By Chris Mares
Richard picked up his copy of, “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read,” by Pierre Bayard and decided that it was about time he read it. He opened it randomly on page 15 and began to read, “Skimming books without actually reading them does not in any way prevent you from commenting on them.” True, Richard thought, wondering if he had ever, in fact, read The Odyssey, even though he’d been teaching it for eighteen years. He went on to read, “It’s even possible that this is the most efficient way to absorb books, respecting their inherent depth and richness without getting lost in the details.” Richard nodded. This was familiar territory.
Outside it was snowing. It was a wet and useless snow and the road that ran by Richard’s house was dark and slushy. He was halfway through grading final papers and finding it hard to focus. Most of his students had chosen the creative option rather than doing a formal paper and Richard had spent the morning reading short plays and poems, and looking at various collages, drawings and even paintings.
One painting synthesized the anonymous sixteenth century Spanish novella, Lazarillo de Tormes, Dutch Genre Painting, and Martin Luther’s 95 thesis, in a way that Richard found remarkable. The painting consisted of a Church at the center with clouds above, an image of Jesus Christ in the top righthand corner and the area in front of the Church populated by a group of destitute and suffering people. Nailed to the door of the Church were, what Richard took to be, Martin Luther King’s 95 theses.
‘It’s amazing to me,’ Richard had typed, responding to his student, ‘that while you were thinking about these three ‘texts’ you were trying to paint the clouds in the style of various sixteenth century Dutch masters.’ Richard had wanted to name one of these masters but couldn’t remember any, though he vaguely recalled the paintings to which his student referred to in her justification.
I’m such a fraud, Richard thought, hitting send and moving on to the next project. It was by a student called Jayce, who attended class remotely. Richard had never seen the student as Jayce’s video was always turned off, but he’d assumed by the name, that Jayce was a girl.
It was surprising then, when Richard hit play, and Jayce was suddenly a boy, singing his song, ‘Home’, that addressed The Odyssey, The Torah, and the biography, Rising out of Hatred.
It transpired that Jayce not only wrote and sang the song but also played all the instruments and recorded it.
“I’ve got the chorus stuck in my head (in a good way!),” Richard wrote to Jayce. The chorus went,
Now I’m trying to get home, home, home,
God, I feel so alone,
I’m trying to get home, home, home,
Don’t know how far I’ll go.
“I was impressed by the fact that you managed to get The Odyssey and The Torah referenced in the first verse, Jayce!” Richard typed, “I bet no one has ever done that before.”
The first three lines of the first verse went,
Drowning in my feelings, man I’m lost at sea,
Far away from home, on an odyssey,
This place isn’t Zion, …
Richard listened to the song again, with Jayce singing, “Drowning in my feelings, man I’m lost at sea/Far away from home, on an odyssey …”
He didn’t point out to Jayce that Odysseus couldn’t at that point, have known he was on an Odyssey, as it was only later that Homer coined the phrase.
But that isn’t the point, Richard thought, going into the kitchen to make a cup of coffee he didn’t particularly want. The point is that you wrote and recorded a song about three of our texts and clearly the process meant something to you.
Richard got up and walked to the bookcase in the hallway to locate his copy of The Odyssey. The epic was 498 pages long and Richard noted that the corner of page 116 had been turned down and it was on this page that his notes and highlighting had stopped.
“Hmmm,” Richard said, thumbing through the introduction where he had made notes and used a pink and yellow highlighter, “maybe I didn’t finish it. Or maybe I just skimmed it.”
He turned to the opening line which he had highlit in pink, “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns, driven time and again off course …”
That’s me, Richard thought, I am that man, except I never got home!
George, Richard’s cat, was busy washing his ass on the carpet, one back leg over his shoulder, like a double bass player riffing in a jazz band.
“You don’t have these worries George,” Richard said, thumbing through the pages and finding that page 439 was also turned down, though not as much as page 116. Richard bent back the spine and read, Book 22, Slaughter in The Hall.
“Perhaps I did read it,” he said vaguely remembering the suitors and their unfortunate end. He put The Odyssey down and picked up, “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read,” and skimmed through to Chapter 4 which addressed talking about books you have forgotten. The prelude to the chapter began, “… in which, along with Montaigne, we raise the question of whether a book you have read and completely forgotten, and which you have even forgotten you have read, is still a book you have read.”
George was now asleep in a paper bag on the carpet, his ass apparently clean.
Richard wondered if it would be better to be a cat, than a fraud.
Two more years, Richard thought, five semesters, then I’m done. He got up and put The Odyssey back on the shelf then sat down and turned to Chapter 9 of “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read”, the preamble to which read, “in which it is confirmed, with regard to the novels of David Lodge, that the first condition for speaking about a book you haven’t read is not to be ashamed.”
Richard smiled and closed the book, then put it back on the shelf, next to The Odyssey.
He felt decidedly better.