Many eons ago, I was an eighteen-year-old fresh off the potato boat from PEI to Montreal, just starting at McGill University. As I made friends and attended classes, I realized that I was no longer one of the biggest minnows in a school of minnows – now I was a minnow swimming in a sea of 100-year-old carp, at least when it came to matters cosmopolitan. I was an uncultured bumpkin compared to most of my friends. And while that state of being didn’t make me feel inferior to anyone, it was supremely awkward. And kind of baffling. We were eighteen! How did they know enough about Leibniz and Pissarro and Feynman and Gaudi and Disraeli and Franco and … not only to recognize the names (well beyond me) but to make jokes about their relationships with other people I’d never heard of? I was so envious of them, because I realized that as hard as I’d worked to gain as much cultural capital as I could – mostly through a Scrooge-McDuck-like glee in the information and insights and beauties themselves, rather than a deliberate choice to improve my lot in life – I knew almost nothing. Nothing! How could I ever catch up? How could I even orient myself without regularly looking like an idiot? No, I take that back. I didn’t mind the looking like an idiot bit – these were very good friends, and always kind to me – I minded interrupting the flow of knowledge with my stupid questions. Listening to these friends talk was like watching a Broadway production number, and saying, “Wait, what does that even MEAN?” was like taking the floor out from under them – they stumbled, and grasped at straws, and changed the subject. Not because I’d caught them out, but because they were well-taught.
I wanted to keep up so badly.
I tried to figure things out on my own – make a map of the new territory I’d entered – but there was just too much to cover, and it was too easy to get distracted. I spent several days in a row reading Derrida at one point, and another several days reading the early church fathers. I would go to one or another of my friends and acquaintances and say “What book changed your life?” and then borrow it, and read it, right away. This project was far more absorbing than the day-to-day routine of college life, and I became somewhat obsessed. But still, I couldn’t keep up with the dance.
In this group of beloved friends, one friend in particular felt easier to be with than the others. He was more likely to not know something himself, and more confident about asking questions, and more likely to get distracted and go off on a flight of fancy that ended with all of us getting the giggles. He and I became absurdly close after a while, more like eight-year-old twin siblings than normal college students. We’d play two-person tag, and snuggle, and sneak up on each other around corners, and race up and down steeply pitched streets. We would do our homework side by side in the special computer lab for students with disabilities, and mutter to each other about how completely ridiculous we often felt among all these cosmopolitan geniuses, and how we kept expecting to be found out, and then console each other by pointing out that actually, we were rather brilliant too. Just … rougher around the edges than our friends. More impulsive. Less tutored. We were both a bit feral, and we saw that in each other, and honored it.
I finally confessed to this friend how lost I felt, how ignorant compared to the rest of our circle, how clumsy in the dances of conversation they held. And instead of stumbling, or changing the subject, he said he used to feel that way too, and it took him years to catch up, and sometimes he still felt stupid and as if he had two left feet. And then he said, “BUT! THERE IS A BOOK.”
And he went into his bedroom, and dug under the bed, and he pulled out a giant brick of a book. Bright red, with 3 caricatures of old white dudes I didn’t recognize on the cover, and the following text emblazoned across the top:
From Quark to Quattrocento… Boswell to Bosnia… the Dreyfus Affair to the Doppler Effect … Mary Magdalen to Laurie Anderson… Teapot Dome to The Magic Mountain… Metaphysics to Microeconomics… Lao-tse to Lévi Strauss.. Napoleon to NAFTA
PLUS: How to Tell the Iliad from the Odyssey
My eyes about bugged out of my head. I seized on the book, and started reading, and then stopped to look up at him and say “THIS IS WHAT I NEED.” And he hugged me, and we went back to whatever we were doing, and I borrowed that book, carried that book with me everywhere, snuck bits of that book during calc tutorials, and fell asleep reading that book at night. I Hoovered up that book. And when I was done, I found that I could dance on the same stage as my friends. I could make the jokes, and follow the allusions, and see the world that they saw.
And at some point after Jaybird and I got married, I told him about THE BOOK. And he told me that he’d read it too, and he’d fallen in love with how it explained things. Like when it went through all of Freud’s coping mechanisms, and how it handled art. And it was funny, and you could tell how much the authors loved the works they were writing about and had strong opinions about them. He said, “It was all the stuff you should have walked away with, but didn’t.” And it never made you feel like a failure; instead it enticed you to go on and learn more and more and more. We were delighted with each other for having loved this book; we started giving it away to everyone we felt would appreciate it. (I’ve heard since that some of them took up the same practice. Book-giving can go viral, too; it just takes longer.)
And so today, when Jaybird was too worn out to write a post about Sunday, and I was too worn out to write a post about Sunday, I realized that neither of us had ever written a proper appreciation of THE BOOK. And here we are.
So…. what are you reading and/or watching? And is there a book, or movie, or song, or piece of art, that shaped the course of your life?