My wife and I traveled to Charlottesville, Va, this past weekend to do some sighting-seeing, wine tasting, a little bookshop browsing, some restauranting, and other general touristy things that probably annoy some of the locals. We’ve been here before but only to visit Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello. We hadn’t really taken in the town itself.
From the Washington D.C. area we headed south down route 29 through the beautiful undulating hills of the early autumn Virginia countryside. It’s a nice ride. It’s only about 2 hours from the Washington D.C. area. We didn’t have time to stop but I can say from the number of signs, there were a number of wineries along the route. An area with apparently so many wineries there are companies that specialize in busing people around on tasting tours of various wineries in the area. We actually passed a wine tour bus along the route.
Charlottesville is labeled a city but it feels more like a big town. Its claim to notoriety is that it’s the home of our 3rd president, Thomas Jefferson, and the college he founded: The University of Virginia. My wife and I were headed south to stay at a resort for our 25th wedding anniversary and planned this one night stay over in Charlottesville. We chose to stay at the 200 South Street Inn, which is located in the downtown area within 2 blocks of Charlottesville’s renown outdoor pedestrian mall. It was the perfect spot.
The main Inn is a large 4 story building (guessing early 20th century construction) with a large wrap around porch. The inside is absolutely charming, with a mostly mid 19th century decor. The library, where they serve wine and finger foods (cheese, crackers, grapes, nuts, etc) in the late afternoon for all guests, is the dream of any book collector. For tourism it happened to be the slow season—what luck!—so the Inn wasn’t near full. The Inn has 24 rooms and I’m guessing maybe 5 or 6 rooms were taken the (Thursday) night we stayed. So we had just about all the wine to ourselves! Another reason you want to stay at this Inn is because you can walk just about everywhere—because you need too. Okay, so we actually had only one glass of wine and headed out.
Charlottesville’s famous pedestrian mall is 2 short blocks away. We emerged into it from a side alley street. The mall is 8 blocks of paved brick walking area, nice and wide, with a number of boutiques, a lot of nice restaurants and pubs, a lot of outdoor seating (“community living room”), a number of art galleries, a fair number of bookstores, and in general I’d describe the whole feel, people and environs, as being “artsy.” I love the smell of civilization in the morning.
So I browsed through 3 bookshops. A proper vetting of these shops would take a weekend dedicated to it, but with other sights to see and dinner reservations, I quickly browsed—giving each shop maybe 10 minutes—and moved on. My catch, for various reasons, was small. I ended up with a special edition of Mark Twain’s Roughing it, so I upped my Twain collection again. And I found a nice paperback edition of Tom Wolf’s Pump House Gang which I’ve been wanting to read. Believe me there was a lot more there waiting to be found, but hardcore book browsing takes some time which was limited this particular evening. That was it for this trip. I’m thinking a trip next autumn for a weekend of just booking and wining in Charlottesville! What a great town!
The next morning we checked out and headed south toward our weekend destination…after a stop at Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyard for wine of course.
John Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, once wrote: “Life is one long lesson in humility.” And that about captures it. It’s one of my favorite quotes, because it seems to get confirmed almost every day. Of course I’ve learned (and re-learned) a lot of other lessons along the way. And so while humility is one of the core lessons of life, I recently I got to thinking about where (by what means) I learned all the other stuff that’s served to confirm just how important humility plays in the scheme of one’s life.
If I had to list the main sources of my education, I would put them as follows: 1) bookstores, 2) periodicals, & 3) schools. (Note: Libraries are the archives of civilization and very important, but for me, my primary experience with them was at school.)
Starting from the end of the list, let me be candid and say I was a lousy student growing up. After getting the basics in reading, writing, and math in primary school (God has a special place for Elementary school teachers), I pretty much checked out mentally during my secondary school years. Socialization is an important part of any education, and I feel confident my scores were rather high in that area, but unfortunately that proficiency wasn’t part of my grade point average. So, after a less than stellar showing, pathetic really, in High School, I decided my best option was to enlist move on to college. Even if I wasn’t exactly college material at the time, it just seemed the best alternative over getting a full time job.
It was a community college luckily, so they pretty much had to take me. I can’t say I made the honor roll, but I was in the running—a close, razor thin 50 point margin—so at least I was improving. Sloooowly but surely, however, I was discovering what truly interested me (Now, if only I could making a living with it!). The history, literature, and philosophy classes confirmed my intrinsic interest in the humanities (Okay, Great. So poverty would be my lot!). I actually did fairly well in those classes. In others words, I liked the subjects that caused the typical tuition paying parent to say, “And what are you going to do with a degree in…”.
