On reading

Yet another thing I wrote long ago

“Consider this
The hint of the century
Consider this
The slip that brought me
To my knees failed
What if all these fantasies
Come flailing around
Now I’ve said too much”
REM–“Losing My Religion”

It was a picture of Bert and Ernie. I learned to use scissors by cutting out a picture of Bert and Ernie. My sister criticized my dexterity, but my mother silenced her and encouraged me to continue. 

That afternoon I took a nap in my crib. I was three years old, and the bars of the crib were lowered, so I knew how to get in and out whenever I wished. Somehow I ended up with the scissors in there with me. My mother was not happy with the effect they had on my hair. 

First, imagine that you are an undergraduate studying literature. Next, imagine that you’re sitting before a computer trying to write a critical essay. The glow of the screen is reflected in your eyes as you stare blankly at your notes and then blankly at the Samuel Johnson Reader before you and then at the tree outside and the clothes that need washing and the TV that needs dusting. You get up and make some coffee hoping that that will settle your mind and you will be able to write more effectively. You’ve done this how many times–it should be easy. You tell yourself this as you go into the kitchen and make yourself a cup of coffee. If you could just find or formulate a thesis you’d be on your way. It would be finished in under two hours. But, and you catch yourself here, this isn’t any paper–this is the last paper you will ever write as an undergraduate. You sink into one of the chairs at the kitchen table as this realization spreads through your mind–your last paper. Its hard to believe. You’ve been at this so long…. You chide yourself that none of this self-realization is going o help you write a critical essay, so coffee in hand, you sit back down before your computer and begin to type. Samuel Johnson was a man of words and letters which the literary world has not seen the likes of since. A man of ponderance and often satire, he has become one of the standard bearers of the Cannon and her army of works. Yet Johnson was not always thought of in such an ideal light, proof of this–you stop. You look up and realize you forgot to put sugar in your coffee and you like sugar in your coffee. But instead of getting up and going back into the kitchen you first read over what you have just written, and you realize how awful it is. It isn’t you or your voice or what you really think. Its what and how you have been told to write. That doesn’t matter, you were almost to a thesis and you’re going to be critical. You take a sip of coffee and continue writing. 

“Pooh had wandered into the Hundred Acre Wood, and was standing in front of what had once been Owl’s House. It didn’t look at all like a house now; it looked like a tree which had been blown down; and as soon as a house looks like that, it is time you tried to find another one.” A.A. Milne–The House at Pooh Corner

"A B C D E G I J..."
"No, that's not right. Start over."
"A B D E F G I J K..."

I sat with the little writing pad in front of me. It's block letters of "Aa Bb Cc..." marching across its cover. I was sitting on the couch in the living room of our new house. My older sister and mother were hanging over my head pointing to the letters in front of me. If I stumbled my sister would catch me like a cement floor. She soon tired of the game and my mother was left to monitor my progress alone.

I grew tired of the endless repetition. I grew lazy. I couldn't understand why I had to sit and learn this. Sesame Street used these same letters, but they were never in any particular order. I knew what the individual letters were--why must I memorize them in this order? What did it matter? Eventually I said the whole thing correctly and my mother let me go play. 

In Idler No. 103 Samuel Johnson is writing a sort of epilogue as his publications is ending. He writes, “the Idler and his reader have contracted no close friendship.” After over one-hundred issues, “those who never could agree together shed tears when mutual discontent has determined them to final separation.” Johnson clearly–you pause. 

Johnson was very pompous. Oh, he had just cause to be. He was after all basically the head neutron in the literary nucleus of his time. He wrote so much. In the four or so years you’ve been here you’ve writen so comparatively little. But you shouldn’t think to compare yourself to Johnson. He helped found this academia. 

Unlike his other writings though this essay is not an argument or a criticism or a satire, but a farewell. As, “it s very happily and kindly provided that in every life there are certain pauses and interruptions, which force consideration upon the careless, and seriousness upon the light; points of time where one course of action ends and another begins; and by vicissitude of fortune, or alteration of employment, by change of place, or loss of friend-ship we are forced to say something, ‘this is the last.'” 

“‘Well,’ said Pooh, ‘what I like best–‘and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do,, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.” A.A. Milne–The House at Pooh Corner

I was sitting on the letter C. It is the third letter from the beginning of the alphabet. I was the third child in alphabetical order in my kindergarten class. C is also the first letter of my middle name. I wanted to sit on L, for L is the first letter of my first name, but some boy got that letter instead. The teacher explained that eventually we would all get to sit on the other letters, but for now, or at least until she learned our names, we would have to sit where she put us.

Do you want this, your last effort of criticism as an undergraduate to be a careless ending? Just another two hours spent in front of a computer spell-checking words, making sure all your sentences are punctuated and your paragraphs have good transitions. Do you look back over these four years with a sense of accomplishment or with a sense of loss? 

You came to college to slay dragons or meet your prince, to better yourself, to learn and begin your life, to become a product of yourself and a consumer of others. You’ve consumed Johnson just like Shakespeare, Dickens, Pound, Hemingway and Byron. During these four years you’ve learned how to digest literature by learning the mechanics and language of critical essays. You have been good and you have been diligent. You have been brilliant and you have been an idiot, yet did you ever know not just What you were saying but Why you were saying it?

“I was having this discussion 
In a taxi heading downtown
Rearranging my position 
On this friend of mine who had 
A little bit of a breakdown
I said breakdowns come
And breakdowns go
So what are you going to do about it
That’s what I’d like know.” 
Paul Simon–“Gumboots” 

I was standing on the letter M. Yesterday I had sat on the letter L. I was standing because we were saying the pledge of allegiance. I remember because during the line that goes "And to the Republic for which it stands," I threw up all over the letter L.

I remember that I was sitting on the letter W. The room looked different from there. The light coming in from the window made everything seem fuzzy for a morning in May. We were all sitting around the circle and each of us was given an old nature magazine to cut pictures from. The pictures could be anything we liked. I found one picture of a deer and one of a little cat. I cut the out with my scissors.

When we were all done cutting out pictures the teacher went around the room and from each of our piles she chose one picture and told the student what it was. To my neighbors she said, "This is a dog," and "This is a bird." To me she said, "This is a cat."

Then she asked us to sit down in our seats at the tables. On the tables there were blocks. The kind that have letters on two or three sides and numbers or pictures on the rest. She asked us what sound our pictures started with. A chorus of B's C's and D's issued forth. We were then asked what letter made that sound, and very slowly I learned how to spell the word cat.

All of this lovely introspection isn’t helping with your essay on Johnson. It doesn’t help you really either–something is missing.

What is it? What is missing? You have a thesis. Samuel Johnson is venerated today, yet his reception by his contemporaries was not always as favorable. Thus we should re-evaluate the importance of–you stop again.

You re-read the paragraphs before you. You have arguments, annotations, appositives and apathy. You have four going on the five supporting arguments with at least one quote in each, several secondary sources, but what does it say? Its getting late and you need to finish this.

While readers of Johnson’s time may have outlived the Idler. He comments that “the day in which every work of the hand and imagination of the heart shall be brought to judgment, and an everlasting futurity shall be determined.” Johnson’s ideas have fallen to us. They are our inheritance. They like Eliot said, are our past. Of course we now know so much more then he did as Johnson is a part of what we know. Johnson ideas are still important for–

You stop for a moment and wonder about these ideas belonging to Johnson. What makes them so special, so useful for critiquing or discussing? They are well, and usually, clearly written. Yet are these ideas really Johnson’s and his alone? Is it possible to copyright your idea, argument or theory? Perhaps too many people strive too hard to put their names upon ideas. They seek to create ideas as lasting products of themselves. They live and promote their ideas. They die and their ideas will, if supported live on–a very Western idea, this market economy of ideas. Really though you can only register a patent on an idea. The system of academia is concerned with these ideas. That is not a bad thing. We need ideas. We need comunication. But is the system faltering or is it something inside of you–or is it both?

“Here the silent images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.” T.S. Eliot–“The Hollow Men”

My family moved to a new town the summer after my year of kindergarten and its scissors and circles, so the first day of first-grade I sat at a table and read from one of the new yellow books the teacher had given my group. Other children read from blue books. Later we learned that they were only Level One readers while we were Level Two.

It was a typical first year reader. The opening sentence was "See Bill run." There was a picture of a blond-haired boy running across the grassy lawn of a house in a middle class housing development. That was as far as we read that day.

There was a hornet's nest in the tree above the big slide, but I didn't break out in hives because I was allergic to bugs. It was just nerves. Everything was too new to me, so I missed the next day's pictures of Spot running with Bill.

You realize you are a part of this system, but you have the ecological value of a blade of grass. Like all the other blades of grass you stay firmly grounded in the soil. Harming nothing, food for others–being grass isn’t much work. You’d much rather be a rabbit or eagle or even a dandelion. If you were a dandelion you would feed from the same soil as the grass yet the ideas you brought to seed might fly to the winds. Johnson wasn’t a blade of grass, although he probably started out that way. He was a dandelion and a rabbit. Right now though you remember that you are just grass and subject to the rabbit’s teeth and the lawnmower’s blade.

“Sometimes all the shouting stops 
and the restlessness loses hold
and I cry out to everything
that nothing is alone”
Toad the Wet Sprocket–“Nothing is alone” 

There was a difficulty in living in that town that I have never been able to explain. It was unnamable and inescapable, yet there was a joy. I know that running came easily to me. Only two boys could out-run me. I remember the math flash cards. They were simple memorization. Reading was the simple recognition of words. These words described pictures, yet it was a simple mechanical process of memorization. They could have no true meaning other than in connection with their pictures.

Your quibbling isn’t helping you finish your paper. You need a conclusion. Johnson’s ideas should not lay forgotten on the side, for they are as important now as every. We need them and those of others to understand not just the works of later writers such as Brönte or Woolf, but to understand where we are now in terms of understanding literature. A manicured lawn is made up of thousands of blades of grass, yet it is only pleasant to look at if the rabbit’s teeth or lawnmower’s blades are sharp and there are no visible weeds.

“Half moon hiding in the clouds, my darling
And the sky is flecked with signs of hope
Raise your weary wings against the rain, my baby
Wash your tangled curls with gambler’s soap” 
Paul Simon–“Proof”

I grew up in a very beautiful place. My parents owned almost eight acres of land. For people like my parents who grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, that is very different from the row upon row of houses with their rectangular lawns. Our house was a top a very large hill, which meant it was a small distance from the town, but the deer knew that they were safe from the hunters there. So I learned to escape into something, someplace else.

It isn’t all due to the fact that you are just a blade of grass. There is something going on in this high-tech, image oriented culture that leaves you numb. The wash of news media, films, sit-coms, images, scandals, politicians, starlets it serves as a cultural backdrop that has the ability to destroy us. You have not seen the best minds of your generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked. As, what Spinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate upon their brains and imagination? There has not been a revolution, but the passing of a silent generation. You have seen the best minds of your generation guzzle the mercuried honey of MTV, staring into the glass hoping to find themselves amoungst those images. What Gorgon of mass media and fearful desire tore open their dreams to freeze them within fifteen seconds of stardom. You have not seen those “who burned cigarette holes in their arms protesting the narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism,” or those “who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts.” This silent generation has led to a flood of stagnation. (Ginsberg, “Howl”)

“But for awhile, before the war had reached its peak, Lynn and his musicians, a few other fools, and I still marched, screaming thru the maddened crowd. Onto the side-walk, into the lobby, half-way up the stairs, then we all broke our different ways, to save whatever it was each of us though we loved.”
Amiri Baraka–“Screamers” 

When I lived there I was always aware of images. The sunlight through the trees of our woods and the red glow of the oil-well fires up the road; the gunshots of hunters, the splash of jumping fish, and the deafening locusts in the trees: the smell of fog as I walked to meet the bus and of marigolds in the flower box; the taste of crab apples and raspberries; the tickling of a tent caterpillar on my arm and the curious blue-gills nipping at my toes are images that filled my life and my memories and my dreams.

Imagine for a moment that you are an undergraduate studying English literature. Next imagine that you have just written a critical essay discussing Samuel Johnson. You are now done–your time serving academia as an undergraduate is ended, yet you feel no different from when you began this essay. There was no joy, no sense of accomplishment, no desire or need to think or write further. You wonder at this, as you weren’t like this when you started as an undergrad, were you?

While this essay has been the last, you have no conviction that it is a step towards death as Johnson thought, but there is “the conviction, however forcible at every new impression, is every moment fading from the mind; and partly by the inevitable incursion of new images, and partly by voluntary exclusion of unwelcome thoughts.” You have only taken an image here or a thought there as you passed through hoping to find something “before we consider that the time is nigh when we shall do no more.”

You came to college to better yourself, to learn, to begin your life and slay a dragon, but are now its product and its commodity. You realize this as you stare at what you have written. You then realize you don’t know why you are doing this. It has become such a consumer oriented process. You read a book, discuss, write a paper, get a grade. Eventually all these hours add up to a diploma sized pay-check and you are done. Go and get a real job. Does it have to be that way? You understand the logic of writing and communication, but you no longer know why you read.

“I’ve been looking for truth
At the cost of living
I’ve been afraid
Of what’s before mine eyes
Every answer found
Begs another question
The further you go, the less you know
The less I know”

It was raining out, but not a heavy pouring rain--just a soft soaking rain that would last all day. I think that it was a day in early spring right before the trees had shown their new leaves. It was also the day before my library books were due.

I walked out onto our covered deck where my mother sat. With me I carried a green-covered book thicker than anything I had ever read. It was a book with a picture of a mountain on the cover, but no pictures inside. My sister had read it before me, and for some reason I decided that I too would read it, but I had already renewed the book once and had yet to even open the cover.

That afternoon I did open the cover. That day I also read the first sentence. "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." That day I went even farther and soon found myself at a mystical tea-party, a troll's campfire, and an eerie underground cavern. I was there when the eagles rescued him and the silver-ware was missing. Just as I was there when Alice became a queen or when a king drew forth the sword. I was there when the marlin jumped and the Nellie waited to set sail. I am there when Colonel Aureliano Buendía faces the firing squad or BigWig fights the General. I am there when Gatsby dies and Mr. Ramsay wakes alone in the night. I am there when the heavens are created and when a dragon falls from the sky. 

“A creaking sound spread through the darkness. He looked at the great door in astonishment. Gently, steadily, it was opening. The shadowy figure of a dervish appeared, a breath of night embodied.”
Naguib Mahfouz–The Harafish

Notice a typo or other issue? Feel free to let me know.