Ex Libris. My reading history

My reading history is perhaps less chequered than my writing saga. Elsewhere here I have addressed my reading pathologies. Let that be the background for the present diorama.

As a child I did not read anything

As a child I did not read anything except school homework assignments. (OK: some < PG comic books and Popular Science magazine.) The first book I ever bought was a little cheap pulp science fiction paperback that I bought in the Lafayette Pharmacy near my then home in Richmond, Virginia (I believe the pharmacy's owner lived across the street from my parents' house). If it wasn't "The Day of the Triffids" it was something like that and I have totally forgotten/repressed it. I may have been about 8 years old then. I think that at the time I vaguely felt there was something "shady" about it, since somehow buying the book had a less-than-fully-conscious aura of something associated with sex, which, in my childrearing, was an elephant in the room which [elephant, not room] did not exist.

Skipping to eighth grade latin

I will not here try to engage in a psychoarcheological dig to try to recall what may have happened in the relationship between me and the written word until eighth grade. Obviously it wasn't anything "to write home about" (referential ambiguity intended). But eighth grade (or was it ninth grade?) brought something memorable: introductory latin class, and an unusual teacher, Mr. Angelo Gentile. He was a strange and perhaps sad, somewhat pathetic man (one almost had to be the latter of those two to be a teacher at my prep school). He had apparently been a wrestler earlier in his life (in the Marine Corps?). He did still have a bit of a wrestler's "build". But he also respected books. He had a lockable cabinet, maybe 2 feet wide and 6 feet high? in the corner of his classroom, just to the side of the classroom door. He had filled this cabinet with books, including expensive large art books and, I presume, reference works. (His second job was running a local, small shopping center Doubleday book store.) Each day, in latin class, Mr. Gentile would assign a different student to be the book boy, whose job would be to look up things in the book cabinet. The books were expensive, and the students were required to handle them with care. This was a perhaps unique minor sacrament in our self-styled church school. Everystudent was included in the rotation, including the dumb and the spastic. And they learned from it. Once, years after we all graduated, the student whose nickname had been "Spaz", visited the bookstore and told Mr. Gentile how being book boy had changed his life and given him great respect for books. He doubtless would not have understood something like "Broch" but neither would he have desecrated the book. In America, I think that is "something".

We never got very far learning latin in that introductory class, perhaps I think in retrospect, due to the textbook being stupid (it had crap in it like "coca-colam", first-declension feminine noun accusative case). We memorized several latin words each day and learned fewer items of grammar. (Contrast with the non-credit German-for-grad-students-to-pass-their-language-exam course I took one summer at Yale, where in six weeks, we learned enough grammar for me to read some Hegel and Heidegger, with a dictionary. But maybe German is a more "grammar dense" language than latin?) Because I had a memorize-the-vocabulary-list phobia [I always avoided classes I thought I would get a bad grade in], I declined the opportunity to advance to second year latin. But I did learn enough latin "to be dangerous", ipse dixit.[1]

On through high school

Most of my reading through the end of high/prep school is at most blurrily remembered. I know I hated "Dickens" whom I seem to have learned was paid by the word and must have milked that for all he could get. Dickens was for me a waking nightmare of test questions about who, when, where, what of what I would now refer to as TMTC (a nuclear industry acronym for "too many to count"). Ditto "All the King's Man", about whom I cared not a whit. By all rights, school, other than The Cabinet of Mr. Gentile (above) should have made me hate books. Summer reading list? I never read none, but only tried to figure out how to bullshit a page or two about a couple of them to satisfy the assigners. (Here I may have missed something, because "All Quiet on the Western Front" was, I believe, on the list and I did not read it.[2]) There was one book they assigned which somehow slipped through the cracks.

