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Invasion of the Textbook Department

Posted on 25 November 2009 by Barbara Beckwith (5)

I slip into the aisles of the textbook department, shoulders hunched. I’m feel like an interloper, intent as I am on raiding the inventory meant for college undergrads.

Clearly, I’m no undergraduate: that was decades ago. Yet I am drawn to this place. At least twice a year I wander its aisles, looking for what I may be missing.

The no-frills warehouse look pleases me: its makeshift shelving, florescent lights, noisy air conditioner, absence of musak, the plastic signs on which are stamped cryptic course codes: EC, DIP, REL – most of which designate fields I neglected to explore during my four English literature focussed years.

Overhead lights expose my every move, so I stride through the aisles as if with purpose, and scan the shelves as if looking for my professor’s course code. My actual goal is obscure, even to me.

I lift a thick textbook as if to gauge its depth by its heft. I finger the glossy edition of a classic. I run my hands over thin monographs, lovely as silk scarves. I admire even the spartan jackets of academic press books. They can afford to be plain: they’re required reading.

This place reminds me of the cramped dorm room where I puzzled over Chaucer’s Middle English. It invokes the mechanical whir of the laundryroom where I considered Sartre, Blake and Montaigne while my blouses tossed. It conjures up the tree on campus where propped on my favorite branch, I wrestled with realism, idealism, and existentialism.

I no longer read in trees. I’m busy and earthbound. I read now by choice and whim. As a writer, I skim for background on topics that vary from month to month. I’m a generalist: I know just a little about a lot. But here in Cambridge, surrounded by specialists, I sometimes question my chosen route. So I come here, periodically, to peer over the shoulders of scholars who spend a lifetime exploring a single subject — as I have not.

I scan the textbooks on subjects I bypassed in college: botany, physics, Chinese, astronomy. Molecular biology — my husband’s inscrutable field. I ponder the assigned reading for courses not offered in my era: The Medieval Torah, The Afrocentric Ideal, Environmental Ethics, and Arabic for Beginners.

I spot a “coursepack” for Harvard’s Thinking About Thinking course: 300 pages badly copied from two dozen journals. I’d love to have to read this dense prose — but I would need the pressure of a professor’s next day questions to get me to do so.

Finally, I drift to familiar grounds — the literature shelves. I recognize the authors — Aeschylus, Moliere, Yeats, Woolf — but not the book jackets. Sarah Orne Jewett’s Country of the Pointed Firs no longer is bound by the plain grey cover I remember — this new edition’s lush watercolor landscape misleads. Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom’s hologram-like cover, eye-catching, does not suit. The jacket of Walden II has been changed to attract 1990s readers, a practical adaptation of the sort B.F. Skinner would approve, but I don’t.

Thirty years ago, I was forced by “distribution requirements” to see the world in new ways. In my four college years, I looked through the lens of philosophers, sociologists, artists. I tasted Beethoveen’s symphonies, tackled Olde English, delved deep into modern theater. My mind stretched and strained. Then I joined the general public.

Books are no longer homework. I read now for relaxation, inspiration, personal passions. For 30 years, I’ve indulged my prejudices, pro and con. I give a book just a few pages to entice. If the opening scene does not draw me in, I chuck it, often shunning, along with it, the rest of its genre. After a single irritating encounter with the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez years ago, I abandoned magical realism for decades, which I realize led me to be ignorant of Isabel Allende and Toni Morrison, as well. After rejecting suburban life for the city, I abandoned Updike and Cheever.

I read out of passion for a topic that seizes my attention and time. The French Resistance during World War II, with its questions about who acts and who doesn’t. I dig into library recesses, struggle with academic theory, work through, dictionary at my side, books written in french, pursuing the human drama. Then my passion wanes, and is taken up by the mysteries of Anasazi rock art. I study maps, track down monographs, survive a flash flood in pursuit of desert pictograph mysteries. After each of my love affairs of the mind, I am a different person.

But part of me yearns for a syllabus. On my own, I can so easily ignore wide swaths of knowledge with impunity. I know that the mind is a muscle: it gets stronger when pressed by an outside force, against which it resists before it gives in. I want Required Reading’s rigor.

The literature section hold books by some writers whose works I have uncovered on my own over the years: Edith Wharton, Paule Marshall, Bharati Mukherjee, and Chinua Achebe, all now certified as Great Literature by their presence here. I spot a book I have not read, Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi, and note that it appears on the Literature, Psychology, and European History shelves. I like that. I want this book. I must have it.

After an hour academic voyeurism, I find myself carrying a half-dozen books in my arms, as if my body might absorb their contents. Most I return to their shelves, but three I keep: the testimony of a Resistance fighter, a textbook on environmental ethics, and a novel by a Dutch writer whose name I have never until now encountered. The book’s dull academic cover stands out from the gaudy trades — but holds, perhaps, my next discovery.

I approach the check-out desk shyly, but the cashier does not ask me for my student i.d. I’ve passed. Maybe I am a scholar, after all.

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