A Man's Life: Booking Passage



I 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.

“Morning, Father.”

He put his arm across the door. I stopped.

“Agresto, I have a question I’ve been thinking about. Maybe you can help me with the answer.”

Flattered, I said, “Sure, Father, what’s up?”

“Do you think a person in this day and age can be well-educated without having read the Iliad?”

Oh-oh, trick question. But I had never read the Iliad, so what did I know?

“Hmm. In this day and age? Maybe. I don’t see why not. If he’s read other really good stuff….”

My hesitant voice was answered by his confident proclamation: “Okay, Agresto, that proves it. You’re a bigger damn fool than I thought you were."

I grew up in a fairly poor Brooklyn family that didn’t 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 construction—poured 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 docks.

“Join the union. Start by running sandwiches for the guys. Work your way up. There’s good money to be made on the docks. And you’ll always have a job.”

He had nothing against going to school. Except that, if bad times came, working the docks was almost certainly safer.

I 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 I’d head over to the public library and borrow something or other. Actually, I think I took out the same books over and over again—one 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 that’s a story for another time.) I knew where the books were, and I’d go straight to them every time. It never dawned on me to look at what else there was. Who read that stuff anyway?

So, I guess I’m 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? I’m 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.

Read it? Why me? I was a good kid. Why was I singled out for this kind of abuse?

But I read the book.

Objectively, I can’t 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. Penrod’s 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. (It’s actually quite hard to spy on people when you’re trying to sit atop a cyclone fence.) Our club became, if not the neighborhood menace (as we had hoped), at least the neighborhood nuisance.

Who 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 else’s imagination, written down in a book.

So 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 wasn’t 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.

I became a fairly discerning reader. Well, not really—I 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.

But 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 promised—a stupid book about a woman and her bratty kid in ye olde New England. The whole class knew we were going to hate it.

Well, 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.

Then it happened. Our regular English teacher told us that one of the other teachers had studied Hawthorne in graduate school! And he’d 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.

I 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 it—a 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.

The 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 Lear’s daughter loving Lear, even though her father is a fool. It asks if we would rather be lying a-bed on St. Crispin’s 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.

Now, what could this possibly have to do with becoming a man? Well, maybe everything. I’m 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 it’s a book about war but because it’s a book about the seriousness of all those other good and strange manly things—anger, arrogance, devotion to friends, honor, pigheadedness, being a husband, being a father.

But 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 alone.

None of this is to say that I wouldn’t 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. I’m sure Tony and Vito and Manny the Hook would have opened my eyes to things I’m still clueless about. But my guess is they wouldn’t 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.

The 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.

John Agresto is the former president of St. John’s 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 College.