I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s. I went to a normal county school. Bond issues always passed. Our schools were modern and clean. The books were up-to-date and in good repair. We had a lab and a gym, a football field, a cafeteria. All the normal accouterments. Our parents were mostly factory workers, many probably hadn’t graduated high school, but most probably had. What did they know? What did I know?
How does one judge one’s school when one has never known another?
So I matriculated through, and thought I got the normal A- education, not quite the private school, but wasn’t I one of those American students who set the bar for the rest of the world? I thought so.
Looking back, I remember reading Silas Marner, The Scarlet Letter, and some farcical redo of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (the remaining memory is “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears [a bag of ears lands at Antony’s feet]). That’s all I remember.
I remember as I prepared to go to college having a pamphlet entitled something to the effect: “The one hundred books every college freshman should have read.” I had read almost none. I set up rectifying that, but I don’t think I read more than about six.
I majored in political science and dabbled in philosophy and whatever else fancied me. I took a writing course, but never a formal literature class as I recall.
At some point I realized that I was not well versed in literature per se. It comes from reading books which explain an emotion or an event with reference to another well-known classic and, well, I seemed never to have read it or understood the comparison therefore. A lot of fairly heavy academic subjects often reference the hero or heroine of a fictional account to explain someone else. I usually missed those too.
It was then that I began to suspect that perhaps I had not been well taught in high school.
That’s an easy explanation and serves to put the blame squarely on another set of shoulders.
In part it might be true. I don’t know, but surely no English teacher I had in my youth ever managed to find the right button with me. I read a ton of fiction as a child, but most all of it was cheap trash that was not notable either by title or author. I got most of it from the school library. An only child has to fill some hours every week doing something and reading was my escape when the time of day or situation presented no friend to wile away the hours with.
In part it was probably due to parents who were not readers. To my knowledge my mother never read a book, at least that I ever saw. My father confined his reading to the 25¢ paperback novel about the west or about the war. There were no “great novels” in our home. It’s little wonder I had no idea what one was.
Along came law school, and there was no time for fiction. I read day and night of course but not fiction. And then there were other interests over the years. I read deeply into paleontology, the origins of man, and astronomy, the origins of the universe. That later turned into a deep interest in Christianity which blossomed into a return to academia. Have you picked up the theme here? Origins. I read tons of science fiction for several years.
So reading was never the issue, but fiction fell by the way side, and I found in my fifties that gosh, I was pretty illiterate when it came to American authors and most of Europe’s best. I had read most of Twain, most of Dickens. I’d read Moby Dick, and a few others. I’d read a fair number of more popular authors like Leon Uris. I read all of Shakespeare. I read Homer. I read Thucydides and parts of Tacitus. I’d read parts of Aristotle, and all of Plato, and most of the Greek playwrights.
I had not read Chaucer or Flaubert, Proust, Cervantes, Hemingway or Fitzgerald, Salinger, or Hesse, or Conrad, Vonnegut, Plath or Dreiser, Sinclair, Cather. Oh the list was and is quite long. I’ve read most of these now, at least one of their novels, and a host of others. I’ve seen so brilliantly what real writing is all about.
The list remains long in this late attempt to catch up to where I think I should be. And in the end, it falls upon me, only me. I can push off some blame for not being directed as a child, but surely I decided as an adult to spend my time on this rather than that. And perhaps that was not wrong, so much as it led me to these beliefs and not some others.
Who is to say which would be better? I’m convinced in some real sense that reading some of these authors at 20 is not profitable. It takes a lot of living to extract the value of say a Salinger or a Plath don’t you think?
If we can think beyond the tip of our nose, then it is on each of us how much we will decide to benefit from the wisdom of those that have walked before us. Hermann Hesse says that wisdom cannot be taught. One can convey knowledge but wisdom? No. And he is right. We do not learn wisdom from these greats, but we gain insight and perspective, and these are, to me, some of the building blocks of wisdom.
At my age there is little else to strive for, except to be known as wise. Today a nice enough fellow suggested that I wrote long replies to appear brilliant and cover up the bullshit of what I was saying. I think that not true actually, I speak in carefully constructed sentences to be properly understood. But of course, flowery prose does have a way of making shit smell better. So there was a point to his statement if alas he only meant to dismiss my remarks with mean-pointed barb.
Still, words are the tools of my craft, and I admit to being a bit in love with the playing with them. Yet, in reading so many marvelous for-the-ages authors, I’m reminded at how much wisdom is offered if not always received. And I’m the worse for it for taking as long as I have to discover what I have missed.
Nothing to do now, save to read on. Read on, my captain.
PS: there are enumerable lists of “The 100 books everyone should read”. They are probably all equally good and bad. But they do offer a guideline. I’d stick with newer models if I were you, since the older one’s are decidedly western-centric.