Saturday, October 8, 2016

Return Used Textbooks Here

One of your clients seems with some regularity to have a textbook in some state of revision, a fact that often distracts him from the trade book project he brings to your weekly meetings and which causes you to think--with some negativity--about textbooks beyond your ordinary tendency to think about them at all.

True enough, from K through 12, then into the labyrinth of undergraduate work, you were confronted with textbooks on one or more degrees of irritation, degrees extending from boredom through resentment, anger, and frustration, with the occasional moments of a purer interest and respect. 

Freelance editorial connections with textbooks and employment with one company that aspired to produce titles called supplementary texts did nothing to change your opinion of textbooks. Many of them were profit centers, but you did not care to work for publishers of textbooks nor to have any hand in writing them, even though two books you wrote could be seen as text books

Your basic complaint about textbooks, beyond their monotonous narrative drone, has to do with the relative restrictive nature they bear, related to some broader curriculum requirements. 

You've tried to argue with yourself that a sonnet is every bit as restricted as a text book given its need for fourteen lines, preferably in iambic feet, with an octet and sestet of either Petrarchan or Shakespearean rhyme scheme, and the equivalent of a two-line summary or payoff/ Yet the aspects of voice, opinion and insight to be found in sonnets far outweigh the voice, opinions, and insights allowed in textbooks.

In aper├žu, the textbook, or its very mention, reminds you how much there is to learn, how short a semester life has accorded you to learn the worthwhile benchmarks of your and other cultures, and the even shorter time, accordingly, left to put that learning to use. So insidious has the textbook come to be, you still bear concerns that the use to which you put your understanding of the worlds about you may be overthought and affected by the Siri-sounding voice of the textbook, infecting your language with the sound of authority, not at all a sound authority sounds anything like, rather the pomposity of authority taking itself too seriously.

Too much time spent attending to the bland seriousness of textbook narrative voices had the effect of making you vulnerable to stylistic razzmatazz. Any writer who used stylistic display to capture your attention, as indeed Franz List did to attract you to musical display, became your friend, leading you down some tricky, almost imperceptible pathways of meaning, sometimes to the point where style meant everything, and let the meaning take care of itself.

One such path of digression was the awareness, as early as your late teens, that a writer's public personality might differ markedly from his or her narrative personality. Thus your mother, gently reminding you of the strong anti-Semitism of a favored poet, Ezra Pound, and another writer reminding you that yet another poet you admired, William Butler Yeats, was "madder than a March hare."

"It is necessary for the poet and writer," you declared, "to have voices and opinions about things, otherwise they sound like textbooks." Indeed, you began to listen to the inner cadences and deeper meanings of a writer who much influenced you, at least until you realized one of his sons was a classmate of yours, and you were given occasional peeks at the misanthropic letters Ernest Miller Hemingway wrote to his son.

"Whoever sets pen to paper," wrote an author for whom you have held a lifetime of admiration and respect, "writes of himself, whether knowingly or not." With continued thanks to E.B. White, you acknowledge the truth he set forth when writing of himself, his imaginary and, thus, fictional worlds as well as his reminiscences of events grounded on the terrains we all agree to disagree about when we write of memories, past impressions, and discoveries made too late to count.

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