one more note about that island

If you’re going to be a successful teacher at a liberal-arts college — something I have tried to be for twenty-five years now — you have to be flexible and adaptable. You can't work just within your specialization, as you might be able to do at a research university. Sooner or later, you are bound to have to fill in for someone on leave, or team-teach a course whose reading list is not within your control — or maybe you'll just decide to try something new.

For some people this can be frustrating; for me it’s one of the best things about my job. Every year I teach books that are new to me; and I don't enjoy them all. But if I’m going to teach them well, I have to practice appreciation of them — even if I openly admit (which I do) that this book or that one isn't my cup of tea.

I think that this discipline has made me a more wide-ranging reader, but it has also revealed to me that there are limits to my catholicity of taste. D. H. Lawrence, for example, has always set my teeth on edge and probably always will; but I can recognize why he’s important, and I can show my students that importance. I wouldn't want to boot him off the island, though I would like him to stay on the other side of it most of the time.

And there’s another point I want to add to this conversation: we can change over time. Until just a few years ago I greatly preferred the Odyssey to the Iliad, but that preference has been reversed. Don't know why, but it has. I find it almost impossible to read Faulkner now, except for a handful of things, chief among them “The Old People” — one of the best short stories ever written. Yet reading Absalom, Absalom! as an undergraduate was one of the transcendent reading experiences of my life.

I am almost certain that if I read Absalom, Absalom! for the first time now, I wouldn't like it very much. I would think it absurdly overwrought. I might not even be able to finish it. But I don't think that’s necessarily because I’m a smarter or better or more sophisticated reader than I was thirty years ago. Maybe I knew some things then that I don't know any more. Maybe I was open to experiences then that — for whatever reason — I’m no longer open to.

And maybe when I’m seventy I’ll learn to love Faulkner all over again. Who knows? So here’s a reason for being very careful before you throw any books off the island: later on, even much later on, you may find that you need them after all.