I can remember the exact moment when I learned to read. I was in first grade. We lived in Dickinson, North Dakota, in a little starter house. There was a big picture window on the west side of the living room. We had a Dachshund named Penny, who used to stand up on a hassock to look out the window. My sister was two years older than I was. She was wearing a jumper. I think it was somewhere between maroon and red. She was helping me puzzle over some book or other, and I was sounding out words or recognizing short words that I somehow already knew. But suddenly it all crystalized. It was as if the neuron path broke through some sluggish matter in my brain and popped instantly into place. It was one of the true “Eureka” moments of my life. I’m sure I still struggled some after that, but from that moment I knew how to read. It was late afternoon and it was still light outside.
Reading in the Zone
(from a 2012 essay in the Bismarck Tribune)
The zone. Assuming a) that there is a heaven, and b) that I get to go, that’s what is waiting for me there. The zone is when you start to read something great or important in the usual semi-concentrating way, but after half an hour or so, it dawns on you that you are not in any way distracted, not getting up to make tea or return a call, change the laundry or check the weather. You are not getting sleepy. You don’t have to reread whole passages after realizing that you were only going through the motions while your mind was elsewhere. There is no pop-up restlessness in your body and no noise about insurance payments or anxiety about a sore tooth rattling about your brain. You realize that you are reading in the truest, fullest sense of the term, entirely absorbed in the material, not resisting in any way, and there is nowhere you would rather be and nothing you would rather be doing. When you get into the zone it feels as if you could read in that same chair for the rest of time, until the opening of the Seventh Seal. You are transported into another world—the cave of the blind Cyclops Polyphemus, an island where civilized horses can speak and the humanoids wallow in their own excrement, a raft floating lazily down the broad Mississippi River, a troubled castle in Denmark. Reading in the zone is like that rare long-distance run, when your body finally settles down into a sustainable rhythm and you are perfectly glad to be alive, and you think, however erroneously, that you could just keep loping all the way to the North Pole.
The reading zone doesn’t happen very often—for me, a handful of times per year. And when it doesn’t happen, I am sharply discontented with myself. Henry David Thoreau described the zone in Walden in his chapter entitled “Reading.” “Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.” He said it perfectly.
This is, so far as I can remember, the first book I ever read straight through. I know it is the first book I ever cried over. It was assigned in my seventh grade English class. The teacher was a man (unusual then) named Larry Selle. We read Longfellow’s Evangeline, which was my first long poem. And then we read Shane.
This was the first time a book took me through a portal into an alternative universe. It always amazes me when I step onto an airplane and see thirty people reading thirty different books. If they are reading with any focus, each of them is in a different world. One is in a lush green land of hobbits. Another is hearing stories of successful salesmen. A third is somewhere on the Lewis and Clark trail thanks to the compelling prose of the late Stephen Ambrose. A fourth is getting advice about how to manage child custody in a divorce. Someone from Jupiter observing those thirty people might think they were all doing the same thing. In a sense they are. But under the covers of those thirty books are as wide a variety of worlds—and worldviews—as one could imagine. There is something mystical in this, even miraculous.
I identified with the aging and exhausted gunfighter Shane, not with the dumb kid Joey who worshipped Shane and called out, “Shane, come back. Come back. Shane. Shane. Come back!” at the end of the novel. And yet of course I was that dumb kid caught up in the romance of the mythology of the old west, with a boy crush on a professional killer. I was too young to appreciate the Freudian dynamics of the novel—but I remember feeling a troubling flush of embarrassment and some kind of erotic confusion as Shane and Joe Starrett dug that tree stump out of the hard soil of Wyoming.
I don’t suppose I have read the novel since, but I have seen the movie starring Alan Ladd and Jean Arthur a couple of times. Shane is one of those books I am a little wary of rereading. Some of the cultural markers of our childhood don’t hold up very well when we revisit them in adulthood. I remember a letter of Jefferson’s in which he admits that his taste has narrowed in the course of his life. When I first read that in my 20s I scoffed and declared that such a thing would never happen to me. Now that I am several dozen years older, I grudgingly acknowledge that he was right.
