Monday, May 3, 2010


Annotated BookshelfImage by jonathanpberger via Flickr
I keep books. No, I hoard books; especially any book that has ever meant anything to me, and books I know I should read but haven’t gotten around to yet. This is a relatively recent habit; I don’t have many books that I read in grade school or high school, except two or three. For example, I have the copy of Walden that I bought for a high school English course. It shows its age, the pages are brown and getting brittle, kind of like me. I can still see all the markings and underlines I made back then. Some of them provide no clue as to what I thought so important, others call out phrases that still resonate. Most of the markings were in pencil, but some were in red pencil, the high-lighter of the day.

Thinking back, I may not have read Walden for a formal class but for a program established by the Detroit Public Schools called English D.E.E.P. I no longer remember for sure what D.E.E.P. stood for (my guess is Detroit Educational Enrichment Program; that’s only a guess), but I remember what it did very well. It was a voluntary and actually quite simple in concept. All students in the program had to do was read for a full class period. You could read anything from Plato to comic books, but you had to commit to read for the full 45 or 50 minutes of the class, quietly. The program had a class room, two actually, that were divided by a folding partition, and the partition was kept open. There was a small, quite varied, library permanently assigned there and you could choose to read from those books or bring your own, it didn’t matter. I think I brought Walden as one of my books to read.

At the time I signed up for the program, I already considered myself a reader and the only reason I wanted to participate was to have a free hour to do nothing and still get some credit toward graduation. The reality was, I loved that class, looked forward to it, and spent the time doing some serious reading. I think that was true for many others who took part. It was a great idea, simple in concept, and I’m sure there’s nothing like it today. One problem of our age is that we scorn the simple in favor of high falutin’ ideas concocted by “professionals,” we fall for theories and scorn practice. I think, along with St. Benedict, simple is usually better.

Oscar WilliamsImage via WikipediaThere are a couple of other books from my childhood still in my library. One is, I think, my favorite book of all time – A Little Treasury of Great Poetry, The Best Poems of Seven Centuries, edited by Oscar Williams. It’s a little book, as you might expect, only about 4 inches wide, 6 inches high, maybe an inch and a half thick. It has my return address label still glued to the inside fly leaf and a little green sticker inside the back cover, about 1 inch by a half inch – HUDSON’S Bookshop – D E T R O I T. The dust jacket is torn, near falling apart but for some scotch tape, but otherwise the book is in near new condition, more that 50 years after I bought it. I can still turn to my favorite poem is the book:

                       A WONDERFUL bird is the pelican,
                       His mouth can hold more than his belican,
                                    He can take in his beak
                                    Enough food for a week –
                       I’m damned if I know how the helican.

Very funny to a 10 year old.

There is another poem that I memorized large parts of in there too. I used to recite it often although I’m sure it is no longer included in many anthologies of poetry and is not well known today. It was The Congo by Vachel Lindsey:

                      Fat black bucks in a wine barrel room,
                      Barrel-house kings with feet unstable,
                      Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table,
                      Pounded on the table,
                      Beat an empty barrel with that handle of a broom,
                      Hard as they were able
                      Boom, boom, BOOM,
                      With a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom,
                      Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.

And so on. Is that great poetry? I don’t know, it sure impressed me with its vivid imagery, highlighted by almost excessive alliteration; it must have impressed Oscar Williams too. But that was back in the fifties.

There is one other book I still have from childhood, a Bible, Revised Standard Version. It was given me by my aunt and uncle when I was baptized at the age of seven. It was in April of that year and I remember it well, also receiving the gift and being delighted with it. The Bible has no notes, but a fairly good set of cross references and the difficult words have pronunciation marks. It’s an old-fashioned Bible meant for reading. I guess another example of simple being better. It’s near falling apart now, I read it haphazardly but fairly regularly until maybe my sophomore year of high school, and I think I took it with me when I left for the Air Force. It’s had good use. 

Is there a point to all this? Each of these three books brings back memories to me every time I pick them up. Until just a day or so ago, I hadn’t thought about the English D.E.E.P. program in years, maybe since high school, but suddenly the memory of it rushed back to me, just by looking at that old copy of Walden. There was almost a sacramental power in the book, their physical presence after all these years still invokes meaning. Also, surprise.  The biggest surprise is the reminder that I am capable of growth but also of constancy. There is part of me that, through the experiences of life, has learned to look at things differently, but that recognizes things that cannot change, that do not change. I’m much more aware that I have that in me; before seeing Walden again, before seeing a bit of myself as a struggling, learning teenager, I would not have said I was capable of such things.

Before re-reading The Congo, a poem I appreciated for the sound of it, not thinking much about the message it contained, I wouldn’t have seen the way I’ve learned to look at things from more than one side and to try to see if things that seem innocent might not be so.

All this was a surprise. The surprise is learning to recognize such things, learning something about myself that I didn’t know before. The monastic fathers thought such things important, I didn’t know it could still happen to me.
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