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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)img0000071A

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).

young professorPicture 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

https://memoriesofatime.blog/2016/08/26/how-important-is-reading/

“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 Joseph EpsteinEpstein 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”….

http://memoriesofatime.com/2013/05/27/why-i-read/%5D

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:junior classics etsy

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.  books surround me 2020And 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!”  jealousy 719907557-OthelloIt’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? PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST 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.  john miltonThousands 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

readers and parents

“After all these years, I may have found my own best reader, and he turns out to be me.”  –Joseph Epstein

 

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My Personal Notations from “A Mere Journalist” by Aristides [Joseph Epstein] in The American Scholar (Winter 1985/86).

“Off and on for more than twenty years, I have been keeping a journal.  One expects a famous writer to keep a journal,” wrote Aristides, the pen name for Joseph P Epstein, editor of The American Scholar, 1975-1997. 

“The first function of a young writer’s journal: a place to grouse, a place to dramatize one’s condition in prose, and a place to bemoan the fact that, once again, this time in the instance of oneself, the world in its ignorance is failing to recognize another genius.”

“In my [current] journal…I have done my best to cease complaining and have taken as my motto the lines from the beer commercial that runs ‘I guess it doesn’t get much better than this.’”

“…to feature introspection and self-analysis…even in a journal has its limits.”

“Who needs this?…I suppose I alone do.  Something in me impels me to record much I have thought, or experienced, or read, or heard.”

“I find keeping a journal quickens life; it provides the double pleasure of first living life and then savoring it through the formation of sentences about it.”

Graphomania: a writer’s disease “taking the form of simply being unable to put down the pen (the authorly equivalent to logorrhea).  ‘Advanced’ stage takes the form of needing to write down everything because anything that hasn’t been written down isn’t quite real.”

“The graphomaniac’s slogan is ‘no ink, no life.’”

“I must confess that I do not write in my journal every day.  But when I do write something in my journal, I feel rather more complete…  Not that journal writing elevates me–it doesn’t, usually…”

“I do feel upon having made an entry in my journal as if I have done my duty, completed, in effect, an act of intellectual hygiene.”

“I do not often look into my journals; yet whenever I do, I am impressed by how much experience has slipped through the net of my memory.”

“I suspect that anyone who keeps a journal has to be something of a Copernican–he [or she] really must believe that the world revolves around himself [or herself].”

“Everything I have written is these journals is true–or at least as true as I could make it at the time I wrote it.  Lying, as such, is not, I believe, a question in my journal.”

“I try, when writing in my journal, to keep in mind the twin truths that I am someone of the greatest importance to myself and that I am also ultimately insignificant.  (This is not always so easily accomplished.)”

“Sometimes I am astonished at the items that find their way into this journal of mine.”

“I [once] wrote that John Wayne had become part of the furniture of [my] one’s life.  The first half of one’s life, it strikes me, one fills up one’s rooms with such furniture; the second half, one watches this furniture, piece by piece, being removed.”

“My journal has served as a running inventory of my days, and I am pleased to have kept it.”

“Though we must live life forward, ‘Life can only be understood backward,’ wrote Kierkegaard.  Yet a journal does provide backward understanding…a great aid in replaying segments of past experience, in running over important and even trivial events, in recollecting moods and moments otherwise lost to memory.”

“A journal is a simple device for blowing off steam, privately settling scores, clarifying thoughts, giving way to vanities, rectifying hypocrisies, and generally leaving an impression and record of your days.”

“When you are through with it, [and] when the time has come to leave this…earth, you can even pass the damn thing along to your yet unborn great-grandchildren.”

interrobang

 

 

“A great work of art may provide us the opportunity to feel more profoundly and more generously, to perceive more fully the implications of experience, than the constricted and fragmentary conditions of life permit.”  –Louise M. Rosenblatt, Literature as Exploration (Noble, 1968)

. . .

Underlinings and Notes from A Literary Education by Joseph Epstein (Axios, 2014)

“Apart from those people trained as professional scholars or scientists, we are all finally autodidacts [self-taughts[, making our way on our own as best we can, with our real teachers being the books we happen to read.”

“…the best that any university can do is point its students in the right direction: let them know what the intellectual possibilities are and give them a taste of the best that has been thought and written in the past.”

“…literature, largely though not exclusively imaginative literature, provides the best education for a man or woman in a free society.”

“While novelists may have a plenitude of ideas, or deal with complex ideas in their work, it is rarely their ideas that are the most compelling things about their work.”

“A literary education establishes a strong taste for the endless variousness of life; it teaches how astonishing reality is–…”

“…a literary education teaches the limitation of the intellect itself, at least when applied to the great questions, problems, issues, and mysteries of life.”