2001: A Space Odyssey
I’ve never been much of a science fiction fan. Every few years I meet someone who loves science fiction, and I get their list of recommended books. But I always lose interest after a short time and go back to regular literature (if that is not a slur!). When I was a freshman in high school, I was not yet much of a reader. My favorite English teacher, Agnes Oxton, assigned this book, I’m not sure why. I read it with deep fascination. I can actually remember, at this far remove, the way I marked some passages with a blue ball point pen, the slightly blurry quality of the print in the cheap paperback edition we read in class. I can even remember being surprised that I was reading ahead of the class assignments, reading two, three, sometimes four hours at a sitting. This was unprecedented for me. But what made 2001: A Space Odyssey so satisfying is that Mrs. Oxton began to ask me questions about the book in our class discussions. Most of the students didn’t bother to read the novel, of course, so anyone who had read it had automatic entree into the discussion. I remember being amazed that someone—anyone–wanted to know what I thought about something. That’s not how teachers operated in my public school days. 2001 led me to think about the solar system, the moon, stars, and the laws of gravitation for the first time. I remember being most fascinated by the gravitational “slingshot” effect—that a capsule could enter partial orbit around Jupiter and be accelerated to the outer solar system as a result.
My parents took my sister and me to Minneapolis, Minnesota, on a family vocation the same year that the Stanley Kubrick film adaptation of the book came out. Minneapolis had a new widescreen Cinerama Theater. The film was magnificent, way over our heads, but stunning in every possible way. I remember thinking, when Dr. Heywood Floyd calls his six-year-old daughter from a video phone in space to wish her happy birthday, that such a thing would never occur, at least not in my lifetime; and if it did it would be ruinously expensive. Now when I am in Rome I talk with my daughter (New York) for hours, free, in a high resolution Face Time conversation. Free. When I was a child, if we called my grandmother long distance in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, her first question was “Is someone dead? Is something wrong?” I used to call myself “person to person” when I was a young man, to let my parents know when I would be home, without having to pay for the call.
I read Hamlet for the first time when I was a freshman in college at Vanderbilt University. I had had no encounters with Shakespeare in my K-12 education, not evenJulius Caesar or Romeo and Juliet. I do remember seeing the 1961 television adaptation of Macbeth in my parents’ living room when I was still a boy. The weird sisters are all that I now remember, “double double toil and trouble.”
At Vanderbilt, where I had hoped to study journalism, I was shuffled into an Introduction to Drama course as a way to fulfill one of my distribution requirements. It was taught by Professor Bernard Gutenberg, a brilliant and pretentious man with a Roman nose. He was perfect—just the sort of high-culture English professor to remind one that a: I’m not in Kansas (North Dakota) anymore; and b: university life is not simply an extension of high school education.
We read Antigone and Oedipus Rex and saw that awful film version of Oedipus in which the actors wear elongated masks and Jocasta pronounces Oedipus (EEEEE-da-pus) as if she had just contracted giardia. We read Everyman.
And then Professor Gutenberg assigned Hamlet. It was the slender little Penguin edition of the play. (I still have it). Even before I found a carrel at Vanderbilt’s library, I knew I was about to encounter wone of the greatest works of English literature. But that did not necessarily mean that I would “get it” or find it compelling.
What happened next was perhaps the most important moment of my intellectual development. About an hour into the play, slow because I looked up every word I didn’t know, read and reread passages that I found perplexing, and stood up frequently because I was so deeply affected that I could not remain in my seat, I became an English major not a future journalist, no longer a student but a humanities scholar (albeit pitifully ignorant and ill-read). I felt a wandering of the soul that I had never experienced before.
When I finished the play, I had that bottom of Plato’s cave numbness and bewilderment that comes with the best marathon reading sessions. I had walked into the library about 2 p.m. and it was now 10:30 or 11. I had not eaten all day. I started to walk back to Hemingway Hall in the Kissam Quadrangle, but as I approached the dorm I realized I could not bear to walk down the fourth floor with its open doors, battle of the bands of 30 stereos are high volume, the tendrils of marijuana from under the few doors that were closed, with the inevitable dorm trivia and the ubiquity of the F-word.
So I walked over to Centennial Park about a mile away. There, the fathers of Nashville had built a full-size replica of the Parthenon, in concrete. It is actually a stunning building, not nearly so wrongheaded and cheesy as one might think.
I paced along the portico of the Parthenon all night long. It was my first full immersion with one of the handful of greatest works of art. I realized, in a single day, that there are works of the human spirit so magnificent that we can never understand them fully, never exhaust their mystery and their beauty, never agree to leave them alone. And, more to the point, we realize at that moment that we will never be the same person again.