Bradford McCormick wimp meets Oedipus the King

The book was Sophocles' "Œdipus[3] cycle" ("Œdipus Rex", "Œdipus at Colonus", "Antigone" – a much better trinity than I found in "Chapel"!). I doubt that "in school" we read anything beyond the first of the three plays, "Œdipus Rex", and the full impact on me of the book, both its contents and its cover, was to ripen over a now-increasingly long, lifetime [with a little help from Martin Heidegger's "An Introduction to Metaphysics"]. I never did "get" the tragedy. Presumably Œd's mother must still have had a supple body. The arrogant a--hole Œd drove off the road was trying to drive him [Œdipus] off the road. Self-defense? Why was I attracted to that book? Maybe part of it was that empty helmet/skull so evocative of so much of my environing less-than-fully-a-world (what I have come to call: Abwelt, cf., Umwelt, Lebenswelt) – "We are the hollow men". Œdipus had sex with his mother? Well, somehow that must have been finessed since sexual relations was not a part of my teenage life. Killed his father on the road? I always wished "my school"'s eponymous saint, Saul of Tarsus had fallen off his horse a lot harder on the road to Damascus. I would not swear on a stack of (POTUS №45) Donald/Ivanka Trump bibles, but I seem to recall that even in school I thought that Œdipus's tragedy was a communication failure. All he needed to do was to tell his loving and beloved adoptive parents about the prophesy (his to me despicable birth parents tried to infanticide him but didn't have the guts to finish the job themselves but pawned that off on mother nature). What I definitely failed to do is to capitalize on this discovery in an essay paper. But maybe that was lucky for me since it would have been heretical, and I had already been through one Inquisitorial proceeding where I escaped the instruments of torture by learning to lie to myself so that I could keep a straight face when responding to "their" insistent questioning ("I do not remember...") – the interior walls of the school building were painted cinderblock, etc.

"Œdipus" was mercifully short on word-count, and the cast of characters was small. Two virtues most other required reading lacked. I did not read for pleasure in high school.

Hello, Albert Camus

I did not read anything for pleasure, i.e., other than pursuant to discharge of school assignment, until a fellow student introduced me to Albert Camus' "The Myth of Sisyphus". This student was the most mathematically gifted student in my class, Allen Moulton – while I got 796 on the SAT English achievement test, I think he got 800 on one of the SAT math tests, and went on to MIT. It would also have been a competition to see which of us was the crazier; his father worked as a pathologist in a Baltimore City hospital and I think he sometimes took his son to his place of work (the morgue).

Anyway, I studied "The Myth of Sisyphus", trying to write up a one page summary deductive argument ("cheat sheet"?) why one should not commit suicide.[4] It is possible this had a negative effect on my ability to understand philosophy, since it was an endeavor which lacked nuance (but, on the other hand, was there any appreciation of nuance in any of my classes? did Descartes really believe animals were automata and the soul was a lump of psycho-substance? Did Leibnitz really believe in lumps in another -verse that existed apart from any oberver? etc.). Now that I think about it, I think one of the most important things that could be taught to young persons is nuance: to savor subtleties, not to meet word-count norms.[5] MAKE TERM HAIKUS NOT TERM PAPERS![6]

Josef Pieper's lovely essay "Leisure is the basis of culture" was not on my schooling's agenda. I always tried to finish and turn in my assignments weeks before they were due to have a little fantasy of being free (I did/do, however, live in the home of the brave, from prep school being Crusaders, thru Vietnam, to now, as nobel economics laureate Professor Paul Krugmen writes in a New Your Times OpEd piece, "dying for the Dow" for our POTUS's sake). Maybe turning in assignments way ahead of time was a way of "sticking it to them" – the only way I had, and one they couldn't punish me for. Since as of this writing I am now insurance age 74, obviously, whether I really worked out my deductive argument or not, I have not [yet] committed suicide. Albert Camus is now far in my past, although maybe "The Plague" would merit a rereading. The Stranger? I forget that too, but I'd rather have fantasies about [being?] Monica Vitti in black-and-white Antonioniland.

Somehow I read some other things, including Italo Svevo's "Confessions of Zeno" (did I understand any of it? who knows?) which ends with somebody planting a very powerful bomb at the center of the earth and detonating it to erase the pathology of the human race from the universe. At last my tor-mentors (and other parasites of the soul) would be been done and gone! My kind of happy ending! (It was a misfortune for himself and his victims and for humanity that Theodore Kaczynski had not been able to "sublimate" all his pain into print.)

