December 28, 2004

Fictional Tuesday

John Spoerl's favorite part of books – the part he went to like gamblers go for the sports pages – was “About the Type”. He read the reviews rapturously, marveling at the ubiquitous excellence. There was apparently never a bad type, never a font that wasn’t readable or agreeably aged or without a euphonious name. Just once he longed to read: “The type is 'Sandusky', developed in 1953 in Lansing, Michigan. While plain and not pleasant to read, it tries harder due to its mediocrity.”

It was the early 80s, before the Internet made clipping newspaper articles superfluous and replaceable by Google. He clipped articles from the dozens of papers he subscribed to, collecting them like S&H Green Stamps. There was a comfort knowing they were there, even as they yellowed worrisomely. On sick or rainy days he’d haul them from the closet and spread them out before him, catching up on a prior self who’d found such things interesting.

He liked the sophisticated even when he didn’t understand what they were saying, like a child trying on his father’s woolens. Coleridge was a poet whose very name was poetic by virtue of being referred to by writers who talked of summers immersed in books at Cambridge or Oxford, where the ancient buildings and expansive lawns caused deep thoughts to spontaneously combust. There was glamour, there in olde England, there in the summer lit programs. The most memorable of the clippings described a young lady’s account of meeting a young man at an Oxford series covering English literature. She was deep into George Eliot’s Middlemarch while he was a Bardophile. It was a Reese Cups tryst: he got chocolate (Shakespeare) in her peanut butter (Eliot). [insert groan here]

The strangest thing was to find the glamour more attractive than the actual. He’d rather read someone quoting Shakespeare or Coleridge than actually sit down and read Shakespeare or Coleridge. Or he’d rather hear Bloom or Bellow or Borges talk about The Larger Picture and explain what the writing of Shakespeare or Coleridge told us about their philosophy. It was the Great Books transmorphed into glorifed self-help books, as Botton eventually did with “How Proust Can Change Your Life”.

But it wasn’t all about self-help. He was oddly relieved by crypticisms, by blanks, by unfamiliar foreign languages, by 17th-century maps with territories still marked “Unknown”. The glamourous spoke a language he scarcely understood. William F. Buckley spoke the English tongue sprinkled with territories marked “Unknown”. The New York Times assumed a familiarity with literary classics he’d never heard of let alone read but eventually he'd casually drop in references. In his valedictorian speech he fatally rhymed elite with "alight". He was ridiculed by those who knew how to pronounce elite words as well as by those who'd actually read Trollope. The necessary mortification had the unfortunate side effect of a burgeoning professionalism, a new vision of literature without the magic. No longer would he refer to anything that wasn't completely familiar. Literature had to be completely comprehensible, every line in Shakespeare decoded by Dr. Johnson or Rexroth or Bloom. Enthusiasm was amateurish, for professionals saw nothing miraculous in text or fonts...

No comments: