Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Made of Paper: High School Books

My teachers never knew what to make of me.  During many of my early years, I was an uncooperative student with a mind that was usually somewhere other than the classroom.  They couldn’t figure out why I did so badly on my assignments, when I did them, and so well on all the achievement tests. By the time I reached high school, though, I began to pay attention occasionally, when the topic happened to interest me.  A few of the books that influenced me in high school were actually part of the curriculum.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was probably the best thing my sophomore class read. I don’t agree with Ernest Hemingway that all of American literature comes from this novel, but it does occupy a place of privilege in my personal canon. Every river I have seen calls up the image of Huck and Jim on the river, whether that river was the Chao Phraya, the Pasig, the Seine, or the Bogue Chitto. For all the claims that Twain’s work is “racist,” Huckleberry Finn was one of the first fictional treatments of a black man as a full human being (as opposed to the saccharine caricatures of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), in a complex relationship with a white boy. At the same time, it represented attitudes toward race in the nineteenth century realistically and truthfully, without preaching.
I was fortunate enough to have been placed in the top level of a highly graded tracking system, in spite of my orneriness as a pupil. Without tracking, I think I would have done better to quit school and go to the public library, except for the credential. My classmates and I certainly would not have read the books that we did, if we had been in a more egalitarian system. Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain was among the most intriguing of our readings. I wonder if today’s school system, with its close scrutiny of any trace of religion in the classroom would have allowed that today. As it was, my ultra-Catholic English teacher and I were pretty much the only ones in the class who did not think that Merton was completely nuts.

Another book that impressed me greatly, but that most of my classmates did not enjoy, was Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Admittedly, this book does not fall into the category of “a spell-binding yarn.” But for those of us who like thinking about symbols and the problem of good and evil, Hans Castorp’s life in the sanatorium offered an evocative meditation on modern civilization.

A different German writer that I read about the same time, but outside of school, was Hermann Hesse. In my Hesse phase, I believe I went through everything he wrote, from Peter Camenzind  to The Glass Bead Game. At the time, Hesse was another one of those cult writers, whose works tend to be excessively praised by followers and excessively criticized by skeptics. But I liked Hesse because he was always transforming himself and because, during a long lifetime of work, his work generally improved.

Literary high modernism appealed to me in these years. We did read T.S. Eliot in school and The Waste Land was one of my favorite poems in late adolescence, appealing, as it did, to my gloomy cultural pessimism. Today, I prefer the understated mysticism of Four Quartets. Outside of school, I read Eliot’s friend Ezra Pound, whom I liked in bits and pieces, although I have never made my way through The Cantos from front to back. I wonder how many people have.

Modernism also provided me with my senior thesis, which was something along the lines of “Language as Protagonist in the Work of James Joyce.” I argued that all of Joyce’s writings should be read as a single work, in language gradually asserts itself as the dominant actor. I did read Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist, and Ulysses for this, but I admit that I read only selections from Finnegan’s Wake. I’ll get to it someday.

As I say, The Wasteland spoke to my gloominess, but one very un-modernist work countered this mood. One day, I was sitting by myself in the audio-visual lab, where I worked as a volunteer (we threaded films onto projectors – it was how they used to show movies in that distant era), depressed about whatever depresses teenagers, when I noticed a thin hardbound book with a cheap cover decorated in leaf designs. I opened it up to find that it held some of the most inspiring poems I’d ever read that made life seem full of breath. By “inspiring,” I don’t mean “inspirational,” but something more genuine. This book was Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Still it makes me feel expansive just to think lines from the “Song of Myself.”
High school also introduced me to reading outside of English. I probably would not have done this had I just spent those years in the library. I think it was in my junior year, in Fourth Year Spanish (for those of us who had begun in junior high), that we read Platero y Yo, by Juan Ramόn Jimenez, and some of the works of Pio Baroja. When I was in my senior year, there were only two of us (in a class of one thousand) who wanted to sign up for Fifth Year Spanish. One of our teachers gave up her lunch period and ate in class so that the school could offer us the class. We used to make fun of her behind her back because she teased her hair up, wore heavy makeup, and dressed (in our opinion) too young for a middle-aged woman. What ungrateful little creeps! The class topic was La Literature del Siglo de Oro and we read selections from Cervantes and Calderon de la Barca’s La Vida es un Sueño.

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