How I Learned to Read

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:52

    To some extent, I may have been right. Of course I was wrong in thinking that nobody enjoys reading. But I can't help but wonder if the reason I don't have a good job is not, at least in part, because I failed to stick to what I learned in high school. Lots of graduates of my high school who do have good jobs tell me that, although they went to Harvard or Yale or Princeton, they never had a better teacher than Mr. X, from our highly regarded high school.

    Well I did have a better teacher than Mr. X; it was Ilja Wachs. I did not find Ilja at Harvard or Yale or Princeton, and I would guess that teachers like him are not to be found at those places. Professors at large universities are too busy with their articles and books that few people, and fewer sensible ones, will read. This is old news, I know, but then why does everyone continue beating down the door to get into Yale? Not to say that I am any different. If I were 17 again and had the chance to go to Yale, I would probably take it, even if I knew that Ilja was waiting for me at Sarah Lawrence. Why? Because I never learn, that's why.

    I was ashamed to be at Sarah Lawrence. I thought it was a school for artsy flakes. (In many ways it is, or at least it was when I was there, but then the Ivies are worse: schools for vapid preprofessionals.) Anyway, concerned about flakiness, I did some research, found the strictest, most conservative professor I could, and made him my adviser. He sent me to Ilja, telling me to try to talk my way into his advanced class.

    I looked at Ilja's credentials in the course catalog. Though he had been dean of the College, he had not earned a PhD. Not knowing enough at the time to see this as a very promising sign, I was simply puzzled by it. I then moved on to the descriptions of his two courses, which were vague and nearly identical. There were no grandiose expositions on the postcolonial "subject," no phrases like, "the crucial question set forth by Descartes in his Meditationes de prima philosophia, and that novelists, structural anthropologists such as Levi-Strauss and rap artists like Snoop Doggy Dogg (particularly in his recent Doggystyle) have been trying to address?," just something like: "We will read one or more works by a variety of writers, possibly including some of the following: the Brontes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Kafka, Austen, Faulkner." That course, which I assumed would be for befuddled mascara-abusers and noisy gum-chewers, was called Introduction to Literature. I don't remember what the other was called?maybe The Novel.

    I went to meet Ilja, not merely to talk my way into his advanced class, but because Sarah Lawrence students are required to meet with professors before signing up for their courses. Since I had received an "A" for a paper I'd written on The Trial by eloquently reproducing the teacher's lecture, I considered myself an expert on that novel. I asked Ilja if we would be reading it in his class.

    "We might," he said.

    "I ask because I read it already for a course in high school."

    "It might be useful to read it again," he said.

    I asked a few other questions, about what other books we'd read and how many papers we would write, and then I prepared to leave.

    "We haven't talked about literature." Ilja said. "Why do you like to read literature?"

    Well-schooled young man that I was, I came up with a kind of answer, but the truth is that the question baffled me. When I left Ilja's office and the bafflement wore off, I became angry. Here I was trying to play the game of pretending to like literature, and Ilja seemed to suggest that it wasn't a game at all, but that there really was something to enjoy. Clearly this guy was full of it?right? I signed up for Introduction to Literature (to my humiliation, it was the only option Ilja gave me) just to be sure.

    The class lasted, as most Sarah Lawrence classes do, for an entire year, and throughout the year I maintained more or less the same attitude that I had after our first interview. Ilja tried again and again to prove that reading a novel?about 19th-century British women looking for husbands, about the obscure preoccupations of a young French clergyman, about a selfish French farm girl who apparently dies as a result of buying too many clothes, even that corny Huck Finn story?could actually be enjoyable, and was some kind of fancyable, and I just crossed my arms and refused to believe him.

    But while I sat there with my arms crossed, I watched him closely. Every English class I'd had prior to that one, and every one I was to have from then on (until, for a brief time, I made the mistake of becoming a graduate student) proceeded more or less the same way. The teacher had notes, and he had a few points that he wanted to make; in spite of any aspirations he might have to hold a "discussion," he was going to make them. Ilja had no notes, and he always began the class the way a psychoanalyst begins a session: "Well?" he'd say, and then he'd wait.

    We rarely had much to say, and Ilja often wound up doing most of the talking, but he had no notes. We would talk until someone said something that was somehow vaguely related to whatever we were reading, and Ilja's face would either light up and he'd say, "Yes, yes, exactly, look at this," and he'd make us turn to some page while he began reading, or he'd frown and say, "No, that's not right. Don't you remember the scene where?" and then he'd begin reading from some other page. Inevitably, I would not recognize the passage that Ilja chose to read, but I would insist that it wasn't important and, if necessary, burrow my way through obscure tunnels of logic to prove my point.

    Sometimes, though, I had to wonder if I was reading at all. How had I managed not to notice, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, that there was a town where people set dogs on fire? When I was forced to reread The Trial, on which I claimed to be such an expert, I couldn't believe how much I had missed. But even after a second reading, I had barely scratched the surface. Sure, I had been impressed by "The Whipper," the chapter in which Joseph K. wanders into a spare room in the bank where he works and finds a couple men being whipped, but maybe not impressed enough.

    "Look at what's in this room!" Ilja exclaimed. "Overturned ink bottles! Whenever you see anything about writing in a work of fiction, pay attention!"

    Ilja made up the reading list as we went along, sometimes in consultation with us. Whatever he chose, he had probably read 20 times, but he never came to class without reading it for the 21st. If the Knicks were on a West Coast swing, he'd just go without sleep, that's all. Once he tricked some of us into admitting we hadn't done the reading, and then threw us out.

    He had terrible posture, and his cigarette-burned sweaters had a way of bunching up around his waist so you could see his underwear. The tuft of white hair at the top of his head was always flying off in different directions, as if picking up signals from a strange planet that was some combination of 19th-century Russia and 1970s Manhattan. Often, while a student was talking, he would creep around the room until he found a fellow smoker, whisper, "Can I mooch a cigarette?" Then, if the student who was talking had paused, he'd shout, "I'm listening!"

    Self-indulgent? Probably. But he was listening, and every day he was on campus, he spent the entire time in his office with his students?gossiping, advising, consoling, prodding and laughing his asthmatic elephant laugh.

    "You're idealizing me," was something he said often?to me, and undoubtedly to other students as well. There is no question that I did come to idealize him, and his warning only made things worse. But if I hadn't idealized him, I doubt I would now wonder, whenever I claim to be bored by a novel, whether it bores me or (to borrow from Lionel Trilling) I bore it. Such wondering has made me a more careful reader, and a less boring person. I'm probably still quite boring, but who says you're so great?