“DEAR READER…”: WHO? WHAT? WHY?
BY: JAMES F. O’NEIL
“A good book is one that, for its time, is wise, sane, and magical, one that clarifies life and tends to improve it.” –John Gardner, On Moral Fiction (1978)
After some forty years in the classroom, teaching about writing and literature, telling THEM about so many greats… On and on I would go, lecture after great lecture. Book list and book list. Reading assignment and reading assignment. And, of course, test after test–to say nothing of those research papers and thesis projects. I was the Giver, with all the pearls in the basket to hand out, like so many of my good handouts. (I wonder how many of those made it home?)
They all supposed or assumed I liked everything we ever read for class. Often times I was teaching what I was told to teach from the curriculum, not what was my choice, what I “liked.” (Forbidden to teach The Catcher in the Rye? Yes. And I Am the Cheese? That, too.) Yet I did have opinions.
Nevertheless, I was doing my job–which included NOT speaking personals in the classroom. Then as I became older, the classrooms became a bit friendlier (or did I?). I became more pensive about my own education, recalling my being a student in high school and in college. I did less professing, more suggesting. Hah! It took me only twenty years to “get it.” These were (some of) the best of times (I admit, I still did get a lousy evaluation occasionally that set me aback).
Picture of Young Professor 1983
So I began to write about reading. And studying. I even began to write a blog, this blog, about the importance of reading–
How We Come to Love Books
“Adults like to talk about their reading…to force the mind to recollect forgotten but important memories of how one became a reader.” –G. Robert Carlsen and Anne Sherrill, Voices of Readers: How We Come to Love Books, 1988.
I had written how I became a follower/reader/addict of the writings of Joseph Epstein whom I began reading so many years ago (more than 35!) who “taught” me about those “boring” books of the “masters” that are better left unread– “Why I Read”….
I questioned my education and whether I was an educated person, recalling my formative years and those who tried to influence my reading habits. Was I an educated person? Did my reading Ben-Hur do anything for me? (That was a book given to me by my eighth grade teacher.) I read the Bible once completely, the Iliad, the Odyssey, Cervantes, terrible romances, existentialists, Shakespeare.
I was reading what others thought was good for me. What were my first books? Spot and Jane. I began a love life with books and reading: comic books, library books, and Sunday funnies. My favorite comics (now expensive collectibles) were about war. I was nine when the Korean War started. My reading of everything about it (even on bubble gum cards) led to a life-long affair with war history. By the time I began to baby-sit for the neighbor (whose husband was a former Flying Tiger pilot), I was a sixth grader reading The Junior Classics:
My mom had bought them all beautifully bound, and had them placed, displayed, in the red-leatherette credenza we had forever. (She must have paid a fortune for them.) After I had the babies fed, bathed, and bedded, I went into the living room and read my classic stories: about Camelot, giants, heroes, myths.
Throughout high school, I read from those required lists–but took a charmingly delightful side-trip, with James Joyce, Graham Greene, Mortimer Adler, and others when I joined the Book Club. Afterwards, the mainstream reading, through college and graduate school, was really more, and more intense, for this “English Major”: Shakespeare and Milton; Whitman and Dickinson; Thoreau and Emerson. And? I became a teacher. One of those teachers… Some Great Teachers: Growing Up with Reading https://memoriesofatime.blog/2015/12/23/some-great-teachers-growing-up-with-reading/
“You can get help from teachers, but you are going to have to learn a lot by yourself, sitting alone in a room.” –Dr. Seuss
Yes: On my own I worked myself into Darwin, Chardin, and Eliade. I have learned. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn–I return to it, and should more often. It’s about me, not about some other kid. And the famous epiphanous beach scene by James Joyce, which moved me for all time, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I read (present). I read (past). I have read (present perfect). I am reading… I have surrounded myself with books for most of my life. And have much around me to read, if I am so moved. Like Sisyphus, I am happy.
Until quite recently, rather sedentary. Now I have to answer some questions. No slipping away, equivocating, hesitating– “Oh, there is time for the answers, Professor, but I think it would be best if you could write down your answers and get them to me whenever you get some free time.” I was the reader now, not the teacher, not the blogger, not The Great Professor (but, perhaps, the “confessor” confessing?). Someone “from out there” asked WHO? WHAT? WHY?
—WHO is your favorite author and what might be a favorite quotation by that author? Shakespeare may not be my “favorite” author, but my favorite play is his Othello. It is the best Shakespeare did–for human weakness, love, lust, tragedy, marriage, evil, friendship, jealousy, treachery–all condensed. It’s about a soldier who is not promoted, who plots to make his commanding officer jealous. The quotations from Shakespeare abound. From this play, one stands out that has surpassed “Chaos has come again!” It’s my favorite: The soldier says, “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; // It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock // The meat it feeds on…” Beware the green-eyed monster jealousy! To me, this is right up there with “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned!”
–WHAT is your favorite book and the main theme of that book? A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man I first read in high school then much later in graduate school. The character Stephen Dedalus, a young man, by James Joyce, had to leave family, church, and country to grow into manhood–to question the taught values–then to accept or reject them, but not to take them without question. I believe I am Dedalus, the Questioner.
