Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Category: personal (page 1 of 27)

On Having Too Many Books

The yelling echoed throughout my skull. I’ve bought too many books. I won’t read them, they’ll lie around collecting dust. I’ve wasted money and space, as well as abused my health.

No one was there, but the three books were bought from Half Price with that nagging guilt. They could join a pile lying around in my apartment unread. Volumes of poetry, academic essays, a few art history studies with “plates” (I know. It sounds fancy!), graphic novels, excerpts from an older critic’s diary. Not to mention the virtual pile on my hard drive. Quite a lot on there. Heck, Stumbleupon got me in the habit of bookmarking everything. How many essays and articles have I left unread, or read once with the stated intent of scouring again?

It is tempting to imagine a simpler mode of learning. Milton may very well have read all the books at the library in 17th century England. Plato frequently brings up parts of Homer and Herodotus. Did he only know a few books well, and make the most out of those? If so, could the nice people on reddit be justified in thinking they can find deep philosophical insight by thinking really hard while reading next to nothing?

It’s difficult to know what thinking well is. It certainly isn’t owning lots of books one hasn’t read. But it does entail a comprehensiveness that is like owning a lot of books. It’s a familiarity with a range of experiences, theories, opinions. It’s an ability to navigate the human things.

It struck me earlier how badly we’ve failed those who want knowledge to translate into a better experience for themselves and others. They think they espouse a certain maturity as they enforce rules, conforming and demanding conformity to certain standards. Our young intellectuals are the most pressing problem. For years now I’ve watched talented university students be the worst offenders in promulgating and abusing unwritten rules for the sake of keeping others out. I thought they were the exception, as a lot of things happen that are far from acceptable in small, cloistered circles, tucked away from scrutiny or reality. Now I’m thinking this is more than likely happening at every school across America, public or private, large or small, religious or secular. The issue is how we relate to rules generally. The response of our most talented is to worship them, because knowledge directly applied to one’s everyday life creates the markers of status that set one apart. The vicious cliques we bemoan in grade school and high school are ignorant, but not in the way we think. They’re nerds too, just nerds about other things. In their own way, they’re in love with school.

They want knowledge to be effective, to be practical. All of us want this, and it might be the worst of all temptations, precisely because knowledge has to be effective and practical at some point. Knowledge, or whatever part of it we have, turns into rules, into laws. In a similar vein, one might say justice is relative; the worst injustices come from those who have some part of the truth and a disproportionate, unrelenting need to believe in that part.

We don’t know everything. A corollary of this is that we’re always learning what it means to be moral. There are lots of books that promise knowledge, but I can’t really say I collect those. Mostly, I’m searching for the books that remind me of what I don’t know. The ones that demonstrate the pain of ignorance, as well as the honesty, the experience, of finding an answer that matters.

In Memoriam T. S.

The boy I remember had the most natural of graces. His heart was large, his spirit continually active. If he was crude, forceful, or even a bit of a bully, it was because of the neighborhood kids and their broken views. He befriended them, sworn to help friends and harm enemies. He always meant well. I always enjoyed meeting him.

He had tremendous potential. He was brighter than I was, a quick study with evolved street smarts. He was sharp at games. I don’t know how good his Greek was or whether classes at the Orthodox church did much for him. I’m sure he picked up on quite a bit. He was a hard worker when younger, and when I stopped seeing him around, when I was at my high school and he was at his, I heard he was a very talented singer in choir. I know he was a hit with the ladies.

I am more understanding than ever before of the trap addiction and denial is. I know the strongest, smartest people banding together, wanting to change, struggle to defeat those demons. I know some of the people around him, while they made tremendous sacrifices, were doomed to fail in helping him fight his. There was the time a large butterfly landed on the back of his shirt and stayed there. It was beautiful and majestic in its ignorance. My dad tried to gently get it off, but it refused to budge. A friend of his fixed the issue by pushing it off with a broom and smashing it.

The only blame I assign in this situation is not to friends of his, but friends of mine. One in particular advised others to mind their own business when the situation screamed for anything else. It’s easy to drown others’ cries in what you assume knowledge, prudence, even morality. It’s a lot harder to admit that your selfishness and fear can make you hysterical, dangerous, and counterproductive.

