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A Map of the Known Book World
January 4, 2007 - 11:15am


One of the drawbacks of being in the English Department of a big research university is the climate of machismo. It takes several forms, but it’s especially evident in the way people posture over what they’ve read: Been there, done that.

English grad students are especially prone to this, lying in wait to bring conversations around to something they already know. When asked if they want a cup of coffee, they answer, “Ah, I was just thinking about the role of coffeehouses in 18th-century France in Habermas’ notion of öffentlichkeit. Two sugars, please.” But don’t ask them about Chekhov; they might not know he wrote anything other than plays. Don’t expect them to chat about contemporary literature, or Chaucer, or film; the terrible and grave faux pas of embarrassing them by drawing them out of their field will be your own.

It’s only human to use what you have at hand, which is why this blog will be largely about speed-changing wet diapers in the middle of the night without turning any lights on, so the kid doesn’t wake up, working with the heightened sense that comes from knowing that if he isn’t done, that heavy comforter you washed and dried just yesterday is gonna get soaked and you won’t know until you lie back down in it. I might also write about which dill pickle is better, the Claussen, or the Nathan’s.

Fact is, we all (except maybe Harold Bloom) have gaps in our reading. This always surprises me. I was having lunch with IHE’s Intellectual Affairs columnist Scott McLemee, and we agreed we’re always reading at least half-a-dozen books at any given time. Then he admitted he didn’t finish every one. Of course I don’t, but Scott? Some far edge of my world crumbled, and Chicken Florentine soup dribbled down my shirt. What hope is there for our species?

Maps of where we’ve been as readers would reveal huge white areas of uncharted territory, as well as a few places we’d rather our peers not know we visited. You’d never talk about what happened that night in Tijuana’s Zona Roja; why would you admit you read John Grisham? I even have it on good authority that some academic tough guys (both men and women) read blogs.

Reading has always been one of the main joys in my life, but for a while, as a teen, all I could read were Alistair MacLean adventure novels, with such titles as The Way to Dusty Death, When Eight Bells Toll, and Breakheart Pass. Several movies were made from the books, including Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, and Ice Station Zebra, with big stars, such as Richard Burton and Rock Hudson. But it’s only conflating three plots to say the books are about a race-car driver with a faked drinking problem who joins forces with knife-throwing circus-performer friends to defeat Nazis in Antarctica.

Apart from the escapist entertainment they offered at a difficult time in my life, the bad books did good things. For one, they led me back down the path to civilization, stopping at Fleming, Greene, Hemingway, and Turgenev.

They also taught me something about writing. In my armchair, I was thrilled when the protagonist clutched the end of a rope dangling from a ship steaming full-speed in icy seas. He manfully hand-over-handed it up to a porthole, forced his way in, gulped brandy from the captain’s snifter, and strode off to defeat evil. Years later I marveled at the actual pain of icy water, when, as a diver, I worked with hypothermia so severe I couldn’t say my name, and I wouldn’t have been able to climb out of the water without the help of three men. Aha, writing is a trick, I realized, and one has a responsibility to write about what one really believes is true, such as human relationships, even those with books. Adventure is to the boy what love becomes to the man.

One scholar I know still gets weepy remembering a book series called Larry of Little League. What are the places on your reading map you’d rather not discuss?


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