Since I can’t even finish a whole 500 words on my memoir, I thought I’d take a different path.
For those who don’t know, by the way, to catch up briefly-I am now in New York, having relocated from Decatur. Doing some freelance book marketing/PR work on the side and trying to find steady employment. (If you’re an author and interested in talking about potential publicity ideas for yourself or your work, email me. I’m serious. I’m fun to email. Especially late at night, when the wine’s open.)
Anyway, so, from my vantage point, I’d like to talk about what’s brought me here. And by “here” I mean what was the impetus (there it is again, seriously folks that word’s going to be like snuggies-totally irrelevant in 2010) that has lead me to, in 2009, to be in New York, a city I swore I’d never move to, only because it’s the home of my industry. And publishing, despite its’ sheer and utter insanity, is something I cling to.
But why books? Why this almost masochistic and definitely insane need to surround myself with the written word, always and forever (you know, like that song at the end of "Napoleon Dynamite")?
When I started thinking about what one moment I could hyperfocus on (mmm, hyperfocus. Implies concentration. Something I’m sadly lacking right now), what shocked me was that what floated to the top of my brain wasn’t, for instance, the way that the classroom sharing copy of Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing only making its way into the hands of the popular kids taught me very quickly to be a book-hoarder. Also, it is definitely not the moment that I got in trouble in high school for reading Atlas Shrugged during a free period. Apparently, folks, Atlas Shrugged is “smut”. And while I may agree to some level (bookz wit ideaz r scary u guyz!)…just, actually, no. I can’t agree with that at all. Especially since, um, I was there, and I was the one having to explain to the principal of my school why this novel’s concepts were actually forcing me to come to my own conclusions and discover my own moral and ethical foundations far faster and to much greater extents than any of the crap they’d been trying to teach at school.
No, I actually started thinking about, in writing this post, the first college lit professor who ever made an impact on me. At Oglethorpe, where I went to school, literature came before everything-before personal health, even. And I had a professor, who I won’t name because I know he’s out there, lurking the fringes of the internet, who forever thwarted my ability to have reading be a passive, complacent act.
The class was Modern Literature. The time was smack-dab in the middle of the morning, when brains aren’t yet functioning on the “need lunch” level nor in the “had lunch” coma. The classroom was, as most classrooms at Oglethorpe at this time were, hot in the summer and teeth-chattering cold in the winter (Oglethorpe’s decision to choose the gorgeous stone castle-esque appearance of its campus over functioning indoor heating and air left a lasting impression on me, and to this day I choose appearance over functionality). The book selection was, in retrospect, eye-rollingly liberal arts: Lolita. Song of Solomon. Rabbit, Run. But, coming from someone (namely, me) who had never previously had anyone have any sort of guiding hand over my reading choices other than my grandmother forbidding me from reading Anne Rice, it was like carefully selected wine and cheese pairings from a master sommelier.
Which brings me to the professor: old. Curmudgeonly. An obvious expert in his field. And, as all of us in that class would come to discover, utterly ruthless in his desire to push us to the highest levels of literary analysis.
After a brief, easy-peasy introductory period to the class, of about two days, we were presented with our first major assignment-to, essentially, get over that whole “pedophiliac” thing in Lolita. It was assigned as such, of course, but when Lolita’s handed without preface or intro to a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears college freshman, all wide-eyed and hungry and ‘wanting” to be “writers” or crap like that, obviously unfamiliar with the work as such but aware that Nabokov is spoken about in hushed tones with reverence, usually at parties that also feature ritz cracked trussed up with a mixture of salmon and ranch dressing, that’s what’s being reached for.
Now, remember, I went to school in the south, so even at a private, tiny-as-hell liberal arts college, there are many students with a sheltered, wide-eye naivety to the way the world works. All of these students reached a climax of utter and epic breakdown when our professor asked, on Monday morning, for someone to “defend” Humbert Humbert’s relationship with little Lo.
Spoiler: NO ONE COULD. And he became enraged, asking us to overthrow our constructed-by-society (his words here) disdain for a relationship involving a much older man with a young girl. And so, for our first essay assignment, we were assigned three pages-one page was to be in defense of H.H.’s claim of having “love” for Lolita (don’t get me into the unpacking of the term “love” that required several class periods), on refuting it, and one coming to our own conclusions.
It was that final page that gave me, and everyone in that class, the most trouble. But the grunting, screaming, pointing, crying and throwing things that coming to one’s “own conclusion” elicited also lead to an Augustine-ish moment of AH-HA.
In that moment, the ability to assimilate and accommodate two varying viewpoints began to form in me.
All of these lessons come to me in retrospect, mind you. At the time, the class was just really, really damn hard. Classmates of mine cried daily, both in and out of class-moreso in, actually. I remember the night I stayed up, possibly under the influence of something and possibly not, diagramming my theory that Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom was meant to be akin to the most true reading of Jesus Christ as possible.
In class, I excitedly asked if I could present my idea. Given permission, I jumped to the board and spent a god 15 minutes outlaying my ideas. Taking in the scribbles I’d made on the board, the professor mumbled and asked me if I was done. “Yes” I replied, anxious for the rare praise I was sure was about to lavished upon me. “Good, sit down” was the only reply.
Yeah, I cried. A lot.
Fact of the matter is, that professor taught me what a painful, ass-biting, nail-strewed road the love of literature really is. And I fell so hard for it that I took his class entirely devoted to Ulysses (which is now my favorite book, mostly because he pulled the curtain back and showed up the true juvenile bathroom humor that is the classic’s core).
So yeah, the call-the call to literature, to devoting my life, too-small salaries and senselessness and all-came when I was 18 and freezing every mid-morning in that Modern Lit class.
That also started me on my path to being an utter book snob. But that’s a conversation for another time.
Russ Marshalek recently relocated(and almost wrote "graduated") from Decatur, GA to NYC. He’s a freelance book marketer and publicist and will gladly entertain your project. Entertain as in discuss not entertain as in make a cake for. Keep up with him at his blog, or email him. He is also, for those heading to NY for BEA 2009, part of the team spearheading the BEA Tweetup.