"He was wont to say that if he had read as much as other men, he should have known no more than other men." -- John Aubrey (for once not being plagiarised by Anthony "a" Wood) on Thomas Hobbes.Note: I link book titles to copyrighted works in translation and to Project Gutenberg when works are public domain. For copyright restricted works, I link to only independent bookstores (Powell's and Politics & Prose) and Alibris.com, a consortium of used bookstores. I am not aware of any conflicts with Alibris.
I was fourteen years old -- the age when boys turn into frenzied creatures half monster and half angel -- innocent in deed, perhaps, but not in thought -- the age that Vonnegut described as the most dangerous force on earth -- and I was in Boney's Rexall in Claxton, Georgia. It was 1976. Claxton, Georgia, incidentally, is where those rectangular fruitcakes come from, and they are not a joke. In 1978 I would go to Europe as a "high school ambassador," and every Stuckey's I would see would have the Claxton Fruitcake product. Boney's drug store was on the same block as the bakery, and it had cool toys, and it had spinner racks of comic books and spinner racks of paperback books.
There, I saw
Now, I knew that the band that had the hit with "Born to be Wild" didn't write a book. I knew the book was old (maybe 1940's, I guessed). Later on, I would see Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis and think that the band Aerosmith had punned off it (but there is also Robert Arrowsmith). However, I figured, "The book must be pretty good, if a band named itself in honor of it," and, more importantly, I wanted to see what inspired that cover painting, so I bought it and became a Philosophy major and then an English major and then on to graduate school.
If you have read Herman Hesse's 1928 novel, you will know that it's not exactly a sex, guns, drugs, and sex guns sort of thriller. It isn't even trippy by the standards of the mid-70's. When I finally re-read it as a professional jade (i.e. English professor), I marveled that I had read it as a teenager. Like a few European novels of the 1920's, one has to pay admission in the first one hundred pages by being bored to death. How did I manage it?
Well, when I was fourteen, I was hungry. In fact, as hungry for the lady on the cover as I might have been, I was starving for the anti-middle class perspectives inside the cover. I grew up with the vain and vapid culture of a corporate suburb, where grown men hectored McDonald's counter workers for not having a hot hamburger, because they knew how to run a business, and here was a non-stop criticism of the bourgeoisie. My craving for sophisticated dinner parties with intellectuals (where the cover model might be) and my starvation for any attempt at discussing the instability of the self, which is what adolescence is all about, performed a strange alchemy. They made me wolf down the book and then begin hunting down Hesse's allusions.
Hesse mentioned Nietzsche. Right! Back home in Atlanta, I was off to the book stores to get The Portable Nietzsche. Hesse mentioned Kant. You betcha! Critique of Pure Reason looked pretty good, and the all black cover (can't find an example to show you) was really enticing. Most of all, Hesse goes on and on and on about "Wagner" and Jung. I couldn't find anything, in 1976, by "Wagner," but The Portable Jung was the meat and dessert for all my meals. I was fifteen.
Nietzsche mentioned "Hegel," but I couldn't find a first name by which to look him up in the library at the community college (where they always stared at me). (I felt as if I were being constantly accused of not being intelligent enough to be there.) I couldn't find any books by "Hegel." I also couldn't find any books by "Kierkegaard" -- again, no first names! It was like sneaking into a party uninvited and in disguise. Kant and Nietzsche talked about "Descartes," and so I found Discourse on the Method but was bored by it. I also got but did not finish Pascal's Pensees.
You may or may not believe me, but I actually understood these works.
They honestly aren't that hard to understand. They're hard to read.
However, my frustration at not being allowed at the grown-up's conversation was getting worse, because I went to my teachers in high school asking for what they knew about the authors I was reading and . . . they had never heard of any of them. The exception was the teacher of the Gifted program. She immediately wanted to give me an IQ test. Apparently, my IQ went up 35 points between third and tenth grades!
(There is actually an explanation for that, but it has nothing to do with books that change one's life.)
However, many of us have had the private lust for footnotes. It's alright; we can admit it. Once I was in the Gifted program, the teacher got me reading T.S. Eliot. In her office, she had her old college textbooks, but I didn't know that's what they were. Still less did I know what it meant that her Norton anthology's spine was in good shape. I simply thought that she, like me, venerated books so much that she, like me, would not open them all the way up, lest their feelings got hurt. At the local book shop, I got a thing called The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, edited by Richard Ellmann, and I, um. . . read it. I read it because no one told me not to, just as I read Kant because no one told me I couldn't.
But I had an experience that probably a few of you have had, too. I read "The Waste Land" and had absolutely no idea what it meant. (I still don't know what it means, to tell the truth.) At the end of the poem, though, you can imagine my delight when I saw "Notes." It was a pile of books guaranteed to be "Books Smart People Read." Hooray! Age 16 - 17 was set! I could breathe the air from the wider world, where serious people thought serious things!
How many copies do you reckon Jessie L. Weston sold of From Ritual to Romance? Mythographic anthropology from 1920 discussing the Osiris/Isis myth and the Grail, and it's still in print? If you believe it's due to the virtues of the scholarship, then maybe you'll believe the TEA Party is a grass roots movement. How many people chased down The Golden Bough because of Eliot's "Notes?" How many people besides me went chasing down French Symbolists and Arthur Symonds because of Eliot? Thanks to the "Notes," Jungian views of archeology permeated popular culture for forty years.
How many of you got an education from chasing footnotes? How many found yourselves better off for the frustration of being untutored? How many are not ashamed of formerly saying "jung" with a hard J and "Nits chuh?" How many, like a student I heard giving a senior thesis, said "je-soots" for "Jesuits?" These are badges of honor! Say it wrong, say it loud, and say it proud.
So important is the autodidact, especially to democracy and wealth equality, that hypertext was designed, once upon a time, to link all our footnotes together. It used to allow the lost fourteen year olds and weary textual critics to go from a text to its allusions, then sources in full, and to those works' sources. Once, we were supposed to surf from product to source to cognate. That was before clicks were monetized and sites began trying to keep people inside their .com's, but that lust for footnotes is still there, perhaps in Wikipedia, perhaps in a future project, but it will never die out.
I know you have a tale to tell. Let's share our testimony to the seeds that grow wild, not the gardens. Perhaps you heard about an author's "influences," then learned of new influences, then new ones and had a book turn itself from an entertainment to a key while it was still in your hands, or perhaps you followed a rock band's lyrics or name and fell into a sea of good reading, challenging thinking, and new horizons.