More importantly at community college I adopted strategic patience, which entailed taking my sweet ass time getting through community college…i.e. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and was drifting between an extension of my teenage years, rotating between part-time and full-time school attendance, and searching for a career while working on-and-off at my dad’s company. It goes almost without saying, but I will, my community college years went well beyond the typical 2 year period. It was truly a time of drifting, hoping for something to come along.
But there was a bright ray of sunshine that pierced those cloudy, horizonless, years. My professional community college years would lead to the chance meeting of my future wife, Melissa, in Doctor Jones’s history class. Of course I ended up doing lousy in that class—odd for a guy who loves history I realize—because I spent most of the class time passing notes (we didn’t have cellphones) with Melissa. For this reason alone, I wouldn’t change anything from my community college years. Nothing. I’ve failed at many things in life, but meeting my future wife as a result of my foolishness turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.
Well eventually I took a job (before completing college) and got married to my soulmate. Of course, like so many people who don’t complete their degree and enter the work force, I told myself I would like to finish what I’d started and so I spent years looking into various programs hoping to complete my BS degree. No one in my immediate family had gotten their college degree, so there was the added desire of being the first—it was also about pleasing my wonderful parents who’d done so much for me. Eventually, about 9 years (yeah, it took me awhile) into my career, I went back to college. It’s amazing how much more focused you are when you’re married and already have a career—I think it’s called the maturing process actually. I completed my BS degree (with honors) and ultimately went on to get a graduate degree (MS) from Johns Hopkins University. Considering how my college career had begun, it was a real high point in my life to walk in a commencement for my graduate degree from such a prestigious institution.
With all this said, while I enjoyed my later college years, and enjoyed learning “how to think,” and loved the colleges I attended, if I’d had to rely on just my formal schooling I’d be in poor shape educationally speaking. In large part, my education has come from the writers of essays, quality magazines, and books. My love for reading is mostly responsible for the expansion of my mental world—and continues to be.
This brings me to the importance of periodicals (newspapers & magazines) in my educational ramble. It’s in periodicals that one learns about the important issues and concerns of the day, and also finds some of the best writing and thinking. After leaving college and settling down in the Washington D.C. area for my new job, I got subscriptions to The Economist, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Weekly Standard, just to name some, and I had access to about a dozen major national newspapers at my work—which I read only at lunchtime of course.
So I had more print than I had time. Periodicals, unlike books that required a lot more time, gave the added satisfaction of making you feel like you’d completed something. I could finish an article or essay after, say, 5 to 10 minutes, not days or weeks (or months sometimes in my case) like a book. The writer has to keep their prose succinct and move along quickly. The good journalists or essayist had to be more economical, while at the same time being graceful in the telling to keep you engaged. All this consumption of prose confirmed my standing as an autodidact, the ancient Greek word for someone who’s self-taught. Yes, I ended up with a great formal education, but being truly educated is a lifetime commitment, not something awarded to you and then you’re done. No one can actually give you an education, you have to dig for it. Colleges just teach us where we might want to look and how best to use the shovel (our mind). They provide a learning environment. Unless you’re studying something highly specialized—engineering, medicine, law, physics, chemistry, etc, etc,—most of us are really autodidacts. We’re all, for the most part, self-taught. We read and we know things.
And where does this self-teaching mostly come from?…well, for me, it was at the bookstore. George Orwell’s bookshop memories weren’t the most inspiring, but mine have been some of the great pleasures of my life. I don’t recall exactly when, but after moving into the Washington D.C. area, I started visiting bookstores on my days off. How many people can remember the first time they visited, say, a Borders Bookstore? Well, I can. It was the one in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, in the early 1990s. My wife and I were shopping and happened to see the Borders Bookstore in a shopping center. At the time, I’d never heard of Borders. I was use to the small bookstores I’d visited in Virginia Beach, Virginia, like B. Dalton and Waldenbooks. Border’s, however, was a large bookstore where you could find just about anything and browse (for hours if you wanted) through the new books and even thumb through them while sipping a drink at their in-store coffee shop. It was a book lovers paradise! The large bookstores, like Borders and Barnes & Noble, didn’t just offer books, but a bookish cultural atmosphere. One goes to a bookstore not only to look at books, but to be reverenced by being among the works of so many great minds. “Everyone worships” as David Foster Wallace said, and for the book lover bookstores are the temple biblos. Yes, rather pathetic I realize. But for me and many others there’s a tinge of emotional truth in this. I guess I also keep going back to bookstores partially hoping some of the genius and masterly craftsmanship, wrapped in those bindings, will rub off on me. But alas, decades into the therapy, no such luck. But oh well, one must have faith—some free time and money too—so I’ll just keep trying until the gig is up. I can (as my wife happily agrees) think of a far more costlier passion.
