Monday, June 27, 2011

The Joys of Not Being Well Read

Shortly after you'd left high school to move into the upper echelons of education, it was your aim and goal to be well read.  Not that you had so much as a clue what being well read meant or, indeed, that you could give a plausible difference between close reading and spending several hours with a book or poem or story; not at all.  Nor could you have ventured only the most slipshod definition of what the Western Canon included--and did not include.

Truth to tell, being well read at that time was a mark of extreme snobbery and potential hubris on your part if an eighteen-year-old is capable of hubristic behavior at all.  You had a rival for the affections of a girl.  He was a sort of male cheerleader type, ukulele-strumming, hail fellow sort,  You were nothing if not a brooding,Byronic sort, vacuuming in the angst and anomie of the Fitzgeralds, the Hemingways, and all those who found it more appropriate and less costly to live abroad.

He--the rival--became, you believe, a high school gym teacher.  You became the writer of these vagrant paragraphs.  She became the wife of a dentist.  All of it for the good.  You sought ways to impress her beyond your recognition that nothing would.  Nothing.  The benefit of your then attitude was the enormous amount of residue from your reading.

Revisiting some of that material, you recognize that large portions of it--even though it stuck to your memory--did not deliver as much of its inherent nuance and layering as you'd thought, in many cases delivering to you impressions and information in direct contrast to the impressions and information you've gleaned in more recent years.

By now, "well read" has come to mean knowing a few books with a certain degree of intimacy, let's say to the point where you now reread them for their inner beauty, which is to say their language and their construction and their characters, but also for their flaws.  And so you do--you reread them and once again, they pull the rug out from under you by surprising you, which is often something a new book cannot do at all.

The summer stretches before you.  Already on the table in your small, shaded patio is that book given you when you were a boy; the big, thick volume containing the two long works about a river you had barely crossed in your young life, set down by a man whose background and culture bore no resemblance to your own and yet you have followed him as he followed that river.  The thing that makes the connection between you and in the bargain leaves you feeling well read is that he was happiest when--one way or another--he was on that river and you at your reading happiest when you are along with him.

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