When I entered university more than a quarter-century ago, it was with a profound sense of inadequacy: I was a small-town boy from a small-town high school, native of a place that had a church for every fifty-three inhabitants, but didn’t possess a public library or a bookstore. I was not a great student, but I enjoyed learning, and I had gone on to college in the hopes that I could become more than my beginnings might have suggested.
At the university, despite a gratifying level of respect from teachers and fellow students, I was painfully aware that my internal map of the universe featured a tiny island of knowledge scribbled into the middle of an ocean of blank parchment. The other students in my classes, for the most part, seemed to have been born knowing the difference between Etta James and Henry James, between bricks and brioche, and could use “infer” and “imply” correctly without even thinking about it. I, on the other hand, was a hick from the sticks, a mule from the barnyard, and knew that the smell of manure still clung to my shoes no matter what my academic credentials might be. What could I do?
For lack of a better idea, I went to the library.
I was, by that point, living in a mid-sized southern city whose public library contained a decent collection of music (on vinyl) and a fairly broad selection of fiction. Here was what I needed to get me some culture. But where to begin? I didn’t have a plan, only the idea that I needed to cover a lot of ground, thoroughly and systematically — something mules do very well. I attacked the problem the only way I knew how: alphabetically.
Every week or so I checked out a half-dozen records and two or three novels: I listened to Adam and Adams, Barber and Berlioz. I read and re-read some of the books I took home, abandoned others after the first ten pages, learned how to separate Danielle Steele from Saul Bellow, Barbara Cartland from Christopher Isherwood. Sometimes I read great books and didn’t know they were great — sometimes I read bad books, and enjoyed them just as much. I listened to a lot of music, often with enthusiasm, occasionally with bewilderment. I grew.
The most literate countries on earth, with 100% literacy, (according to the CIA World Factbook, 2008) are the Vatican, Luxembourg, Andorra, Finland, Liechtenstein, Georgia, Norway, and Greenland. The US is in 26th place, tied with nineteen other countries, including the UK and France. In Afghanistan, Burkina Faso and Niger roughly one person in four can read and write. The US, the UK and China are the largest publishers of books worldwide.
Today I know enough to understand that no one ever fills in all the blank spaces on the map. The more you learn, the bigger the map gets. You always live on that little island in the middle of your ignorance. On the other hand, I’m not afraid of the gray void any more: I know that every book, every song, every conversation with people who are interesting and interested lifts me a little higher, allows me to see a little further.
The person I am today, approaching my fifty-fourth birthday, looks back on the person I was then, and I find that I’m sometimes a little embarrassed for him, maybe a bit annoyed at bad decisions he made that still influence my life, but I’m also incredibly grateful. I’m glad he didn’t give up with John Cage or Thomas Pynchon, but kept on reading and listening, kept on expanding his island of knowledge, because that island is where I live now, and it’s a better place for his efforts.
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