Probably the reason that I’m getting a PhD in English is that when I was growing up, I read certain novels compulsively, until I knew the texture of their prose like my own skin. I got inside the language, until I could almost put colors or smells to their styles, almost taste the difference between a Zelazny or a Leiber novel, tell Moorcock from Niven by their weight, holding a Harrison up to the light to discern its quality. I didn’t often read a new book, because it was the quality of familiar comfort that brought me back to the old ones, so I became a connoisseur of a very small number of books.
Now, I should say that I’m not a big fan of the old-fashioned way of “doing” English literature, the show-offy and elitist way that initiates into the dark arts are able to divine the true meaning of a poem or novel, while our students are left to gape puzzled and mystified. Some people see literature as a kind of awesome force that blasts its way into your consciousness and remakes you; others see in it a kind of oracular code whose occult mysteries require years of training but gives you vast powers of perception and insight. That kind of formalism leaves me cold. These days, I’m much more interested in what literature means in a social sense, in how people use writing in their lives and what it does in the ways that anyone can and would perceive. If I write a paper about a novel, I hope that someone who’s read that novel will recognize it in my retelling of it. If I teach a class on a book and my students don’t recognize the book I’m talking about as the same one they read (and it’s a common complaint in English departments, unfortunately), then something has gone wrong. But there is still something to be said for the kind of eye and ear for the particular tricks of literary language that a person gets when they just immerse themselves in it. I heard Jerry Seinfeld say (on Fresh Air, come to think of it) that the thing about him was that he was a comedian without a hook but that that had became his hook, the fact that he was so good he didn’t need it, that his act was just pure humor in a way that didn’t have to rely on props. He said that they would joke about the show being a show about nothing but what that really meant was that the show just about how they executed it, about the virtuoso with which they put it on. And at the risk of sounding like an arrogant jerk, with literature, too, there’s something about being able to just do it that’s not reducible to theory or methodology or approach or context, but just to the number of pages you’ve clocked in. It’s like flight hours, free throws, and arpeggios. It’s like being able to snowboard.
I think that reading so compulsively in high school meant that when I was in college, I already had the flight hours, so to speak, that helped be able to just sort of do literature, and so that’s what I ended up doing. I didn’t so much choose as simply find it to be the path of least resistance. But at some point, I ended up in a class on African and Maori literature, and the simple skill of doing literature melded with a kind of politics I was interested in, and now, nine years later, I’m getting a PhD in literature focusing on African writers and the idea of the diaspora. And all is pretty much well in that front; I wouldn’t say its my calling but it’s a career that fits me better than I feel I would have had any right to expect. And I count myself very lucky to be good at something I like doing and might even, someday, get paid better than poverty wages to do it.
But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. What I wanted to talk about was the way it feels to re-read some of those old books that I read in high school so many times that the spines fell apart. Some writers I know better than to read again. Piers Anthony I wouldn’t go back to. He’s clever, but puerile, prolific but diluted. For every halfway interesting thing he wrote, I can think of three things to which, as they’ve aged in the corners of my mind, the years have not been kind. Harry Harrison I might still be able to read, at least the first stainless steel rat before he forgot why it was interesting to have a character who lived in the ratholes of an ultramodern world of the future and made him into a cop. What’s great about the first book is that he loves something that’s wrong, someone who’s deadly. There’s conflict, dang it. By the third one, he’s just doing thinly veiled allegories of the cold war, and its well executed, but it isn’t interesting. Even Larry Niven, who’s one of the cleverest of the bunch, just doesn’t seem to have much depth in my memory. So the man can find a way to write an interesting plot about a strange quirk in the astrophysics of our universe, make it make sense to a reader who doesn’t know anything about it, and wrap it all up in a clever and entertaining way. So what? Does he have anything to say?
At some point, I guess, my standards changed. At some point, the things I started noticing in the books I read became not about virtuosity, but about politics, less about the way words work than about the histories and the world that gives them meaning. I read Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light and I notice how of its time it is, how much of it is about the oh-so-1960’s question of what the West was to do and think about the undeveloped people of the world. Sam, the protagonist, is many things in that book, but he’s also clearly the Che Guevara style revolutionary who parachutes into Bolivia and leads the people there in a fight they don’t fully understand, but which he knows is in their best interest. And as with Che, it’s not entirely clear that he’s right in thinking that. I read Our Lady of Darkness and I see the fear of cancer or of nuclear apocolypse blending into one single unnamable dread of the modern world. I read Ringworld and I notice that the last line of the book is an homage to Dante’s Commedia.
But it’s nice to still notice the delicious virtuosity of Leiber’s grand architecture, not merely the broad sweep of his narration but the way the tiniest and most anomalous details blend into the whole, like gargoyles on a cathedral. It’s nice to find that the final paragraph of Lord of Light still takes my breath away and that it makes me laugh, too. It’s nice that I can still read those books and see that they’re good. It’s nice that getting an education hasn’t made me forget how to read.