New bookstores give one a chance to see (or order) all that’s in print, but used bookstores bring the added thrill of discovery. It’s there that I’ve found some real treasures that have been out of print for decades. I think of finding such minor but personally gratifying treasures like a first edition of John Buchan’s Memory Hold the Door, or an 1865 four volume set edition of James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, or entire collection of Aldous Huxley’s essays, or a special edition of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And then there’s just the large number of deals I’ve gotten on good contemporary books I have on my to-buy list. I wander amongst the rows of shelves, either seeing books I recognize or picking out books on various topics I find interesting (I mostly read non-fiction now), and quietly thumbing through them, reading a few sentences or paragraphs, sampling, dipping into, the author’s prose to see if their writing pulls me in. I know, it seems facile…and it is. But that’s just what I do. That’s the intuitive process that works for me. There are usually so many other bookshelves to scan. I don’t usually have time to read half a chapter to see if I like what I’m reading. Most of the people I’ve seen browsing in bookstores seem to do the same thing while standing in the bookstore isles. It’s a reminder to professional writers just how important each sentence and paragraph can be.
We all remember towns for various reasons: the architecture, the restaurants, the bars, the people, etc, etc, but I remember towns mostly for their bookstores. Take Hagerstown, Maryland, a nice midsize northern Maryland town about an hour and a half from my home. I use to take my family there to a nearby campground. The camping was fun, but one of the best parts of the trip was visiting Wonder Book. Some others that stand out are McKay Used Books in Manassas, Virginia. There is Second Looks Books in Prince Frederick, Maryland. There’s AFK Books & Records in Virginia, Beach, Virginia. There’s Riverby Books on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., which is absolutely charming. There’s the famous Capitol Hill Books, which you will enjoy if you don’t get buried in falling books (It almost happen to me on a visit). On trips to Manhattan, in New York City, my wife and I have a tradition of visiting the Strand Bookstore—definitely a must see if you’re in the Big Apple. The Strand brags of having 18 miles of books! It’s one of the great shrines of the book aficionado.
The question I get pretty regularly is: Where do you find time to read all these books? Well, being a slow reader I’ll admit it’s a challenge. First, I can’t say I’ve read every book I’ve bought or have in my personal library. I haven’t. Most collectors haven’t. I might be lucky if I’ve read (in entirety) maybe 30 percent of my books (Realize, I do have a lot of books though). Second, I read every chance I get and, this is important, I take a book with me almost everywhere I go. A lot of us have down time that goes to waste: like waiting in line somewhere—for an oil change, or for someone to meet you at a restaurant, etc, etc. Instead of watching cable news—which only elevates the blood pressure—during my lunch time at work I prefer to read. And instead of watching TV at home, I prefer to read, and when I have time, to write. I also listen to audio books in my car, which is a nice way to get through a book while commuting back and forth to work. There are a lot of free audio books out there by the way. So for me it’s about grabbing all available time to fill the mind with prose. It’s just a part of who I am now and I can’t imagine not being able to enjoy a book or a fine essay. As for the value of all this reading, well, I cannot say that my readings have made me a better person, though I hope it has, but I can say it’s certainly helped provide me with a standard of excellence to aspire to even if I never seem to get there. If anything, the more I read, the more I learn, the more I realize just how little I really know. Life truly is one long lesson in humility. Live and learn as the saying goes. That’s the great game…and I plan on staying in the game until it’s over.
I typically read a couple books at one time. When someone asks, How can you do that?, I always reply, “Well isn’t that what you did in college or high school? Didn’t we have to read multiple books at once?” Sure we did, and I guess the habit (or more accurately, my lack of focus) has stayed with me. Well right now I’m reading both a history book and a book of selected letters of Mark Twain.
Now, if you’ve read this blog you may have detected my affection for Twain. He is, in my view, one of the finest writers this soil has ever produced. His humor and charm hit you solidly between the eyes through that trademark prose.
Last night I read these words in the opening of a letter Mark Twain wrote to Frank Burrough. It brought a good laugh and as always contained a grain, if not a bushel, of truth.
My dear Burrough,
As you describe me I can picture myself as I was 22 years ago. The portrait is correct. You think I have grown some. Upon my word there was room for it. You have described a callow fool, a self sufficient ass, a mere human tumble-bug imagining that he is remodeling the world and is entirely capable of doing it right. Ignorance, intolerance, egotism, self-assertion, opaque perception, dense and pitiful chuckle-headedness—and an almost pathetic unconsciousness of it all. That is what I was at 19 and 20 and that is what the average Southerner is at 60 today. Northerners too of a certain grade. It is of children like this that voters are made. And such is the primal source of our government! A man hardly knows whether to swear or cry over it.
