judge me and find me wanting. I couldn’t bring myself to read another word.

My eyes wandered to a nearby bookshelf, and were caught for a moment by the glit of a gold cardboard box: it contained the three volumes of the Ballantine mass-market version of The Lord of the Rings. I had never read Tolkien: I was a science-fiction guy, not a fantasy guy. But of course I knew that The Trilogy (as I thought of it) was important, and that someday I ought to get to it. Almost thoughtlessly, I picked up the first volume and began to read.

When bedtime rolled around I set the book down and emerged from the sanctuary. “How’d it go tonight?” Teri asked.

I said, “It went well.”

The next evening I re-entered the study, under the pretense of continuing my academic labors with all due seriousness, and picked up where I had left off in the story. For the next week or so, though during the days I went to classes and did generally what I was supposed to do, I did none of the reading or writing I was assigned. I got further and further behind. I didn’t care; I was somewhere else and glad to be somewhere else. Teri seemed pleased with my scholarly discipline, as each evening I washed the dishes, gave her a kiss, and closed the study door behind me.

When I finished The Lord of the Rings I drew a deep breath. I felt more sound and whole than I had felt in weeks, maybe months. But, to my own surprise, I did not conclude that all that academic crap was a waste of time and I should do something else with my life, something that gave me time to read lots of fantasy novels. Instead, I experienced a strange refreshment, almost an exhilaration. My confusion and frustration seemed like small afflictions, conquerable adversaries. Barthes and Derrida weren’t so fearsome after all. I could do this.

I don’t believe that I was thinking, “Literary theory is as nothing in comparison to the power of Mordor!” Or, “If Frodo can carry that Ring to the Cracks of Doom I can write this paper on Paul Ricoeur!” Rather, I was just benefiting from spending some time away from my anxieties. We had been too intimate and needed separation. So I resumed my studies in a far better frame of mind; as a result, I did better work. I completed my doctorate and began my career as a teacher, but I didn’t forget the debt I owed to that week I spent in Tolkien’s world."



"In a sense I am only talking here about expanding my repertoire of analogies, my ability to make illuminating and meaningful comparisons. For many years now Douglas Hofstadter, drawing on the work of the mathematician Stanislaw Ulam, has been convinced that the secret to creating artificial intelligence lies in teaching machines to recognize analogies. (Ulam says somewhere that it’s all about “as”: we see marks on a piece of wood pulp as a portrait of a beloved child, a cairn of stones as a monument to a dead chieftain.) Similar principles underlie the methods of Google Translate, which collects an enormous corpus of sentences and then tries to match your input to something in that corpus, and Apple’s “digital personal assistant,” Siri. Siri can’t parse what you say to her unless she can connect to the network, which undertakes a comparison of your utterance to other utterances on record. All this might be called brute-force analogizing, but it seems to me that my own understanding develops as I pursue the same method, though with far less force and (I hope) less brutishness.

In one of his most beautiful poems, Richard Wilbur writes, “Odd that a thing is most itself when likened.” And this is true no matter the thing: a book becomes more fully itself when we see both how it resembles and how is differs from other books; one discipline of study takes on its proper hues only when we see its relations to other disciplines that stand close to it or very far away. My repertoire of analogies is my toolbox, or my console of instruments, by which I comprehend and navigate the world. It can’t be too large; every addition helps, at least a bit. And that’s why I’m thankful for my gradual recovery of the books I adored, and thoughts I lovingly entertained, when I was forty years younger."
alanjacobs  howweread  reading  2015  analogies  metaphor  text  pleasurereading  richardwilbur  harukimurukami  jrrtolkein  thelordoftherings  stainslawulam  loreneisley  sciencefiction  understanding  literarycriticism  genrefiction  fiction  literature  academia  writing  howwewrite  howwelearn  books  jacquesderrida  rolandbarthes  whauden  sirthomasbrowne  williamfaulkner  nealstephenson  joycecaroloates  twocultures  cpsnow  jamesgleick  linux  learning  canon  digressions  amateurism  dabbling  listening  communication  howweteach  teaching  education  silos 
december 2015 by robertogreco

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