I suspect that critique can extend to others he knew. In a way, there is only blame because the loss is so unnecessary, so damaging to all of us. I’ll never forget the time he begged me to be at his birthday party. He saw something in me and was happy to be with me. In those days, I was just awkward, talentless, spoiled and shallow. (I know – not much has changed.) I didn’t know anything except the paranoia of those older and my own greed. His friends, for all their faults, were much more gregarious, generous, assured. I had a blast with him, as I felt believed in.

In another country, 5/17/14

Dear Laura:

There’s a lot to do. I have to find a place to live, continue job hunting, finish dissertation revisions. And I need to publish something beautiful and thoughtful and otherworldly so I can go back to struggling to read carefully again without any damn pressure.

But I haven’t talked to you in a while, and I think with spotty Internet, I had better write a letter. And I want that letter to be something you want to revisit, so I’d better make it public and force myself to be interesting.

You’re in Morocco and having a blast in some ways (food! people! different culture! eager students! exploration!) and not in others (food you’re not used to! people who don’t speak your language! illness! homesickness!).

This is not your experience, not even close, but I’d better share it anyway. My first few months of university I had all sorts of trouble eating and as a result trouble staying healthy. I wasn’t complaining, but I felt left out. I had no friends, nor anyone interested in the things I liked. I put on a smiley face and pretended to like everything put my way, even though I didn’t want to be where I was. I hated the food but made myself eat it, thinking I was making myself better for doing so. Of course, I wavered between angry and obnoxious when not full of self-pity.

Again, this is not your experience. You’re a grown woman who could lead an army if asked. You’re doing amazing things for your students and you’re taking a rich culture in at your own pace. I had the maturity of a stupid teenager (I know, I know: nothing’s changed) where I reacted to disappointment with all the tact of an elephant in traffic.

I do think I can share this. In retrospect, I realize now how much I was trying to make others’ expectations and standards my own. Stupid kids don’t always come from nowhere. Sometimes, they’re carefully crafted out of a lot of idiocy that isn’t theirs.

The worst part about those failed expectations and standards was that I could have made so much more of where I was. If I had to go back in time, I’d go everywhere except class and keep looking for friends unceasingly. There’s no way I would sit around musing about how miserable things are. Back then, I made the physical reaction I was having so much worse through my attitude.

So if some part of being in Morocco feels forced, like you’re trying to please someone else or fulfill an artificial standard, I can safely say that I hope you find what feels best for you. I can safely say to not stop exploring. You will find more that you treasure if you keep looking. I stopped looking back when I was surlier because I wanted to wallow in self-pity or pretend I was doing everything but wallowing in self-pity.

That’s all I’ve got for now. I thought I had something smart to say about an impression I had of a few poems, but I lost that thought.


The things that must be said…

…can’t be said. Or they are already said, but we don’t notice. We never notice. The only way to inform someone is to treat them like an idiot. They don’t think. They never think. Only you think. When someone curses out of frustration, let them know they took God’s name in vain. Ignore the blood oozing from the place their arm was. Make sure they hear what you know, what they might know if you say it over and over again.

Don’t forget, you could be wrong. It could be that no one knows anything because the things that must be said are difficult. You don’t just have to know them. You have to convey them. To persuade someone means to know them and make an appeal to them in particular. You don’t really have time for this, but you could make time. If only you had friends. For some reason, you never have friends.

There are no things that have to be said. No necessity asserts itself that you have to say anything. All you have to do is lead. Get out there, show what you’ve got. Lead by example. You’re fixing a car and someone asks you how to do what you do. You mumble “whatever you do will be good.” They go and pump diesel into an engine that takes regular unleaded.

Maybe the things that must be said can’t always be said by you.

Maybe you have to listen to them first.

Back and forth the last few weeks

It hangs by a thread. At first nervousness, followed by exhilaration. Maybe this is a moment to shine; maybe preparation is for the precarious. Not much later, a thud of failure. That thread swings, if it hasn’t broken.

Being abandoned pushes one to justify oneself too soon.