“A literary education teaches that human nature is best, if always incompletely, understood through the examination of individual cases [and] those cases that…prove no rule–the unique human personality.” 

“…  [I]t provides an enhanced appreciation of the mysteries and complexities of life that reinforce the inestimable value of human liberty…”

. . .

Epstein quoting Marcel Proust: “Our intellect is not the most subtle, the most powerful, the most appropriate instrument for revealing truth.  It is life that, little by little, example by example, permits us to see that what is most important to our heart, or to our mind, is learned not by reasoning, but through other agencies.  Then it is that the intellect, observing their superiority, abdicates its control to them upon reasoned grounds and agrees to become their collaborator and lackey.”

 interrobang

“VIRTUCRAT”: “any man or woman who is certain that his or her political views are not merely correct but deeply, morally righteous in the bargain.”

“After all these years, I may have found my own best reader, and he turns out to be me.”

Some selected works:
Divorced in America: Marriage in an Age of Possibility (1974)
Familiar Territory: Observations on American Life (1979)
The Middle of My Tether: Familiar Essays (1983)
With My Trousers Rolled: Familiar Essays (1995)
Snobbery: The American Version (2002)
Friendship: An Exposé (2006)
In a Cardboard Belt!: Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage (2007)
Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet (with Frederic Raphael) (2013)
A Literary Education and Other Essays (2014)

“I read in the hope of discovering the truth, or at least some truths. I look for truth in what some might deem strange places: novels and poems, histories and memoirs, biographies and autobiographies, letters and diaries.”

“I’m not so sure that statistics have much to tell us about a cultural activity so private as reading books.”

“Serious readers…when young they come upon a book that blows them away by the aesthetic pleasure they derive from it, the wisdom they find in it, the point of view it provides them.”

“For myself, I have come to like books that do not have photographs of their authors, preferring my imaginings of their looks to the reality.”

Joseph Epstein

Joseph Epstein

“Books are an addiction.”

“Nearly all modern stories or memoirs of growing up are accounts of sadness, loss, secret terror.”

“Many people write or become psychoanalyzed in order to bury the ghosts of their childhood. I wish, as best I can, to revive the ghosts of mine….”

“Thinking too much about the future resembles thinking too much about breathing–the result is to make one feel very uncomfortable. Best to glory in what was finest in the past, to concentrate on the present, and to allow the future to fend for itself.”

“…without friendship, make no mistake about it, we are all lost.”

“. . . I seek clues that might explain life’s oddities, that might light up the dark corners of existence a little, that might correct foolish ideas that I have come to hold too dearly, that might, finally, make my own stay here on earth more interesting, if not necessarily more pleasant.”

[See http://memoriesofatime.com/2013/05/27/why-i-read/%5D

Question_mark_(black_on_white)

By: James F. O’Neil

All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten–Robert Fulghumall i needed to know

My mother once overwhelmed me by reciting the names of so many of her high school teachers.  Her telling was many years ago–and many years after she left Lindblom High School in Chicago.  I once tried to replicate her memory of my teachers.  Once.

Throughout my teaching career, I was (and still am) a firm believer that “teachers teach as they were taught,” choosing eclectically the best practices and avoiding the worst of the worst.  I always wanted to become aware of those who were memorable, or non-memorable, teaching influences in my life. 

I, for example, though not starring in many school plays, hated to memorize lines.  I hated any type of public recitation, from a “Bah!  Humbug!” in 7th grade to “Friends, Romans, countrymen” in 10th grade.  Yet despite my aversion to memorization, there was no way out.  I had to do it: multiplication tables, geometry theorems, aorist tenses in Greek, and even argumentation principles.

Memorization is an action of memory, hence the root of the word.  “If memory serves me correctly,” usually it does.  And for some, memory serves better than for others.  What matters about baseball statistics or capitals of states or GNP of countries?  Caring.  Who cares?  Yes, that’s the point.

The Pythagorean theorem–a² + b² = c²–meant nothing to me.

Who cares?  I didn’t–until a teacher (a nun, a Religious Sister of Mercy, RSM) explained that throwing a ball from third base to first over the pitcher’s mound was NOT 90 feet, but 127.27922 feet.  She and Pythagoras made that very clear.

I cared now.  I needed a strong arm to play third base.

Caring determines memorization acumen.  If I care so much about subject X, for whatever reason–to get a good grade, to show off, to complete myself, to prove something to myself or to others–then memory will serve me well.  (Though for certain school subjects, “Use it or lose it” does come into play.  I rarely use “side-angle-side,” the quadratic equation, or R-O-Y-G-B-I-V–except when I see a rainbow.)

