Precious Nonsense

January 7, 2012

PRECIOUS NONSENSE by Stephen BoothA couple of years ago, the University of California at Berkeley employed its marketing sleuths to track me down. Not that they have any idea who I am, but they get the fundraiser’s frisson of delight whenever they can tag someone by mail or phone. Recently they’ve shared their data with the English Department, which now sends me a glossy departmental newsletter for “alumni and friends.” The current issue celebrates Kent Puckett for winning the university’s Distinguished Teaching Award, and in a separate article boasts that department members have won the award as often as the “second and third most awarded departments … combined.”

I would like to think that the person who wrote and/or edited the phrase “most awarded departments” was not one of our graduates. However, the article got me thinking about the incidents I remember from the English faculty’s pedagogy. I recall Stephen Booth spending long moments chewing his fingernails and gazing out the window while formulating the perfect question for his freshman composition class. His skills earned him the teaching award in 1982, or perhaps the university decided to save his fingernails. Another fond memory is of Stanley Fish challenging his entire Milton seminar to a basketball game with him and his friend Booth. Those who know the height differential will chuckle to imagine Fish and Booth together on the hardwood. Our seminar members, though, were far too cognizant of Fish’s personality to take up the invitation; hell, he was aggressive enough around a seminar table—who’d want to try to stop him on a drive?

My best story from that time, though, concerns the final exam that Booth gave to his struggling, straggling frosh writers. His highly individualistic syllabus that year had included, among other motley items, several New Yorker essays by A. J. Liebling, Thoreau’s Walden, and Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus. (Since then, I don’t think I’ve met any nonacademic who has ever read any portion of Carlyle, much less a complete book.) Our final exam—probably administered only because an exam was required—consisted of two questions. One item presented the entire text of the Gettysburg Address (less than 300 words) and asked why it was a great speech. Many scholars have studied the Address—including Booth himself, in his book Precious Nonsense—but to 18-year-old undergraduates (actually, I was 17, with the astonished mind of an 8-year-old) the question was flummoxing. We had not studied Lincoln in class; we had not discussed oral rhetoric. Most of us had little notion of the historical context. How to begin an answer? If the famous G.A. was indeed a great address, we hardly knew that.

The exam’s second question was worse. It consisted of a passage by Thoreau describing the experience of reading Carlyle. Though I can’t be certain, I think it must have been this paragraph from “Thomas Carlyle and His Works”:

Such a style — so diversified and variegated! It is like the face of a country; it is like a New England landscape, with farmhouses and villages, and cultivated spots, and belts of forests and blueberry swamps round about, with the fragrance of shad-blossoms and violets on certain winds. And as for the reading of it, it is novel enough to the reader who has used only the diligence, and old line mail-coach. It is like traveling, sometimes on foot, sometimes in a gig tandem; sometimes in a full coach, over highways, mended and unmended, for which you will prosecute the town; on level roads, through French departments, by Simplon roads over the Alps; and now and then he hauls up for a relay, and yokes in an unbroken colt of a Pegasus for a leader, driving off by cart-paths, and across lots, by corduroy roads and gridiron bridges; and where the bridges are gone, not even a string-piece left, and the reader has to set his breast and swim. You have got an expert driver this time, who has driven ten thousand miles, and was never known to upset; can drive six in hand on the edge of a precipice, and touch the leaders anywhere with his snapper.

The task was to explain how this passage reflected the styles of both Thoreau and Carlyle.

OK, one might think, Carlyle is indeed varied, unpredictable, sometimes difficult, emphatic and lyrical by turns, with odd broken rhythms; Thoreau of course is highly metaphorical, a guy who would rather take you on a jolting ride through an alpine mountain pass than tell you straight out what he means. That’s not very deep; what else can you say?

For this exam you have three hours to scribble in your blue book (literally blue, purchased for this express purpose from the college bookstore). Your output should reflect intense thought and careful writing, all that you have learned in the course. Are you getting nervous? Have you bitten through your ballpoint yet?

Man, I was terrified, and I left the room knowing I’d failed. Till then, to my surprise, I’d managed an A in the class, and now I had to hope for an overall C at best.

At that time, the system for discovering your final grades was simple and highly impersonal. Along with your blue book, you handed in a self-addressed postcard with two lines on it for your grades:

Grade in Course: ______
Grade on Final Exam: ______

Some week or ten days later, the news would arrive in the mail. A highly expressive instructor might write one or two extra words on the card in addition to the two all-important letters.

So I waited. The cards came from other courses: success! But from Professor Booth? I imagined him mauling his nails as he contemplated the collection of precious nonsense that 25 pimpled idiots could write in three hours. From my current perspective, I wonder how any instructor can bear to read three hours of drivel from a single freshman.

