"We really shouldn’t be talking like this.”
It was a line out of a David Lean movie. And at the time it felt like I was living in noir tragedy. I’d done everything right, played the cards of a winning hand, and had an ace up my sleeve. But the ace wasn’t enough, and I found myself with nothing.
My world was crumbling around me, and fast. I needed to get to Santa Fe, quick. But the train was leaving without me. ‘Brief Encounter.’
“We really shouldn’t be talking like this.”
Ten years later, it’s always sunny when the scene cuts to ten years later. I never made it to Santa Fe, the admissions director told me I wasn’t going to St. Johns College. I went to Vermont for five years, did my best with second best.
Then the wilderness years, the roving and tramping, trying to find myself, never forgetting my real purpose, working away slowly, biding time and remembering. Like a Dickensian shoe-maker, working away at my task. If the story were more pulp I’d have been planning a revenge for wrongs done. But this story wasn’t hard-boiled.
“Then as it was, then again it will be /An' though the course may change sometimes /Rivers always reach the sea.” Led Zeppelin, ‘Ten Years Gone.’
I’ve reached the sea, but know not what to make of the shore. The horizon stretches on and ever on. Painstakingly, doggedly, I went about reading the classics – the great books of the western world – the St. John’s curriculum. Roughly 200 books, tens of thousands of pages. Copernicus, Homer, Nietzsche, Heisenberg, Austen, Plato, Tocqueville, Mendel. Literally months of my life.
I read them as I got my hands on them. I had my college library purchase the obscure mathematical works: Ptolemy’s Almagest, Lobachevsky’s Theory of Parallels. Wrote to science departments across the country for charitable offerings of Huygens and Viete. Indeed, the maths and sciences were the hardest to acquire.
And I went further. In Santa Fe they only read selections of Plutarch, I read the whole work. They only read parts of this and that – I read the whole. It’s an exclusive club, and although I was turned away at the door, in the end I paid premium membership.
Reading these books has defined me. My ethics, my view of life, my appreciation of literature, my view on narrative, on the language we use, what civilization is, our role on the planet and the universe, all of it. Where our music comes from. What humans are capable of. What humanism really means.
But the horizon looms. St. Johns has been an institution in America since 1696, and has committed to the great books since 1937. Back then they weren’t reading Einstein, or Watson and Crick. Likewise, there is a great deal of literature on my shelves that in 1696 probably seemed necessary, and has now dropped out: Fibonacci, Galen, Marco Polo, Burke, Cicero, Erasmus.
I always assumed the consummation of the list would lead to further reading, but I never grasped how much. The great books are just the skeletal frame on which the rest – the sinews, colloids and capillaries – hang. The end, just the start. There’s a lifetime’s worth to contend with. I got what I wanted, and now don’t know what to do with it. The guy at the top rubbed out, but the bigger challenge now of figuring out what to do with yourself.
Just like a noir tragedy.