Whose Struggle?

Bob Blaisdell never condemned a student for reading a book, regardless of its subject matter or author. Until one day.

January 4, 2018
 
 
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I’m ashamed of feeling proud for not having read a particular book. Because reading is good. It doesn’t matter what.

Several years ago, Sara, a middle-aged student, told me during her office visit that she was reading Fifty Shades of Grey. I didn’t react, and she said, “Of course, you haven’t read that, have you?”

“I don’t think I’ve even heard of it.”

“Professor! Everyone’s heard of it! Even The New York Times has written about it. Women’s naughty romance? … You’ve heard of it.”

“I guess I’ve heard of it.” I must’ve; I read The New York Times.

“Complete trash,” she went on. “And don’t worry, I’m not going to read the sequels.”

Probably she was trying to shock me, provoke me into exposing myself as the snob and prude I am.

But back to that point: students who have read something! It’s wonderful. Reading is an activity I never condemn or mock -- no matter if it’s comic books, romance, horror, sci-fi or any other genre. Besides, I love comics.

Then why do I inwardly cringe when Janet, my ever-eager perpetual student -- to whom I introduced Tolstoy and Jane Austen, Chekhov and Langston Hughes, Junot Díaz and Lara Vapnyar -- tells me that she’s always thankful for the end of the semester when she can get back to her beloved Agatha Christie?

Fine, I’m a snob and a prude and a cynic. But I still love any student who reads.

Except …

Recently, a former favorite student showed up at my office. Let's call him Al (a pseudonym). Clever Al, whose grandfather had been a renowned “people’s poet” in a former Soviet republic. Al had taken my remedial English class and both freshman English courses but had disappeared just before he was supposed to graduate.

“I had to come back, Professor Bob,” he said, now a smiling, plump, late-20s entrepreneur. “I had one last course to complete my degree, and I was glad to be able to visit with you again.”

He almost immediately referred to what we used to talk of (mainly me): my Russian studies, my children, my travels, my advice to him way back when that if he wanted a solid basis for literary studies, he should read the Bible cover to cover.

“That was amazing, Professor,” he said. “I did it. I read the whole thing. It doesn’t all tie together, but it’s cultural history, man. I was proud I did it; it was really educational. And I read it because you suggested it.”

I’ll bet I was beaming. That’s when Al leaned in and added, “And I’m reading Mein Kampf.”

Doctors aren’t supposed to be shocked when they’re examining you, and English professors aren’t supposed to be shocked when you tell them what you’re reading. I must have winced.

He was smiling when he said, “Have you read it?”

“No!” I said, because the thought of doing so insulted me. “I don’t read homicidal maniacs!”

I felt as flattened as I’d felt flattered. It’s the conspiratorial confidentiality that shocks us, isn’t it? (“You and I, non-Jews, non-blacks, non-others, we can be frank with each other.”) But I wasn’t thinking that. I felt it.

And I also felt defensive. He was insinuating, “You couldn’t possibly be afraid of reading Hitler’s memoirs, are you? Afraid you might be a convert?” That’s what it felt like he meant, and I was riled.

“You gotta admit, Bob” -- Al nodded, his sweet, confiding voice really pushing it now -- “he was smart about some things … and a very good writer.”

I shook my head and erupted, “Nope!”

Only later did I mutter to myself, “You only get one chance with me not to be a genocidal maniac, and if you cross that line and kill six million people, I don’t ever have to read what you wrote.”

“Remember,” Al tried to pacify me, “he wasn’t always ‘that way.’”

I erupted, “That’s true -- he was once a baby!”

So Al had read the Bible at my suggestion and also, I remembered, my bible, Anna Karenina, and now he was reading Mein Kampf. Our happy reunion had gone down the sewer.

I had to leave, and now wanted to leave, for my next class. I stood up, and he also got up and offered me his hand. I shook it, and he said he might drop by again this semester if that was OK.

I nodded, even though it wasn’t.

He paused to glance at my bookshelves, a brick wall to most of my students. “You’ve done some more books?” (He knew I often edited books for Dover Publications, as back in the day I had given him a few.)

“Yeah.” I grabbed one, Essays on Civil Disobedience, and offered it to him. “If you like,” I said.

“I would, thank you.” He turned it over to the back cover.

“Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gandhi!” I said as savagely as I smilingly could, and added, “Nadezhda Tolokonnikova -- she was in Pussy Riot.”

“Got it.” He smiled.

But there was something uneasy in my mind as I walked across campus. I was troubled not just by what Al had admitted to or boasted of but also by what I had said: “I don’t read homicidal maniacs.” They’re not my cup of tea, don’t you know!

And then my memory awoke: about 10 years ago, while working for Dover on Great Speeches of the 20th Century, I had decided I didn’t want Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin rubbing shoulders with Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. or even FDR. To weasel out of including maniacs in my selection, I jokingly suggested to an editor at Dover that somebody could compile a complementary anthology -- “Horrible Speeches by Madmen and Murderers” or something like that.

A year later, when I was in the midst of another assignment or two, that very editor called to say he was sending me the contract for “the bad guys’ speeches book” that I had proposed.

“The what?”

By reflex (I’m a freelancer) and from guilt (I sort of did suggest it), I plunged into the abyss that became Infamous Speeches: From Robespierre to Osama bin Laden. With bin Laden on the cover and John C. Calhoun, King Leopold II, Joseph McCarthy, Mao, Saddam Hussein and the original deplorables -- Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler -- and other bad company jostling inside, the book’s a paperbound container of verbal toxins.

I felt poisoned for the duration of that project to be in those devilish men’s presence. All the speeches had me wondering how they could have had audiences (whom today we’d politely call “supporters”) who shared their bloodlust. I regretted having had librarians help me track down the text of a monstrous speech at the United Nations by Idi Amin. When I finally xeroxed a copy of that foulness, I wondered if maybe surgeons feel this way when they cut out a cancer. But, of course, they don’t; I was collecting tumors for a chamber of horrors.

As I with chagrin remembered why I had been reading works by monsters, I reflected a moment: Why was Al reading Hitler’s memoirs? I shuddered -- and decided I didn’t care to speculate about his possible reasons.

Sometimes my curiosity about the motivations of others comes to a halt, as if I’ve reached the edge of an abyss. I’m going to leave that abyss between me and Al. Despite being a teacher and writer (I’m supposed to be open-minded, forgiving), I’m not feeling obliged to build a bridge to him.

I want my distance.

I don’t want to know why Al, a “nice guy,” an “educated guy,” a keen reader, a descendant of citizens repressed in the U.S.S.R., fond of me (and I still possibly fond of him), finds Hitler smart on some counts. I don’t want to know that there are books I believe shouldn’t be read, that there are books written by people so reprehensible that they get to drop dead onto my no-read list.

Yet I’m still ashamed that I have such a list.

Bio

Bob Blaisdell is a professor of English at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York.

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