The card arrived. At this point I don’t remember whether any of my roommates saw it first; if they did, that surely increased my embarrassment. Slowly I inverted the post-office-smudged rectangle to reveal the back. It read:

Grade in Course:      A      
Grade on Final Exam:  Forget it!

That’s when I knew I led a charmed life.

After all these years, thank you, Professor Booth.

Of Zweig and Patience

October 18, 2010


Stefan Zweig (standing) with his brother Alfred


A year or two ago my wife and I discovered Stefan Zweig (1881–1942), an Austrian writer whose memoir The World of Yesterday paints a lively picture of Europe before, during, and after World War I. Zweig knew every poet, novelist, dramatist, and artist on the scene; a devoted pan-Europeanist, he translated dozens of his friends’ works and wrote biographies of cultural figures ranging from Erasmus to Nietzsche to Balzac. In 1942, shortly after he finished the memoir, in exile in Brazil and despairing as Europe dove deep into another round of self-butchery, he and his wife took their own lives.

In the memoir’s last chapters, he speaks of the disbelief and agony that he and others like him experienced as they witnessed Hitler’s rise. On a Sunday morning he hears the radio news of the declaration of war, “a message which meant death for thousands of those who had silently listened to it, sorrow and unhappiness, desperation and threat for every one of us.”

After reading the memoir, we were moved enough to explore his other work. Despite his vast output of nonfiction and drama, Zweig found time for a number of novels, stories, and novellas—intense psychological works that examine the characters’ thoughts and emotions in exquisite, sometimes excruciating, detail. His writing is marvelous, his characters strange enough to feel very contemporary. And yet I have the typical problem of our A.D.D. age: attention span.

Look at the following passage from The Post-Office Girl (trans. Joel Rotenberg, New York Review Books, 2008). The title character, Christine, a penurious young woman from a small town, has been invited by a rich aunt to visit a magnificent resort in the Alps. When her aunt tells her to “freshen up” before lunch, Christine is amazed, bewildered, awed, and humbled by the luxurious hotel room she is given. We join the action, if it can be called that, about halfway through a two-page paragraph:

Discovery upon discovery: the washbasin, white and shiny as a seashell with nickel-plated fixtures, the armchairs, soft and deep and so enveloping that it takes an effort to get up again, the polished hardwood of the furniture, harmonizing with the spring-green wallpaper, and here on the table to welcome her a vibrant variegated carnation in a long-stem vase, like a colorful salute from a crystal trumpet. How unbelievably, wonderfully grand! She has a heady feeling as she imagines having all this to look at and to use, imagines making it her own for a day, eight days, fourteen days, and with timid infatuation she sidles up to the unfamiliar things, curiously tries out each feature one after another, absorbed in these delights, until suddenly she rears back as though she’s stepped on a snake, almost losing her footing. For unthinkingly she’s opened the massive armoire against the wall—and what she sees through the partly open inner door, in an unexpected full-length mirror, is a life-sized image like a red-tongued jack-in-the-box, and (she gives a start) it’s her, horribly real, the only thing out of place in this entire elegantly coordinated room. The abrupt sight of the bulky, garish yellow travel coat, the straw hat bent out of shape above the stricken face, is like a blow, and she feels her knees sag. “Interloper, begone! Don’t pollute this place. Go back where you belong,” the mirror seems to bark. Really, she thinks in consternation, how can I have the nerve to stay in a room like this, in this world! What an embarrassment for my aunt! I shouldn’t wear anything fancy, she said! As though I could do anything else! No, I’m not going down, I’d rather stay here. I’d rather go back. Bur how can I hide, how can I disappear quickly before anyone sees me and takes offense? She’s backed as far as possible away from the mirror, onto the balcony. She stares down, her hand on the railing. One heave and it would be over.

This scene goes on for another long paragraph in which Christine frets over what to wear, worries what the maid will think, and finally “scurries down the stairs with downcast eyes.”

I admire this writing tremendously—“timid infatuation,” a carnation like a trumpet’s salute—but at some point in the piling of detail upon detail, I become impatient. “I get the point!” my inner voice yells at the author; “let’s move on, OK?”

Then I remember what Stanley Fish once said to a seminar of undergraduates. The more the culture emphasized reading fast, he declared, the slower he read. He engaged us in examining Milton line by line, word by word, almost syllable by syllable.

I try to keep that perspective in mind. No, I lecture myself, don’t read Stefan Zweig while you’re simultaneously watching baseball, checking e-mail, and snacking on the delicious nut-cranberry mix from Trader Joe’s. Both hands on the book, please. Both eyes on the text. Slowly, patiently. Writers as good as Zweig deserve this much from us, and more.