Reading Lists

July 7, 2006

“Your family and friends don’t understand
They treat me so strange
The book you said to read
Well I have read but nothing’s changed ”
–Billy Bragg in “The Only One”

When I was a kid in high school in Arkansas, a few of my teachers gave me copies of various lists that were always titled something like: “Reading List for College-Bound Students.” I would spend time with these lists of fifty or more of the classics, and like everything in my life, I had system for this. I had particular marks for books I had read, for books that I possessed but had not yet read, books that were in our school’s library, books that were not in the library, books in the priority in which I hoped to read them. These lists were very important to me; they seemed like the measure of that *something* that would make me into the person I hoped to be. One of the indicators of the role of these lists for me is that I still have them, dog-eared in a filing cabinet whose sole purpose is to hold my old papers and hold up our printer.

Perhaps they are august professors and intellectuals out there who have completed these lists. I never did–not even close. They sit in my cabinet, though, still giving me a vague feeling of intellectual inadequacy. Graduate school is all about that feeling: knowing without a shadow of a doubt that if I could only read all the books, then I might belong in this club.

Recently I watched the Elia Kazan film version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It’s the story of a poor immigrant family in turn of the century Brooklyn and their struggles to make a living. The little girl protagonist is an audacious and precocious character named Francie. In one scene, we see her attempting to check out some giant tome from the local lending library on some arcane subject. The librarian doubts that she will read, much less understand it. But the pugnacious Francie explains that she is reading all the books in the library, start to finish. This is her way to succeed, to break out of poverty. She and I both were looking for that *something.*

But in another source, Sartre’s Nausea, there is a clownish character called “the Autodidact” who is engaging in the same project. In the novel, he had made it through “F” or so and was fairly ignorant in every other subject not treated by an author with surname beginning with a letter very early in the alphabet. This is more like it. He’s right there in the novel, there I am, and there is Francie. And the existentialist has his laugh at our expense, and maybe we deserve it. I can never tell exactly why I study the things I do, or why I am ignorant of other things. But I do know that I wasn’t wired right early on–I never feel like I’m adequately well-read. I frequently feel a little like a poser, like an autodidact at a party of people born with secret knowledge.

Now, as a college instructor, I’m in the position to tell students which books belong on the lists. Hopefully they will not discover my old high school reading lists with their many unread books. And hopefully I will not ever make these students feel inadequate, unwelcome, or existentially unable to be like me.

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