There should be a plan, otherwise one is a rat in a maze. Still, one continues by struggling with the maze. The immediate, what can be had, matters most. Everything else wouldn’t be there even if one trusted. Identifying an injustice is wallowing in self-pity, no? Rationality means hard truths, right?

To rediscover the trust of others is necessary, but it is nothing close to a rational process. As weird as it sounds, you have to feel sorry for yourself in order to not deny you’re feeling sorry for yourself. People are still driving me crazy nowadays, but instead of blaming myself or my circumstances, I can safely say I’ve been taken for granted, and what I have to offer will show itself soon, if it hasn’t already.

Reflections on Close Reading

for Laura Garofalo. With thanks to Ricky McAlister & Nathaniel Cochran

1. blah blah blah close reading will change your life you’ll get a real education you’ll think independently you’ll feel like the past is with you always you’ll be stronger and smarter and you’ll know god and morality better as well as the limits of science blah blah blah BLAH BLAH

The humanities are all but dead in our world. This all of us know, as they can never be dead enough. They’re a convenient scapegoat for calling others impractical and deflecting the words “greedy,” “asshole,” or “unimaginative tool,” words that normally stick to the guy saying we throw too much money as a society into the liberal arts. Just point at someone who majored in English and everyone can have a good laugh, as they can’t even get that job at McDonald’s nowadays. Apparently the ultimate sign of our decadence isn’t the money we waste on phones or cars, but time spent reading poetry.

It’s easy to see that something else exists beyond making money, getting the trains to run on time, advancing technology. The problem is creating a positive case for the humanities without talking about that “something else” as the sum total of the universe or human freedom or divine perfection. I know what I like about close reading; Nathaniel, via Nietzsche, really hits the mark for me. His brief comment talks about the back and forth of wondering why any words were written at all. For me, this translates into taking books one line at a time, stopping, talking, talking through each one.

Still, Ricky didn’t hesitate to mention books that mattered to him centering on important themes, whether they portray a world completely throwing books away, or consider what freedom and dignity mean in a world which relishes making people slaves. No one would read if they didn’t get anything out of it, and focusing too much on close reading itself forgets that we tend to be selective about what we read.

I guess what I’m learning through close reading is how to convey the import of things, how to take seriously things I wouldn’t normally think through and communicate them to others. No wonder so much moralizing accompanies careful readers. Even if the humanities weren’t under assault, it’s impossible not to treat a discovery in a book as a revelation. At the very least, you’re stumbling upon someone’s concern; simply by being a discovery it becomes central to you. Shouldn’t it be shared, proclaimed to the world?

I think so, but I also think that points less to the humanities as transformative and more to them as necessary. They are foundational. They’re about how and that we talk to each other. To take one not-so-trivial example: if we can’t engage the past seriously, we will more than likely use some romantic notion of it or rejection of it to hurt others. While the humanities can certainly be about the trivial and encourage a lack of productivity, they have more to do with this “freedom” and “morality” thing than most people today assume. Typically, the ones telling us that reading or formal schooling are wastes of time have a very specific and very mindless agenda.

2. I need to say something about close reading itself. I was asked. This was not prompted by books with titles like “How to Read like a Professor.” No, I’ve been making my notes public for 7-8 years now as I read. Some people actually care and are wondering how this works or doesn’t work.

For myself, it has taken years to learn how to read, and there is this strike against the state of the humanities nowadays. When I miss a detail, it feels like I don’t know how to read at all. Same goes for writing badly. How could I possibly write a bad sentence, given that I work on my writing all the time?

The humanities, as they stand, are far too small, far too exclusive. This is not to excuse my failures, which are legion and well documented in a number of incomprehensible posts on this blog. It is to say that the whole point of the humanities is that we should be working together to make sure more opinions are more thoughtfully expressed, read, and promoted. Instead, the whole culture has become a snobfest, a way for some professors to play pundit and shirk the real duty of educating the body politic. To do their real duty would involve making mistakes publicly and taking the risks that accompany having an important part of the truth and believing one’s profession worthwhile. The ultimate risk seems to be admitting one is wrong and someone else is better. It’s very rare I see people graciously recommend others.

With that in mind, I propose two simple rules for those who want to close read. They are:

  1. “Why is this being said?”
  2. It is far more important and valuable to come up with a serious question or insight about a part of a work than have the whole figured out.

