Wednesday, August 29, 2012
August 29, 2012: Books That Shaped American Studier, High School
[The Library of Congress is currently hosting a pretty cool exhibition called Books That Shaped America. Many of its featured books are ones I (or Guest Posters) have written about in this space, and the topic as a whole is of course central to much of what I do here. But this week I wanted to blog about a parallel but more intimate topic—a handful of the many books that have shaped this American Studier. Please share your responses and/or your own such books for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On one of the books that greatly expanded my sense of what literature can be and do.
It’s not at the top of the list of the reasons why Mr. Heartwell was my favorite and most influential English teacher, but it sure didn’t hurt: he had a large and full bookshelf at the corner of his room from which students were welcome to pick out and borrow any books they wanted. Both of my parents had bookshelves like that too—I’m pretty sure I first encountered David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident (1981), also in high school, by pulling it off of a shelf of my Mom’s—but there’s something about a totally unexplored shelf, you know? A whole new frontier, waiting for this budding literary pioneer to follow his own Oregon Trail and find untapped rivers of gold from which to—okay, shelving the metaphor. In any case, it was a great resource, and one of the books I pulled from that shelf that made a significant impression was Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America (1967).
By this time I had encountered plenty of stylistically innovative and experimental authors and works, but there was still something about Brautigan’s book that, to quote Emily Dickinson’s definition of poetry, made me “feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off.” To be honest, I had no idea what I was getting into and not much more of an idea what to make of it once I did—per the above link, one of Brautigan’s rejections from a publisher remarked with confusion that “I gather from the reports that it was not about trout fishing,” and I know how he or she felt—but I know that there was something compelling, irresistible even, about that state of reading. As with many experimental texts, it’s difficult to describe adequately or sufficiently the book’s style and voice; but this short sample chapter, “A Walden Pond for Winos,” is a good place to start. The mix of realism and poetry (or at least a poetic sentiment); the dark humor and yet shared humanity; the balance of the narrator’s individual voice and a more communal set of experiences and identities; the fact that the chapter has precious little to do with trout fishing, or even with those that come before and after it, demanding that we create a sense of structure ourselves since he’s damend if he’s going to do it for us—all key elements to Brautigan’s style and novel.
I don’t want to misrepresent my relationship to Brautigan’s novel—I haven’t touched it since that high school reading, and have thought more about it in the time I’ve been writing this post than I had in most of those intervening years—but the fact remains that when I was brainstorming which high school-era book to highlight, it was the first one that came to mind. And the reason, again, is quite simple but very significant: it wasn’t like anything else I had read. I was a pretty well-read kid, across many different genres and eras and traditions—but I was still a high school kid, and as such had that delightful teenage combination of ignorance and yet a certainty that I knew what was what. Brautigan’s was one of the books that reminded me how much I had yet to experience and learn, how much more than was in heaven and earth than I had dreamt of in my philosophy (we read Hamlet that year too). A pretty valuable lesson, and one that has helped carry me forward into can American Studier’s life of continual learning and growth.
Next shaping book tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts? Books that shaped you? I’d love to hear ‘em, for lots of reasons including the weekend’s post!