At dawn, I made my way, a human wreck, but alive as never before, back to the dorms. I went to breakfast with my best friend Allen Fallow. “Hey, where’d you spend the night, Jack Bop?” he asked. “Did you get lucky?” I told him I had spent the night pacing the colonnades of the Parthenon. “Don’t they lock it up for the night?” Fallow asked. “You cannot close a Greek structure!” I replied, and my friend Fallow never got over it.
By now I have read Hamlet fifty times or more, seen in at London or Oxford or Stratford or Minneapolis several dozen times, watched every film version, taught the play many times, and dreamed of playing the lead role. That is still one of the desiderata of my life, and I meant to fulfill it. I had the pure joy of seeing Michael Pennington perform Hamlet nine times at Stratford-on-Avon. As far as I’m concerned, he’s the greatest Hamlet I have ever seen, and I’ve seen Derek Jacobi at the Old Vic.
I read a prose version of the Odyssey in high school, and I think my English teacher showed us the wonderful campy Kirk Douglas film version of Ulysses—in which Odysseus and his men make instant wine (grinning like Lucille Ball) in order to get the Cyclops Polyphemus drunk. But I did not read the Iliad until I was a sophomore in college. There is nothing quite like it in the world. The translation we read was by Richmond Lattimore. I consider it the best of all the recent translations, better than Fagles and better than Fitzgerald. Lattimore re-complicates the poem so that you meet Achilleus rather than Achilles; Aias rather than Ajax, and all the strangeness of the narrative and the lyric beauty of the Homeric similes achieve their full perfection. Lattimore attempted to be as literal as possible and yet to produce a great poem in English. He retains the stock epithets (swift-footed godlike Achilleus, the stock scenes (arming, eating, killing an enemy, burial), and stays as true as possible to the oral formulaic nature of the epic.
At Oxford I read about half of the Iliad and a couple of books of the Odyssey in the original Greek. That was one of the supreme episodes of my life, even though my tutor S.R. West warned me that I was not proficient enough in ancient Greek to proceed with any real skill. That is a long and amusing story.
It’s hard to know which is the greatest book of the epic: Book I (the quarrel), Book IX (the embassy to Achilles), Books XVI (the death of Patroclus), or Book XXIV, Priam’s nocturnal visit to Achilles’ hut to redeem the body of his slain son Hector. I do think Book XXIV, when the ancient and decrepit Priam takes the hands of man-slaying Achilles into his own, and asks the murderer of his son to revere the gods and respect the dignity of the fallen, is perhaps the greatest moment in classical literature, and one of the handful of greatest moments in all the literature ever written.
Now the Iliad is one of my daughter’s favorite works. Nothing could be more gratifying than that.
I think Walden may be the greatest American book. That’s automatically a problematic statement, but I stand by it, in spite of my love of Huckleberry Finn, Roughing It, Light in August, Moby Dick, On the Road, and others.
I read Walden at least once a year. I read it on my last trek along the Little Missouri River between Marmarth and the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I have taught it in colleges, at teacher institutes, and at my annual Humanities Retreat at Lochsa Lodge in the Bitterroot Mountains west of Missoula, Montana.
I have been to Walden Pond a number of times, once with my mother, and I have a spike from the railroad that runs along the shore, and several vials of water from the pond.
So many people have trouble with Thoreau or Walden. Some find him preachy and priggish. Others object to the fact that he took his laundry into Concord to be washed by Mrs. Emerson. He is too intense for some, too impure for others who prefer the kind of wilderness adventurer they find in John Muir to the “bourgeois” primitivist they see in Thoreau. You have to get over this “gumption trap” to appreciate Walden. It is often better to begin with the second chapter, and then double back to pick up the chapter called “Economy.”
If a classic is a book that is great, and then newly great every time you read it, Waldencertainly qualifies as one of the greatest classics of American literature. You can do a St. Augustine with Walden: open it at random and read a page or two, and you fill find material to mediate and wrestle with for many days.
And can there be any greater passage than, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach; and now, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” (And that’s the lesser part of the passage!)