All of you will recognize that 1 is the sum total of close reading. Regarding literature, one posits an internal speaker and internal audience for a given work in order to treat it as a self-contained world. In other words: all the fancy attempts at using a method to read are about finding intention and relevance from another point of view. We are working to be informed, and trying not imposing our assumptions.

2 is much more controversial. Leo Strauss has been an invaluable guide for me, showing me how to think carefully about texts. Strauss is always attentive to the whole, and I always work to get an interpretation that takes it seriously. And I do think good readers will show some respect for the whole no matter what.

But one of the reasons why the humanities is in crisis is that its exclusivity demands too much from thoughtful, serious people who have better things to do than close read thousand page books all the time. A lot of people who don’t really know as much as they should read too much, too fast. Or they close read to absurd degrees, not bothering to ask whether they have good questions or not, or whether one insight may have more weight than another.

I want more people to dare to be wrong. We’ve got too many right answers: everyone knows everything. The best way to get people to be wrong in the right way is to get them talking about what speaks to them, to let themselves find a path where they can discover why the whole text ultimately matters.

I’m putting my money where my mouth is. You’ll notice that my approach to poems is more personal than it has been previously, focusing on the dramatic action of a given poem and considering various ways in which a thing could be said. I want stanzas and lines to sing; I want people to feel the relevance of certain questions or ideas. My gamble is that the twists and turns those questions and ideas take later in the poem are twists and turns others will want to follow. It’s a gamble I know is worth taking. For a while, I thought I was talking to myself.


I need to toughen myself against criticism and at the same time be more flexible.

It’s a ridiculous demand, but it can be accomplished by realizing that a number of people only know to pull others down. I think what’s hitting like a truck is knowing that some of those people are taking from me personally and still looking to put me down. That there are people who really believe that other people are meant to be suckers or deserve to be bullied.

It’s enough to make you not trust anyone. It does have the benefit of making one less comfortable, more focused on what has to be done. It can make me stronger. But you know what? I liked being happy – and maybe a bit ignorant – before.


You want things reported to you, so you make it as painful as possible for the messenger.

Good job, world. Really good job. Doing what is right is thankless. Part of me is grateful for that, ironically enough.


The sun beats down upon the ground and every step in the thick air feels forced. These days there are many musings. Sometimes a stray cloud looks out of place against a steeled blue.

Was thinking of that warmth she had, displayed in otherwise routine moments. How she brightened when others talked, encouraging them to say more and be received. How she talked to me like I wasn’t a stranger. Suffice to say I wasn’t mature enough to see what was in front of me.

There are a few others like her I’ve known. One was gone before I could even blink, another is in a delicate situation, yet another has obligations which take precedence over any time I could spend with her. I’ve been beating myself up recently over not appreciating her enough when I was younger. Wondering if I’m doing enough for them, for others.

I somehow suspect I’m not doing enough to keep up with everyone, that I’m taking a certain kind of loveliness for granted. What made her stand out, I believe now, was how the world seemed familial to her. Not a possession, not a place she had to prove herself, but an opportunity to show appreciation to others for simply being there.

Again, that’s just an impression. I’m purposely waxing romantic to understand why I’ve been feeling guilty the last week or so. Independent of any exaggeration on my part – I will say that if you meet the people I’m describing, you’ll be as impressed if not more so – I think the reason for the guilt is the following. Not that I’m not paying attention to those who have her gift, as I certainly have been. More that the world seems so selfish, that there is pressure to be ever more selfish, and it is just incredible to see some who look like they’re focused on another good entirely.


I’ll probably always be nervous, bad in front of authority or crowds. That’s fine. On the one hand, I need my work to speak for itself – still dissertating, still editing this blog, still thinking about/working on future projects. Writing can speak for me when I’m apt to freeze up and not speak for myself well.

On the other hand, I need to get a routine in place so some of the nerves subside. Taking suggestions. I think a deep breath and saying to myself “start slowly” might work well. I don’t need to say the first thing and dominate a conversation, proving a theory of the cosmos. I just need to get that conversation started and make it enjoyable for all involved.

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