Somehow, after college, I did read some books, including Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago" (3 vols) and Elsa Morante's "History: A Novel". But not all the books I read were morbid. I also read and loved "Between Silence and Light", a small compendium of master architect Louis I. Kahn's words. In a social surround where many believe in the right to life only for foeti and presumably themselves, Kahn's gentle words, respectful but not exclusively so, even to a brick, have stuck with me, along with Œdipus's communication fiasco and sometimes thinking of myself as a zek (Ronnie Raygun? How about Uncle Ron, cf. Uncle Joe, etc.).

This chapter of my reading life concludes with a difficult but ultimately successful "trek" I made to read, in 1978/79, Hermann Broch's "The Sleepwalkers", which truly changed my life, or at least my Weltanschauung, including, with its no-surprise endings being a laxative for a lot of kitsch that still constipated my spiritual digestive tract. But it takes more than a stong starter dose and I'm still on the medicine.

Teachers College Columbia University

By a for-me-happy little accident, a generally tragic lady (she died of breast cancer after, "one thing at a time", not checking for a problem she did not know she had while dealing with another but non-fatal medical problem) read an advertisement for TC's Department of Communication in Education in The New York Times. (At least I seem to remember it that way.) I applied and was accepted, and eventually got my Ed.D. IBM was still in process of devolving from being a shining city on a hill into an any-old competitor in the "free" marketplace. I got two educational leave of absences, so I was able to go to school, even in a program that had no business case (did they really understand what they were paying for? I didn't lie to them).

"Somehow" I came across Professor Robert O. McClintock, probably because his Philosophy of Education class looked non-threatening and I needed to accumulate credit hours. On "Robbie"'s recomendation, The printing press became my agent of change. (I even once wrote to Professor Eisenstein and got a very nice reply.) I didn't know how hungry I was for erudition, until Robbie handed me some on a plate. But Robbie's "taste" was also catholic. He not only recommended the maginterial tome "The Printing Press as an Agent of Change", but also playful "Rabelais", who envisioned a non-celibate, non flesh-mortifying, non-obedience abbey, Theleme. I probably already knew of Tycho Brahe's real life Uraniborg, but I expect Theleme would be much better.

Bradford in Cost-effectivenessland

After completing my studies at Teachers College (ca. 1994), I got embarked on a two decade long slowly downwarding slope, ending, just before the advent of Covid-19, in my wishing not to wake up from each night's sleep (but also not wanting to suffer i.e., dying!). For some years I continued to read and I elaborated a large, reflective but, technically, beneath even a junior programmer's interest, personal website. Finally, working absorbed such a great proportion of my available energy, and not having a Katsura to return to each night, I pretty much gave up. As I have written elsewhere here in A place to study, when I returned to IBM from my educational leave of absence (was it the first or the second? I forget), and said to my then new manager who was not really a "bad guy" that I wanted an assignment which would be meaningful to me as well as productive for the company, he had enlightened me that: "If wishes were horses then beggars would ride". So my reading eventually dried up, and, except for New Yorker prose essays, ended along with the protagonist of the important Japanese novel "I am a Cat" drowning in a bucket of beer.


But, "somehow" ("Man weiss nicht...", again) the progress of the great pandemic of 2019/20 motivated me to come out of my Great Depression. If I had a Franklin Roosevelt, it would be Robbie's invitation for me to contribute here to A place to study (Does he now regret that?). And I am humble: I know that, like Galileo, if shown the instruents of torture, I will not be a hero. But, so far so good.

