Hope Coulter, my colleague in the English Department at Hendrix and Director of the Hendrix-Murphy Foundation Programs in Language in Literature, invited me to give a talk in a new series of lunchtime conversations called My Life in Books. Here’s an only slighted revised version of what I presented today. People seemed to like the talk; we had a good discussion afterward. I wrote this pretty quickly, as you’ll be able to tell; it’s a little rough. I’d to revise it further, and I welcome your suggestions.
Somewhere in my house I have a thin little book I’ve carried around with me for many years. I don’t remember when I got this book, probably I was around 8 or 9. The name of this book is The Smartest Bear in the World and His Brother Oliver. It’s by Alice Bach, who it turns out—I only learned this yesterday, never having been in the slightest curious about the author before—has had a long and distinguished career as a feminist biblical scholar, in addition to having written twenty children’s books.
Of those many books, this one dates from 1975 and my copy—which I wanted to bring today but could not find despite having ransacked the house—included wonderful, shaggy illustrations by Steven Kellogg.
The gist is this: Ronald is very smart bear. He has a set of encyclopedias that he is reading from A-Z because he wants to learn everything. But he has a problem: it’s fall, winter is coming, it will soon be time for bears to hibernate and his family just wants him to eat all the time. Ronald isn’t that interested in eating—it’s fine, but it keeps him from reading. He’s not like his brother Oliver—Oliver loves eating. (There are these wonderful pictures of the bears tucking into giant stacks of pancakes smothered in syrup.)
It’s hard to learn everything when you have to sleep for almost half the year. So Ronald makes a plan. This year he will only pretend to go to sleep with his family. Once the others fall asleep he will stay up all winter, and have many glorious months of uninterrupted reading time. He imagines he’ll be reading about zebras when his family wakes up in the spring.
You can probably see where things are heading. Ronald’s plan is foiled—he can’t help himself; he’s a bear, after all—and when the rest of his family tuck themselves under heaping piles of down-filled comforters he gets sleepy too. But everything turns out fine—he learns that he doesn’t have to do everything at once, that the encyclopedia will be waiting for him come spring, and that his brother Oliver—his sticky, always-eating-young-chef-in-the-making brother Oliver, who is so much more like a normal bear than Ronald—isn’t so bad.
In other words: moderation in all things and tolerance for people who are different from us, even people who don’t like to read.
To which I say: what a terrible message!
By no means is this the greatest kids book ever written, nor was it the book I loved most as a child. But I did read it over and over again, stopping occasionally as I did so to glance up at my own set of encyclopedias, mostly unread. And it has stayed with me as an adult, maybe because I’ve refused to take its lesson.
To this day there is a part of me—a not insignificant part of me—that believes I could read the encyclopedia from front to back. And believes, even more grandiosely, that I could read everything. Even that I should read everything.
You can guess how well that’s going.
Maybe for some people reading is a pastime. They like it, they don’t like it, whatever: it might be important to them but it causes them no anxiety or neuroses at all. This is hard for me to get my head around. I don’t mean to say that I find no pleasure in reading; I find a lot. But I also find a burden, an endless task connected to some totally unhelpful ideas of mastery. At its best the idea that you’ll read everything is motivated by insatiable curiosity. At its worst, though, it’s motivated by narcissism and egomania. No hibernation for me!
When I first heard the title Professor Coulter gave to this series—My Life in Books—I immediately thought: but that’s redundant! My life, books, these are the same thing—totally synonymous. I can’t imagine my life without books.
But of course it’s important that life and books aren’t quite the same. It’s impossible for me to imagine being able to live life—and to make sense of life—without books, but the point is that books have to be different from life. We need fake things to understand real things. (Even non-fiction is “fake” in this sense—not that it tells lies but that it represents—every book has to frame the truth it tells, and that framing is the distance between art and life.)
But I don’t just experience the book-life distinction as a theoretical matter. For me it’s also psychological, even embodied. As a pretty highly introverted person—a person for whom being around others takes more energy than it gives (it is not an easy thing for such a person to be a college professor, by the way)—I need time away from the world. I need to fill up my emotional tank, which runs dry pretty quickly.
So in addition to being objects to conquer, books have always served a second important function in my life: they’re a way to hide from the world. “Leave me alone, I’m reading,” as the title of book critic Maureen Corrigan’s memoir has it. Often, when I am having, or even on the brink of having, a difficult or intense conversation with someone, I can feel myself needing a book. If one is nearby I’ll pick it up, hold it, steal a few glances at it. We sometimes speak of books as demanding—“Ulysses is a demanding book”—but even the most demanding book has never demanded anything of me the way other people do.
Reflecting on these roles books have played in my life—as a way to define myself, as a challenge to set myself, as a tool to help me manage a world that often seems so clamorous—I wonder if I’m able to have a healthy, neutral, or, best of all, purely joyful, relationship to books. Is my relationship to books—one of the two most important relationships in my life—a good one? Is it good for me?
I think being a professional reader—and someone who teaches others to read—is both a wonderful and a terrible choice for me to have made. (If it’s even a choice: fate might be a better word.)
As I sit with this ambivalence, I’m led to think again about The Smartest Bear in the World and his Brother Oliver. Maybe its lesson isn’t so bad after all. Ronald learns that his passion doesn’t need to be his neurosis. I’m working on that too, but maybe my lesson is actually different from Ronald’s. My lesson might be about hungering for books—about needing (and wanting) to devour them. And about accepting that need. My lesson might be that I am just as much Oliver as I am Ronald. Maybe part of me is a gourmand of books not just the professor of books. I’m working, not on being the smartest bear in the world—that sounds pretty terrible, actually—but on learning to eat, and then sleep. I’m learning to hibernate.