I should note, Mark and I are both southerners and neither of us take any offense to the self deprecating humor. And that’s largely because it’s painfully true…
I picked up my youngest son at school the other day. After getting in the car, instead of immediately buckling up, he started searching his book bag for something. I sat patiently and waited util he was ready to go. He found what he was looking for and got buckled up. I started driving toward his favorite restaurant, where I’d promised to take him the day before. As we were driving, I noticed in the rear view mirror he was reading through a book. Great, I thought. We stopped at a traffic light and he asked me to turn and look at a map and a sign language chart in the book. He had the air of a kid who knew his dad liked books and so he wanted to show this one off. I was happily obliged to let him.
After parking the car, my son quickly unbuckled and started showing me sections of the book. At first, because he showed me a section with short bios of U.S. Presidents and a section of U.S. state maps, I thought it might have been some type of encyclopedia but I still wasn’t sure yet. After about my third question, my son finally handed me the book. The cover of the book had me immediately.
There in vivid color were the starry heavens, mother earth, an a profound quote by one of the 20th century’s greatest philosophers. I have to say the quote of Ludwig Wittgenstein really sealed the deal. It’s one of my favorite quotes, and for a dictionary meant for 3rd graders this philosophically enlightening statement on the cover was just the type of display in intellectual presumptiveness I find very encouraging. A quote like that ignites reflection before you even open the book.
Books should, at a minimum, be a value added experience, an in some cases, like this little dictionary, a potentially mind stretching (“world” expanding) one also.
This Dictionary was given to my son as part of The Dictionary Project (DP). The DP’s goal is to “assist all students in becoming good writers, active readers, creative thinkers, and resourceful learners by providing them with their own personal dictionary.” There are many great causes in life to dedicate yourself to, but this has to rank as one of the most important. So much of the personal and professional success that young people ultimately have in life stems directly from the quality of their education at the primary school level.
In the opening pages of this dictionary there’s a short, concise essay that cuts to the central reason why students (at school and throughout life) need to use and refer to a dictionary regularly:
To succeed in school and in life, you must be able to use the English language effectively. You simply cannot learn all that you need to know without being able to understand the words you hear and read, and without knowing how to use the right words to convey your thoughts and ideas clearly.
For someone who admires intelligence, creativity, and the artful use of language and the power that words can carry (as I’m sure you all do), it was a nice little reminder that there are so many people and groups—teachers, parents, and private Foundations—constantly striving, in big and little ways, to improve the lives of our most precious resource, our children.
The new Trump Administration has been a boon for sales of George Orwell’s book 1984. The novel is a literary masterpiece. Originally published in 1949, it’s a dystopian novel about authoritarianism. The most famous quote, which you’ve probably heard at one time or another, is “Big brother is watching you.” The novel introduces us to concepts like Newspeak, doublethink, and thoughtcrime. The decades old novel is suddenly back on the bestseller list (an Amazon #1 recently) because some of the book’s ideas are speaking to us at this unique time in American history. What this book does, or I should say what all good literature does, is provide us with a vocabulary for articulating our feelings and thoughts. Being able to speak about something allows us to better understand it. Freedom of thought, as the novel tells us, is partly brought about by an expansion of expression via language. Thought and language are tied together.
This brings me to a general theme in Orwell’s work. Like every good writer Orwell was concerned with the truth. For example, Orwell had fought in the Spanish civil war on the side of the Republic against the fascist. He had personally witnessed some of the key events in the war. After the war, he’d read a lot of reports about the war and found a lot of what he’d read contained blatant falsehoods. He knew what was happening. The fascist had ultimately won the Spanish civil war and they were now attempting to shape it’s history through propaganda…or as Orwell might say, they were purposely trying to create its fascist history. Authoritarian leaders, i.e. Franco, Hitler, and Stalin, where not just trying to control the present and the future, but also the past. Propaganda and lies were replacing history and fact and what actually happened. This terrified Orwell:
This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. . . . Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as ‘the truth’ exists. There is, for instance, no such thing as ‘Science’. There is only ‘German Science’, ‘Jewish Science’, etc. The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’ — well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five — well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs — and after our experiences of the last few years that is not a frivolous statement. (Underlining added)
I’ve read the entire, approximately 3 inch thick, volume of the Everyman’s Library edition of George Orwell’s essays. It’s one of my top 10 all time favorite books. Orwell’s novels are excellent, 1984 is one of the finest literary achievements in the English language, but it’s in Orwell’s essays and non-fiction books that we get the George Orwell that’s so admired and respected as a social critic and writer. His essays are a first class education in the humanities and writing all by itself. Take my word on that. We could have a college level course just on Orwell’s essays and it would be a fascinating intellectual and moral adventure.
Being Orwellian, I think, should also mean having a scrupulous concern for precision, integrity, and facts in the way you think, write, and speak. The truth is usually complex and sometimes very difficult to get at, but it can only be genuinely approached along this Orwellian path.