One of the more troubling experiences of my senior year in college was the infrequent-but-still-too-frequent return of recent alumni. Those of us with undetermined futures flocked to these then-departed-happily-now-returned-lost-and-battered souls and asked them how life was, if it was weird to be at home, if they missed the cheap pitchers and general conviviality of our college bar scene; expressed sympathy that they had not even been called back for an interview at Barnes & Noble; and nodded as they told us that it was a genuine treat being able to read something freely, free of assignment and class discussion and 300-level contemplation.
The living at home, unemployed, longing for college times aspects of being a postgrad were not really frightening to me; it’s the bill that comes due for a great four years. (Putting aside mentions of actual bills that come due for a great four years for obvious reasons.)
It was that last bit about reading for pleasure that always struck me in a weird way. The pressure to read didn’t cease at commencement; in some ways, it increased. No longer could I defend my having never read ULYSSES with a shrug and a “Too busy reading shitty lit for shitty lit class, man.” I now had to read—not for the 18-odd peers in my ENG 241—but because it was, in some ways, a societal expectation: reading for pleasure.
And pleasure! What pleases me? What do I like? I can’t just throw my hands up and give an “I like what I like,” ala some out of touch Midwestern father defending his Redbox selection of, let’s say, “The Dilemma.” Having a sense of what you actually enjoy is, well, important if you want to find things you enjoy, and important if you want to be an adult.
Pleasure, in college literature classes, is barely a consideration. Most professors would dismiss talk about a book’s likability as mindless bookclubbing—a compelling argument, to be sure.
I had then and still have now a much clearer idea of what I don’t like. I won’t bore you with negative detail, though I will tell you that if Hell is not only a real place but also a personal den of suffering, custom-fit with meticulous cruelty for each inhabitant, my eternity would be spent listening to fresh-faced first-year Lit majors discuss Sarah Waters’ AFFINITY, the various repressive forces placed on the women—nay, lesbian women!—of Victorian England, and how Waters turns such repression into metaphorical I ALREADY WANT TO SHOVE PENCILS IN MY EARS AND EYES. Oh, and Malcolm Gladwell would be playing foosball with Thomas Friedman somewhere in the room.
All right. Had to come down from that. But seriously.
I just finished with a novel that, more than any other I’ve read in some time, is straight up enjoyable. It’s funny and interesting and impossible to put down and every other adjective of enthrallment you can think of. It’s great. It’s THE ART OF FIELDING by Chad Harbach. The characters are fully-formed, interesting, endearing, etc. It’s got some flaws and some puzzling ends, but not enough to detract from the overall experience. (I’ll save most of that for the upcoming review.)
And I wanted to figure out what exactly about Harbach’s debut filled me with such feelings; at first, I wasn’t really sure. The prose is slick enough—though that’s not everything, otherwise I would read a lot more Jonathan Franzen—and there are all the other aforementioned pluses. Then it dawned on me; the sort of brisk, egotistical coming-to moment usually reserved for times when you realize you’re fixing your hair in a store window, or staring at your reflection on the train: it reminded me so much of my own experience.
The Midwest setting. The underdog liberal arts college. Athletic failure. Cutesy admissions-driven names for freshmen. Mental problems relating to aforementioned athletic failure. The iconic campus landmark.
But is this normal? And if it is—if familiarity is the cornerstone of any positive literary experience—isn’t that kind of fucked up? Shouldn’t we be all into new, unfamiliar shit?
How does this work for other mediums? Do firemen get all hot and bothered for “Rescue Me”? Are we all just looking for a more eloquent person’s rendering or imagining of our own life experiences?
(A rather embarrassing aside: I’m still slogging through David Foster Wallace’s [and more Michael Pietsch’s, I guess] THE PALE KING. And no moment got my literary pieces in my literary denim literally rustling quite like DFW’s mentioning of a town ten miles from where I grew up. The mere fact that a point on a map was reincorporated into a book was enough to pique my interest.)
Isn’t that kind of sad, though? Harbach got so much right about my own life-changing, blood-drainingly-expensive liberal arts experience that I feel like, on some level, I could have just read this book. I mean, there it is, so much I learned in college about the minutiae of team sports and the import of relationships and the weird, eerie, and generally completely unique atmosphere of a small school in the middle of (almost) nowhere. I could have learned about the slight (and totally unsubtle) attempts colleges make to seem “different.” At Westish College—Harbach’s fictional Wisconsin liberal arts school—the freshmen are “freshpersons.” At Knox College—my real-life Illinois liberal arts school—they’re “first-years.” Westish: visiting high schoolers, “prefrosh.” Knox: visiting high schoolers, “prospies.”
And those were some of the more gratifying moments in the book—those I could recognize and identify with. It feels weird and solipsistic and generally unpleasant to just like different interpretations of your own experience.
On the other hand.
At a time in my life when I missed my own college experience—one centered on golf and community and regrettably intense, personal academic study—because of the shittiness of the real world—a place where I’m always not golfing and not part of a community and not studying for any purpose—the book struck me. Not only because it gave me some of that satisfaction again, but because it hammered home the idea that our own innate fear of change and displacement is as generally harmful as any other uniquely human tendency toward self-sabotage. So there’s value there, I guess, in empathy.
What’s even more unpleasant than these thoughts, however, is one’s ability to over-think enjoyment, to compartmentalize the simplest and most human aspects of life, to distill and filter thoughtless pleasure until it’s a pungent, gooey, guilty, bitter liquer. It’s kind of the liberal arts way.