A New York Times article about Barbara Tuchman dating the origin of modernity back to the rats and fleas of the fourteenth century plague motivated me to ask Robbie if "A Distant Mirror" was a good book to read. (Yes.) God knows what motivated me to think again about Yale professor/World War II fighter pilot Norwood Russell Hanson, from whom I had taken the course at Yale where about the only thing I learned about/understood was duck-rabbits (but that was not an inconsequential intellectual acquisition!). That led me to want to buy a copy of Hanson's "Perception and Discovery: An introduction to scientific inquiry", which, when I lamented the price ($120) to Robbie, he replied with the url of a used book dealer where I obtained a copy in fine condition for $8, and I thanked Robbie $112 for his help (if I wasn't currently unemployed I should have sent him a bottle of something good; as it was I sent him a reference to an essay that was very important in my life and which I thought he might not know about, Jan Szczepanski's "Individuality and society"; Robbie sent back to me a .pdf file of the essay, so that I could read it again). A little essay about squirrels by the eminent psychoanalyst Professor Michael Eigen led me to discover the late work of Wilfred Bion, "A Memoir of the future", because I learned Bion diagnosed customary social patterns like mangers and employees as shared hallucinoces, aka, social psychoses. Bion's book, alas will cost me $80 but psychoanalytic books are rarely cheap new or used! (The psychoanalytic Vatican used to have a publishing house named International University Press which apparently died in 2003 and which, to the best of my knowlege, was not associated with any university; analyze that!) So I am back to reading, and, of course, as you, my reader, can see, to writing.

Literacy and civilization

In Professor Louis Forsdale's film history class, we watched Ingmar Bergmann's "The Seventh Seal". I was immediately touched by the ending, where The Knight's wife does not flee from the coming plague but waits at home for her husband's return (I guess from a Crusade?). It's a race between Knight and Death to see who will get to her home first. Just about everybody filps out due to fear of the plague. But the Knight's wife remains calm, and reads aloud from the Bible. I hypothesized that the reason she remained calm was precisely because she could read, i.e., literacy provides an inclusive distancing from immediate experience which facilitates rational thought and action. The Knight's wife welcomes the unwelcome visitor to her dinner table where she is reading aloud to all assembled. I do not think she wanted to die, but rather her gesture showed how literacy provides in a person's inner life space for everything (including Death). Heraclitus said that waking men share a world in common but the sleeper turns to a world uniquely his own. Perhaps those who cannot read do not share what, to the literate, is a/the world. Perhaps the Lebenswelt of the illiterate is more like an animal's Umwelt? (I don't think cats can read and they definitely are skittish, albeit they may nonetheless be wise.)

Again, thank you for reading(sic) thinking. Vale! Pace!

+2023.11.07 v039
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  1. Aside: Something else I learned at that Episcopal prep school was how to "curse", especially to invoke the Lord's Name in vain. "Jesus f---ing Christ", for example. That is I think also a world-historically interesting question. But I'm not sure if in my case it's also a symptom of mild Tourette's syndrome. Did He or didn't He? I don't think He studied His Talmud at St. Paul's School for Boys, Brooklandville, Maryland, in the late 1950's CE. Also: I think that if a person has mastered the use of polysyllabic words they have thereby also earned the right to use monosyllables, as in George Steiner's ending of his essay on British art historian traitor Sir Anthony Blunt: "Damn the man."
  2. I'm listening to Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize speech. He describes "All Quiet on the Western Front" at length. Definitely sounds like my kind of book. Item: "You can't communicate with your father; he said you'd be a coward if you don't enlist. Your mother too...." (fortunately, not mine: my father helped me get a deferment and my mother was dead)
  3. July 2020 I have Œdipus's affliction: swollen feet and ankles aka edema.
  4. Was this revenge of a toxic introject? Part of "their" ideological crap was that you should do an outline before writing a paper. I never did this, until my dissertation proposal at TC at age > 40 years, and that was more like illuminateion (cf.: IHS) than throwaway word-skimming. But this attempt to synopsize Camus was an outline, one I even did just for myself. OMG.
  5. If you, my reader, wonder at some of the ungentle words I use to refer to what hurts me, let me say I hope I am thereby only using the ipssimum verba of my tormentors themselves (or word-plays thereupon). I aim to skewer them on stakes of their own toxic words.
  6. This would save students a lot of wasted time writing, and save teachers a lot of wasted time reading word-count text. It would cultivate the virtue of succinctness. It would encourage students to strive to have something to say. It would quickly show both student and teacher whether student had anything to say. More value at less cost.

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