So what good to remember names of teachers unless one cares?  How often am I actually called upon to write an essay on “The Most Influential Person in My Life”?  Teachers might come to mind were I writing a college admission essay.  Or “the fastest airplane ever” if I were an airplane enthusiast.  Or anything with lists or numbers or beliefs or…ad infinitum (Ah, that’s one to remember: “to infinity” but then I might add “and beyond” for an update to include time and space: ad astra per aspera, an axiom or motto adopted by some pilots in World War Two.) 

And the list goes on. . . .

But those special teachers: I cannot forget.  Ever.  Like my mother, no matter how old I am, I remember.  Or try to remember.  But is the past worth returning to?  Do I need to be able to remember or list teachers?  

Joseph Epstein

Joseph Epstein

“Memory,” Joseph Epstein writes, “with the ability it bestows to allow a person to live vividly away from the body and immediate environment, is a possible sign of the ability to live after the body has disappeared.”

Receiving notification of the death of a former teacher, I page through my high school yearbook.  The spirits live, as Epstein believes.  I was looking to find a picture of one of my “ghost” teachers, to find a picture that might enliven a memory.  There he was.  His death notice showed him to be thirteen years older than I, both then and now.  However, he looked so young in the picture; he was never “old.”  (My graduation picture shows me at age 18.)

Opening the pages–still mostly intact after fifty years!–I find pleasure.  Calm overtakes me: I see my teachers; I look into the eyes of my classmates.  There is something that even thrills me.  My youth?  All our youth?  (Except for those “old” teachers.)

Yes, those memory-filled pages (as trite as it sounds) bring smiles to my face, stories into my mind.  And those teachers, those favorites, live on: history, science, Latin, math, music, religion, even Greek and some German.

Yet I could not, however, list them all from memory.  When I open the book, however, I visualize and want to tell the stories.  I want to recount who did what, what “battles” were fought, who still survives.

A yearbook isn’t simply a book about “years”; it is about life.  It has a spiritual life of its own–even though a body has disappeared.  Timeless.  Though I might age, I am forever young within its pages.  These pages contain so much memory of a part of my life–even, perhaps, an incalculable part.

And, really, I was a handsome guy….

©  James F. O’Neil  2014

 Pic of 1936 Yearbook from Lindblom High School (Credit: eBay)


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By: James F.O’Neil

I have become an Epstein-ite.  Joseph Epstein was former editor of The American Scholar and teacher of writing at Northwestern University.  Born and educated in Chicago, as I was, he came into my life through some of his familiar essays. 

Joseph Epstein

Joseph Epstein

These writings have helped shape me and my reading “habits” (definitely an “addiction” word).  Bored with some of the “masters,” I have learned to decide for myself what I want to do with the printed word.  I will not stop reading, that is for sure–“better read than dead.”

Espousing what Epstein means in writing that books “have become much more like family,” I have in my bookcases pictures of family on the shelves; intermixed with books, I have special photo albums and journals of travels and picture books–even special “family mementos.”  A mix, of poetry, philosophy, psychology, history; film books, Books of the Western Canon, a Bible here and there, pop “culture,” and art books; some law, an education treatise or two, architecture and humanities; and even a few books each about chocolate, Absolut vodka, and fairy tales.  This is my family–and, in my life, “family is everything.”

In his essay “Bookless in Gaza” (a takeoff on Eyeless in Gaza, a bestselling novel by Aldous Huxley, published in 1936), Joseph Epstein writes of his early reading experiences, which were not “friendly.”  John Milton wrote about the Biblical Samson, captured and later blinded by the Philistines–“eyeless”–then forced into labor in Gaza.          

Epstein relates how his “forced labor” reading [emphasis mine], like doing book reports–actually faking them–gradually became a labor of love, actually an “addiction.”  (No doubt, Epstein was able to outgrow and break away from the “ignorant and uncultured” philistine teachers of his childhood.)    

He confesses that he holds “a philistine assumption”: that everyone dies someday (not an intellectual matter at all).  With this belief, he writes (as he has written elsewhere) that he wants to be “as well read as possible”–“better read than dead.”           

“And now a philistine confession to go with a philistine assumption: I read in the hope of discovering the truth, or at least some truths.  I look for truth in what some might deem strange places: novels and poems, histories and memoirs, biographies and autobiographies, letters and diaries.”          

“. . .  I seek clues that might explain life’s oddities, that might light up the dark corners of existence a little, that might correct foolish ideas that I have come to hold too dearly, that might, finally, make my own stay here on earth more interesting, if not necessarily more pleasant.”

I, too, desire great things in life–especially to live long and prosper.  Reading, in my estimate, as an Epsteinite, will continue to reinforce this desire.

© James F. O’Neil  2013

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