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
One of my sister’s boyfriends was painting our house one summer. He was my friend too and a good guide through some of the sloughs of adolescence. He recommended that I read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. So I did. It’s one of those books that change your outlook forever. America’s mistreatment of American Indians is so fundamentally upsetting that you cannot read this or any other serious account of the conquest without ceasing once and for all to be complacent about the difficulties American Indians continue to suffer. Since I read Bury My Heart in 1972, I have made American Indian studies one of my primary interests. I just reread the chapter on the Minnesota Uprising of 1862. The book holds up well after all these years, though for a survey of the Indian wars of the plains, I recommend The Long Death by Ralph K. Andrist, and perhaps the most interesting read of all the books on Indian resistance to white colonial imperialism, I urge you to read Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star.
One of my favorite scholars ever, Ray Frazer, was an English professor at Pomona College. He had a summer cabin on the Stillwater River southwest of Billings, and though he was a great teacher of Joyce and Hemingway, his heart was always out in the shadow of the Beartooth Mountains. I had the joy of house watching for him for a month or so one summer, while he was traveling in England. It was paradise. I worked seven or eight hours per day on my academic studies, then hiked about the mountains or just sat looking out on the Stillwater River.
A year later, as I was about to fly to London for a summer of research at Oxford, I had dinner with Ray and several members of the Pomona College English department. We were talking about favorite books. Ray, who loved Tolstoy and Joyce in equal measure, said “The first hundred pages of Anna Karenina are the finest hundred pages in literature.” So I went to Huntley Bookstore the next morning and purchased the Oxford Classic edition of Anna Karenina. I started reading it when my flight took off from LAX for London Heathrow (an endless flight), and I read perhaps two hundred pages, stopping only to eat and doze off now and then. When I got to London I took the train down to Oxford, collected my keys for the summer at the lodge of Hertford College, and unpacked in my rooms on the Banbury Road.
For the next four days, I did nothing but read Anna Karenina. I somehow got into the zone for a sustained period of time. During that perfect interlude between a hard semester of teaching and a few weeks of intense work on John Donne, I ate only to banish hunger, the book propped open next to me, and slept only to banish fatigue. It was my one total and absolute reading experience in my whole life. Once in a while I get out that Oxford classic copy of Anna and page through it. When I come upon coffee stains and the dried drops of the oranges I ate as I read, I am filled with a kind of bittersweet sense of joy. I think of Ray, of the RSC Shakespeare productions we watched at his house, of the go cups we obtained at little rural taverns not far from his cabin, of the conversations we had about Dr. Samuel Johnson, of the tired but outstanding way he taught Joyce’s Ulysses.
I came to the conclusion that Ray had been wrong. I believe it is the last hundred pages of Anna Karenina that are the best hundred pages in literature, not the first. I so wish he were still alive to have that debate.
I began buying books when I was 16 years old. My parents were both readers, but it was my great mentor Mike Jacobs who “set the destinies of my life,” as Jefferson put it. He told me he did not want to know me unless I read books, and he bought me five paperbacks and talked me through them. I still have them. I regard them as sacred objects.
I’ve been buying books ever since. They were an issue in my marriage. They have been a source of some tension in every serious relationship of my life. When I was divorced 20 years ago, I vowed that I would never deny myself a book I wanted for the rest of my life. (I should have stayed married!) There have been years when I have purchased $5000 worth of books, and seldom does a year pass when I don’t purchase $2500 worth.
By now I have a library of approximately 17,000 books. I have never actually counted them, and I have never spent the month it would take to catalogue them properly. And yet an infinitely busier man, Thomas Jefferson, repeated wrote out hand-written catalogues of his books, organized them according to Lord Bacon’s tripartite system of knowledge, and could, no doubt, put his finger on any book he wanted more or less instantly. I sometime purchase a book because I cannot find the copy I already own, and it would take too much time to hunt it down. This cannot be good.
I do not collect books. In my library there are only half a dozen books that have any value beyond what is articulated in their text. Perhaps the best of these is a first edition of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, signed by Eric Sevareid. It was the gift of one of my closest friends William Chrystal.
Some weekend evenings I browse about my library, vaguely looking for books I would like to read or reread, and I come upon books I never knew I had. It’s like Christmas. Usually I haul them upstairs and put them on a pile of books I want to get to right away. And then when I have a dinner party three months later, they are carried with 100 others back down into my lower library, where they disappear for another space of years.
The most frequently asked question by people who come into my house is, “Have you read all these books?” And even though it is a natural and inevitable question, it is a question that so fundamentally misunderstands the life of the mind, the life of the reader, that I have a hard time not responding in sarcasm.