was a few minutes early for class. Father Alexander,
my high school sophomore homeroom teacher, was standing
outside the room, cigarette in his mouth, leaning
on the doorpost.
put his arm across the door. I stopped.
I have a question Ive been thinking about.
Maybe you can help me with the answer.
I said, Sure, Father, whats up?
you think a person in this day and age can be well-educated
without having read the Iliad?
trick question. But I had never read the Iliad,
so what did I know?
In this day and age? Maybe. I dont see why
not. If hes read other really good stuff
hesitant voice was answered by his confident proclamation:
Okay, Agresto, that proves it. Youre
a bigger damn fool than I thought you were."
I grew up in a fairly poor Brooklyn family that
didnt think much about education. My father
went to work right after grade school. He once owned
a bar, but as time passed he became a day laborer
in constructionpoured cement, mostly, if the
weather was good. Not that he wanted me to follow
in his footsteps. He thought I should go work on
the union. Start by running sandwiches for the guys.
Work your way up. Theres good money to be
made on the docks. And youll always have a
had nothing against going to school. Except that,
if bad times came, working the docks was almost
also grew up in a house almost without books. All
I remember is an encyclopedia we got from coupons
at the grocery store and a set of the Book of Knowledge
from my cousin, Judy. Once in a while Id head
over to the public library and borrow something
or other. Actually, I think I took out the same
books over and over againone on tropical fish
(I had a tank), a stamp catalogue, and a book on
pigeons by a guy named Levi. (Yep, we flew pigeons
in my family, but thats a story for another
time.) I knew where the books were, and Id
go straight to them every time. It never dawned
on me to look at what else there was. Who read that
I guess Im an educational anomaly a
professor and college president who grew up without
many books and without much real childhood reading.
No reading, in fact, until eighth grade, two or
three years before the great Iliad question. Sister
Mary Gerald asked me to stay for a minute after
class. Did I do any reading, she asked, any reading
outside of what we did in class? Im sure I
told her about the pigeon book and the stamp catalogue.
Had I ever read any literature? Whereupon she pulled
out something called Penrod and Sam, by a guy named
Booth Tarkington. She said I should read it.
it? Why me? I was a good kid. Why was I singled
out for this kind of abuse?
I read the book.
I cant say that Penrod and Sam is a fabulous
book. But I do know that my reading the book changed
the neighborhood. Penrod had a club. So my friends
and I put together a club. Penrods club had
a flag; we had a flag. (Actually, it was an old
handkerchief, now living a second life as a flag.)
Initiation rites? We had em in spades. Wild
war cries from secret spaces? Old Mike, the guy
in Apt. 6a, who worked nights and slept days, hated
us. Penrod would climb trees and spy on the surroundings.
We had to be content with climbing on cyclone fences.
(Its actually quite hard to spy on people
when youre trying to sit atop a cyclone fence.)
Our club became, if not the neighborhood menace
(as we had hoped), at least the neighborhood nuisance.
would have thought it? There was a whole new way
of having adventures, and we learned it from a book.
A book, by the way, of things that never happened;
a book of stories made up by that guy Tarkington.
In an amazing way, something had pierced the dull
and predictable regularity of everyday street life.
And that something was a work of someone elses
imagination, written down in a book.
I started to read, and read with the appetite of
a man who finally realized he had been hungry. There
was a world out there that wasnt just ordinary.
There was a world that had in it more than just
hard streets, a cramped apartment, and a woman in
the top apartment who threw water on us when we
played stoop-ball on her front steps.
became a fairly discerning reader. Well, not reallyI
became a reader of fairly passionate likes and dislikes.
Dickens was fine, though he generally could have
gotten to the point sooner. O. Henry, Stevenson,
then, later, Tolkien, Lewis, Swift . . . I loved
them. And even though I thought it a terribly sappy
poem, when Emily Dickinson said that there was no
Frigate like a Book/To take us Lands away,
I knew she was telling the truth.
soon something sad happened. In my sophomore or
junior year in high school, we had to read The Scarlet
Letter. None of us wanted to read it. No doubt it
was going to be exactly what the cover promiseda
stupid book about a woman and her bratty kid in
ye olde New England. The whole class knew we were
going to hate it.
we loved it! We fought in class over the character
of Dimsdale and Chillingworth; we asked if we would
have kept quiet; we talked about religion and cowardice
and just desserts. We were on that book like biblical
scholars finding a long-lost gospel.
it happened. Our regular English teacher told us
that one of the other teachers had studied Hawthorne
in graduate school! And hed be in class in
a day to help us understand the book even better.
Wow! Great! The next day came and so did Mr. Whoever,
and he explained everything: the meaning of the
Transcendentalist movement, the influence of this
author and that author on Hawthorne, the effect
Hawthorne had on subsequent writers, how American
society was in a state of flux, how the book was
received by the non-literary classes, and so on
and so on. By the time he was finished, the book
was effectively dead. Gone were class fights over
Courage and Cowardice and Loyalty and Betrayal.
Gone. Stifled by stupid pedantry.
learned two lessons from this that have never left
me. First, that the easiest way to kill a great
author is with small ideas. Here was Hawthorne,
trying to have us think about some notions of real
importance; there was academic scholarship, trying
its best to make a great thing small. We were taught
to understand everything, everything but what was
being said. We would become critics, not knowers.
Although we were too young to formulate it this
way, what we saw that day was the attempt not to
plumb the intellectual depths of a piece, but to
gain mastery of ita sense of superiority over
it by being ever-so-smart about externals
and ever so dumb about what really might be being
said. We saw the desire to learn all about a book
and never to learn from a book.
second thing we learned, through others as well
as through Hawthorne, was that only some great literature
takes you Lands away. Some of it, perhaps
the best part of it, takes you not away but back
to yourself. It holds up mirrors labeled courage,
or friendship, or smallness of
soul, to see if you can see yourself in there.
It tells stories of Lears daughter loving
Lear, even though her father is a fool. It asks
if we would rather be lying a-bed on St. Crispins
Day, or there with Henry, facing the French. It
asks at what circle Virgil might walk away and leave
us, if we were trailing behind him in Hell.
what could this possibly have to do with becoming
a man? Well, maybe everything. Im unregenerate
enough to think that there might be some qualities,
some virtues particular to being a man, which you
might not learn at home, or on the street. Can any
man call himself educated man who has not read the
Iliad? No, I think not. And not because its
a book about war but because its a book about
the seriousness of all those other good and strange
manly thingsanger, arrogance, devotion to
friends, honor, pigheadedness, being a husband,
being a father.
more. In books, at least in the finest books, we
might learn not just what it means to be a man,
but a human. About imagination, and knowing, and
creativity, and desire. About love and treachery,
about giddiness and joy, about fear and facing death
of this is to say that I wouldnt have learned
much by working on the docks. But my guess is that
it soon would have become just another small neighborhood,
another small world of friends and enemies. Im
sure Tony and Vito and Manny the Hook would have
opened my eyes to things Im still clueless
about. But my guess is they wouldnt be Dante
or Shake-speare or even Dickens. Not by a long shot.
No Achilles, no Hector, no incomprehensible Agamemnon.
No fierce imagination, no experiences other than
my own, no real reflection of the self.
docks would have taught me something, even something
true and good. But it still would have been hard,
narrowing, and small. Except for the pay and job
security; something, maybe, like graduate school.
Agresto is the former president of St. Johns
College, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and a former chair
of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He
is the author of The Supreme Court and Constitutional
Democracy and is senior research fellow at the
Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash