Book learning

Book Learning

Jul 2nd 2012

I was raised to value book learning. Books contained truth, knowledge, facts, the key to success in the world. I also learned from teachers, but I sussed early that what they knew they had learned from books. My father, son of a poor farmer in southwest Arkansas, used his ability to absorb book learning to leave home, to graduate from high school at 16 and from law school at 21. When I was a child my grandparents’ house did not contain many books, but those they did have stood regally behind glass in their one fine piece of furniture. I sat for hours in front of that cabinet, examining those old books, even though the only one I remember is my father’s old college yearbook. College, a magical place where one could gather the power contained in those books.

There were not many books in our house, either. My mother claimed a love of history and geography but did not spend much time reading. She had women’s magazines, but I rarely saw her sitting down to read. I’m trying to envision our bookshelves, but cannot see them. Not in the living room. Not my parents’ bedroom. My father had a wall of books in his study, but they were his law books and mostly uninteresting, except for the collected stories of Mark Twain. We did have a set of World Book Encyclopedia and a copy of the Britannica; we must have kept them downstairs in the family room. I have vague memories of jumping up from the dinner table to retrieve the volume that could resolve questions like “why did the Romans abandon Gaul?” or “What kind of government do they have in India?” We were a family in love with facts. The world could be climbed and conquered through gaining knowledge and knowledge was made up of information and facts. Every January my father went off to buy the latest World Almanac so that we would have access to the most up-to-date and accurate information. And then there were the serious books, which included textbooks, that contained facts, knowledge, truth, and the key to success. And later, academic monographs which carried all these things, too, with bigger and fancier words. I set out to write one of these, the ultimate validation of success in the realm of book learning. And while I did manage to complete a dissertation (no small feat), over the next two years it became clear that I didn’t actually want to write a monograph.

When I was a child I also loved other books—novels and romances that took me to another world, books that made my body tingle, books that were for me alone in my room. I have always read. Books have been my solace and my shield. My parents didn’t pay too much attention to what I was reading, but they valued book learning so much that when I was reading I could get out of almost any chore. I read these other books all through graduate school, through all the stages of my career, even when it seemed like there couldn’t possibly be enough hours in the day. I have always had a book going, or two, or ten.

Now that I am retired the sky’s the limit, it seems. Some days I can read all day if I want to. And sometimes I do. There is no more delicious pleasure than falling into another world–Henry VIII’s England through Bringing Up the Bodies, a California where time is slowing down in Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles, and wartime England through the splendid cheesiness of Penny Vincenzi–only to wake up several hours later forgetting where you are. The books I have read, all of them I think, have had some value even as they have often kept me from more active pursuits. They have provided fodder for art-making, my more recent passion that lives alongside the books, in ways that I cannot put into words. Book learning, indeed, of a completely different sort.