—Do you have a favorite quotation? What does that quotation mean to you and WHY is it your favorite? John Milton, “On His Blindness” (1655). “They also serve who only stand and wait.” WHEN I consider how my light is spent… “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?” I ask. God doth not need either man’s work or his own gifts. Who best bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. Thousands at his bidding speed and post o’er land and ocean without rest. “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Milton lamented his blindness, and felt that he was not serving God the way he could be were he able to see. But those are doing their duty, awaiting their assignments, even simply by being around. I’ve felt that I have not always been able to be a do-er in many aspects of my life, but have been a follower, waiting to be invited or waiting to be told what to told. In other words, waiting is also a noble office.
So, The Grand Inquisitor Classroom Professor has been inquisited. No blood has been let. All proceeded painlessly. However, the process took time–and much thought, which I gave. Sometimes easy to say “Best 10” or “Top 5”; but more difficult to announce, “And the Award goes to…” Therefore, Dear Reader, Please answer the following…
WHO? WHAT? WHY?
© James F. O’Neil 2017
“After all these years, I may have found my own best reader, and he turns out to be me.” –Joseph Epstein
I have always loved to read and became an English major in college despite the required reading I had to do. I hated much of it, and probably wouldn’t have pursued that major if I hadn’t taken so many elective literature courses in which we read so many more interesting books than in the required courses.
But the book that remains my favorite to this day is one I read over and over again as a middle-school child: Where the Red Fern Grows. It made me cry every time and inspired me to work hard and save my money for the things I really wanted (which wasn’t hunting dogs) because some things are worth the work and wait.
I have two: The Human Comedy and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Thanks for the comment.
My mother taught me Milton’s “On His Blindness” when I was a child. If I may……my favorite is Thomas Gray’s “Elegy In A Country Churchyard”. He wrote such a beautiful definition of the day’s end and then went on to squelch pretensions we all seem to carry around with us.
And the teacher never stops teaching, my very own Professor, sending me great books to read ! My brain will never die thanks to you keeping it alive, Love you !
who: Sinclair Lewis who I believe rather prophetically said “When facism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”
Why: well, I tend to look for the underlying reasons people say the things they do or act the way they do. I am skeptical by nature. I don’t trust easily…especially those that profess great faith or great knowledge.
What: the book that changed my life? “It Can’t Happen Here”, a later work of Mr. Lewis (I think he wrote it in 1935 prior to the 1936 election) The premise: Doremus Jessup, a newspaper editor, observes with dismay that many of the people he knows support the candidacy of a fascist, Berzelius Windrip. When Windrip wins the election, he forcibly gains control of Congress and the Supreme Court …it goes downhill from there.
Awesome response! Philip Roth wrote recently The Plot Against America. Roosevelt loses the 1940 election. Charles Lindbergh negotiates with Hitler…
Thank you for sharing your reading journey with us, Jim. This was so inspiring. I will look up some of these books. I read the Catcher in the Rye in college, Shakespeare, Milton, to name a few. What really intrigued me is the bound children’s books collection your mother gave you. Children’s literature is magical, educational and very inspiring.
I too have often invoked Milton’s “They also serve who only stand and wait” in times of boredom, frustration, anger, uncertainty or cussedness. So evocative, so appropriate to so much of our lives. And for what do we wait? Godot? When will the waiting and the practice end, and the real thing begin?
Love the Milton quote, which has stuck in my head for over 42 years thanks to a wonderful English teacher in the 12th grade who, on the final day of class, went around the room and gave each student a quote to try and guess its author. He chose, of course, something from all the reading we’d done all term. The Milton quote “They also serve who only stand and wait” was given to me and I guessed wrong. Naturally, I have remembered it ever since. Wonderful post, James.
Thanks for the reply. There is a psych of education principle that we remember a negative response more than we remember positive. I am the Bringer of Tidings. We both are now connected to Milton even more. I shall remember your anecdote. 😎
I LOVE this post. That last quote about children are made readers in the laps of their parents….OMG. It rings so true. Growing up, I always had my face to a book. Reading was a way to improve upon my imagination. Beverly Cleary was my favorite childhood author. And I began reading with the assistance of Dr. Seuss, P.D. Eastman and Ludwig Bemelmans. I wanted to BE Madeline!
When I became a parent, reading to my children was just so important. And the funny thing is that my kids all remember my reading to them so fondly. I swear that is why my kids, as adults, are such voracious readers. When we lived in NYC, there wasn’t a lot of room in the apartment for a ton of toys, but I never said no to them getting a book.
Thank you for this lovely post because now all those great books that I’ve read are spinning around in my head. Speaking of the word Spin–have you read the book “Let The Great World Spin” by Colum McCann. It was one of the greatest books I’ve ever read in my life!!
I don’t think I’ve ever made a woman’s head spin! Thank you for the delightful reply, Catherine. Best to you. Read on!
I was one of those lectured to students. I didn’t mind.
How are you both doing after God’s wrath fell upon Florida? Hope all is well as can be expected
Mike Quaid 312-286-9440