Exactly how far can one page take you?
Tonight: the smell of cigarettes outside and suddenly I remember graduate school and reading on the fire escape in the fall, and I think I’ll never read as much as I did then. Annie Dillard says, Never, ever, get yourself into a situation where you have nothing to do but write and read. You’ll go into a depression. And she is right. But that’s why we were there, to read and write; so there were cigarettes, cold drafts, falling leaves, and fire escapes—and books and more books.
We read in cheap apartments, library carrels, buses, an asbestos-lined building for graduate students, park benches, and coffee shops. We read histories, tragedies, comedies, tragicomedies, romances, satires, sonnets, and odes; elegies and essays, philosophy and theology, criticism and theory, novels and the news. Books were measured by stack and pile, section and shelf, novelty and utility.
All day long we read and wrote and talked about books, and no one mentioned the stamina needed, the toll it could take. Some of us paid to be locked in a room to read and write for hours. My friend read all day, every day, lost his keys and found them in the freezer. Another friend separated from his wife, slept on my couch, and smoked and read books on my porch. There were divorces, quiet breakdowns too. “Is he ok?” a professor asked of a classmate. I spoke little, way more words in than out, and at night I dreamed of a serpent entwining my limbs, squeezing my chest, as if some deep recess of the mind warned of forbidden knowledge, too much knowledge. I would wake up exhausted, my body rebelling against a world of words.
We lived the life of the mind, lived our teachers’ mantras. If you go looking for what you already know, that’s all you’ll ever find. We had no money or prospects but there was solidarity, so we talked about books in classrooms, professors’ homes, restaurants, and dive bars. And then we were examined and passed—with the promise to read more books.
I saw a picture from back then capturing some milestone: a course finished, exam passed. Everyone looks young, of course, and happy to be away from the stacks—but still hungry for words. It was a life fueled by thought and conversation and letters. We were trying to understand everything one page at a time.
Today I stand in front of students who look like we did then, full of questions, looking for answers, exhilarated by ideas, and I say, “What do you want to talk about?”
Robert Erle Barham is Associate Professor of English at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, GA. He is also Associate Editor for Current.