Thursday, April 30, 2009

Peering into the Dark

I feel a bit like what an early astronomer might have felt. I am searching the metaphorical skies to try and determine where I--my writing--fits into the 'Gutenberg Galaxy'. Alas, that Galaxy is so vast and my size so small that it makes me realize that any determination is no more than a guess, and a poorly educated one at that.

Odd to think, I guess, that I am poorly educated and basically illiterate, even after two degrees and much reading. A close look in the mirror confirms the fact that the combination of the American educational system and my own inherent laziness have yielded a curiously false appearance of literacy.

For example, when contemplating the number of books that I have read versus the number I actually possess, it is clear that I am not very well read at all, relying instead on books to retain the information that I can't or don't want to keep in my head. And, though I have read a few famous works of fiction, thanks to college literature classes, that number is small indeed when compared with real readers.

Furthermore, when comparing the number and diversity of books I have read with those people in my life that I have known well, like Lynda, Stephen, Lynda's good friend Len Radoff and my old college professor, mentor and friend Francesca Weinmann, it is even more obvious just how poorly read I am. Yet, somehow, by comparison with those people who are not part of the book culture, I would actually be considered literate!

How funny is that?

I guess that if 'literacy' were a class, and the professor was grading on a curve, I could, just maybe, get an A. That illusion might satisfy some parents--not mine--and most students, but even (especially?) C students like me know just where we stand compared with the folks who got a 'real' A. I know that the difference between me and the truly literate looks very small to those who are even less well-read than I am. However, by any measure, the gap between someone like Lynda or Len and me is actually huge and consequently, very significant to my effort to be a writer.

That I would be struggling to figure out where I fit as a writer speaks of an absence of vision for my 'work' and reveals my dilettantism. The irony of this fact that must have been acute for Lynda, considering that though she raised me to be a part of the book culture that was her perceived heritage and gave me thus an opportunity to get a good education, that chance was squandered. How did this happen?

Lynda, could we ask her, might have blamed TV. I would accept this (escape from) judgment readily, but for the fact that others who also watched the 'boob tube' as she called it were not similarly affected. My brother David, for example, managed to watch (still does) his fair share of TV without abandoning books the way I did. I wonder how it might have been if we two had been in reverse order. How might David have thrived and grown being raised in a bookstore the way I was? I was literally raised in the Abilene Bookstore, crawling around on dirty gray carpet in the aisle, pulling out and up on books from the bottom shelf. Book boxes and piles of books were everywhere. Both my parents read to me daily and conversations at dinner were invariably about one book or another.

Ironically there was even a brief intersection between the worlds of TV and books in the early days in Abilene. As a small boy of six or seven I accompanied my parents to the local TV studio where they had a small 'About Books' segment that aired live once or twice a month. I can recall seeing them on the black and white monitor in a room somewhere off set. To keep me quiet the studio techs gave me ice cream in a small paper cup with a wooden spoon. This was in the days before we actually owned a television set, so my experience with medium went no further than seeing those grainy black-and-white images while downing a couple spoonfuls of vanilla ice cream at that point. My parents were just forward thinking enough to believe that television could be used to extend literacy.

Perhaps Bill and Lynda were just too forward thinking, or just naive, embracing the new technology in its most innocent day, fully believing it could be harnessed to advance the cause of literacy. In fact, it was just the reverse. It is just now, after a long, often toxic formative period, that we have some television programming that even Lynda might think worth watching.

Now, while it isn't at all clear to me that television has been entirely deleterious to my literacy and hence, my writing, it is fair to say that the rise of electronic culture--for which TV is both the earliest and still best spokesman--is the primary reason for my inability to follow in the footsteps of truly literate individuals like Lynda.

This isn't a bad thing. I'm just saying it is just the way it is. Life and culture are in constant flux. So what if I'll die before know just where my star will sit in the firmament? That won't keep me from scanning the sky every night looking for a place to put it.

3 comments:

d2 said...

Shit, Phillip, you make me sound like some kind of idiot savant! (Sorry if that's a politically incorrect term...)

I read far less than I should and not the "right" books, either. Lynda would be sorely disappointed in my choices, especially never having read such classics as "War and Peace" or "Moby Dick" - you know, thick books that mean something.

My tastes always ran to sci-fi or adventure stories, even back during those heady days of the summer reading list of which you so eloquently write elsewhere. I think my choices then and later dismayed Lynda just a teensy bit...

Greyghost said...

I certainly laughed out loud when I read this (see the post on laughter)! Thanks!

I should have just left you out of this bit of useless self-flagellation, sorry.

But since you've elected to join me, not to worry--as she would say--only Len 'outread' any of us. It is our fate. ;^)

As you your quite politically correct self-characterization, let me say only that hile you may indeed have been a savant, I certainly preferred treat you like an idiot more than once (the dent in the ladle will attest to this) I confess I had no such image, though it is now appealing more and more because it still makes me laugh!

Mention of you here was by way of --an obviously weak--comparison; part of my recollection that you were always at least reading something, while for many years I read absolutely nothing.

I always figured I could get 'caught up' like in my high school lit class. Some things, alas, never change.

d2 said...

Oh, believe me, I've tried to 'catch up' - more out of a nagging sense of obligation to that little voice in my head that sound remarkably like Lynda than to any feeling of necessity.

Never worked out, though. "Vanity Fair"? No. "Walden"? Nope. "Scarlet Letter"? Uh-uh. "History of the Third Reich"? Only the grisly bits. Bashevis-Singer? Um, not really. "Confederacy of Dunces"? Check - oh, no, wait a minute... You're kidding, right?

I'm sure, however, that you are much more well-read on art than I will ever hope to be. Mom always frowned at me for liking the representational stuff, for not having any idea of the long, bright line between L'Escaux and Picasso, and, well, just not appreciating the moderns.

Our one point of agreement? Mutual dislike of de Kooning.