An Unreliable Alchemy
Irina Dumitrescu on the enchantment of books, early reading experiences, and the stories that shape us
One day the world shifted, and no one noticed but me. I was nineteen years old and sitting in a course on “Romantic Poetry and Prose” at the University of Toronto. We had begun reading Byron’s Don Juan, a text I approached with trepidation. I was afraid I might not like it, a realization that would have been devastating. As a teenager I had tried to read Don Juan twice, each time getting further but never quite finishing the poem. Always from the same edition, too: the stately Houghton Mifflin Poetical Works of Lord Byron, its brown cover ornamented with silver and gold. This book, and the poems in it, had been my scripture. When I felt longing or loneliness, it was to Byron I turned, often to the same beloved lyrics. “When We Two Parted” and “So We’ll Go No More a Roving” made my heart ache with the feeling I had been born too late, too far. (The high romance of Venetian balls, Greek wars, and disfigured aristocratic playboys was nowhere to be found in my wintry suburbs.) In high school, I made a ritual of reading his “Thoughts Suggested by a College Examination” every year, the night before exams began, rejoicing in his satire of a professor “denouncing dire reproach to luckless fools, / Unskill’d to plod in mathematic rules.” In the meantime, though, I had begun studying English literature seriously. What if Don Juan could not endure my almost-twenty-year-old critic’s ken, now sharpened by Milton and Spenser and Melville and Woolf? What if Byron’s verse seemed sloppy, his witticisms facile?
As I began to read the epic, I was relieved to find I still loved it. It was at once familiar and fresh. Byron’s metre, even when it hobbled a bit, felt natural, his diction struck me as the best possible way of phrasing things, his jokes had just the right bite. A few classes into our discussion of Don Juan, as I concentrated on a line of verse in the book open on my lap, I thought, “That is exactly how I would have written it.” In the next second, the room around me seemed to slide about three inches to the right. I tried not to cry, barely understanding why my eyes filled with tears. In those blurry moments, the sense of self I had believed in, a firm shell that traveled through time and space remaining for the most part untouched, shattered.
I could no longer tell if I loved Byron’s poetry, or if there was even an “I” who was distinct enough to have an opinion about it. I had started reading Byron during puberty, early enough that he had entered my bones and my blood. Did the rhythm of his verse strike me as beautiful because it was, or because I had absorbed it so deeply, at such a young age, that it had become my own? Were his bon mots funny because they appealed to my sense of humor, or because he had reached across the centuries and taught me to be his perfect reader? The result of my literary education had been to unmake me, to teach me the ways in which my instincts and emotions and most private thoughts were but echoes of a long-dead man’s ottava rima.
We often speak of finding ourselves in books. Books reflect our experience of the world back to us, giving it beauty, form, and a curious legitimacy. We are not the first to have felt a certain way or to have had a particular thought. Recognizing ourselves in the warped mirror of the printed page can make us feel, counterintuitively, solid. There’s something more real about an emotion described in fiction. This urge to see oneself represented can threaten to become narcissistic tyranny. My fellow teachers of English are frustrated with the undergraduate preference for “relatable” literature. It quietly threatens our livelihood, especially if we traffic in stubbornly unrelatable tales about heroes who kill fire-breathing dragons and knights “pricking” across allegorical dreamscapes. But I understand it too, this demand to connect to books emotionally. It is a desire not to feel alone in history, one we feel more intensely when young. As we get older, history is too much with us.
It is relatively easy to recognize how literature might reflect us. What is harder to trace is the way literature makes us. And make us it does, especially, I think, when we are young and moldable. There is something profoundly formative about the books we encounter in childhood and adolescence, the first steps of learning a new language, the poetry we are forced to memorize if we are lucky enough to have such hidebound teachers. There is no way to prove this of course, no way to weigh Dr. Seuss against a university reading list or a novel discovered in retirement. In believing this, I am extrapolating from my own vivid recollections of early books and lessons onto the rest of the world. A long history of educational thought suggests that early reading holds a special place in a person’s ethical education. Renaissance humanist teachers were attentive to the ways that texts could shape children’s manners and morals. The Puritans on both sides of the Atlantic took children’s reading seriously, raising children on spiritual verses and allegories, catechisms, and invigorating stories of martyrdom. Children’s books are no less important today, tasked with inculcating more modern values such as diversity and tolerance. In early America, the popular New England Primer started its alphabet lesson by sternly reminding children that “In Adam’s Fall, We sinned all.” These days, as a 2013 children’s picture-book suggests, A is for Activist.
Generations of teachers have tried to influence their pupils’ behavior and beliefs through literature, but books refuse to be so strictly disciplined. Literature makes up the building blocks of our consciousness, but it does so in slippery, hard-to-harness ways. The books we meet teach us which words go together like sugar and spice, the delicate shades of emotions we might yet learn to feel, gut-tightening desires for experiences we vaguely imagine, even the rhythms of the language when it is tripping along. We often encounter these volumes by accident, on a grandparent’s or teacher’s shelf, in an unloved corner of the library, or most deliciously, because someone with authority has forbidden us to read them. Sometimes these are books we forget even as they seep gently into our souls. Sometimes the discovery stays bright and vivid in our memory: the exact spot on the shelf, the smell of its paper and binding glue, where we sat or lay as we read it, the rush of attendant emotions. What these objects do to us is unplanned and uncontrollable. This, after all, is the trick of the abecedary: A might be taught along with Adam or Activism, but once learned, it can introduce Atheism, Ambition, Adultery, and Alcohol.
There is more than one way to be a child. Even after the standard regulation period is over, we can recover that heady mix of excitement and impotence by learning a new language. The earliest words, phrases, and songs I encountered in each tongue I speak have a way of sticking in my memory, like a pin holding the language firmly in place. I still recall that my first words in English were “Ajeskal, tusayd, I love you,” lyrics I heard in Israel in the mid-80s long before I knew what they meant. If for some reason I am forced to speak French on my deathbed, I am quite sure I’ll have forgotten the Molière and Verlaine we read in high school, to say nothing of the authors I’ve loved since then. Instead, I’ll hum “L’enfant au tambour,” a French version of the unbearably monotonous “Little Drummer Boy,” which we were forced to sing in my elementary school classes. Even German, a language I learned in graduate school, remains shaded by the weighty political interests of one of my first teachers. It is ever the language of “Umweltverschmutzung” (environmental pollution), “Abtreibungsdebatte” (abortion debate), and “Holocaust-Mahnmal” (Holocaust memorial).
The memory of an early encounter with a book or a language is a riddle: why is one jumble of words evocative, while others forgotten? Were they really that powerful at the time, or do I remember them that way because of meaning they later acquired? The only book I recall from my early childhood in Romania involved a girl named Terra who traveled the world. My early years are a blank, but thinking back on this book conjures the full scene: sitting on my grandparents’ bed, the lamp on the headboard, even a ghost of the smell of my grandmother’s flowered housecoats. The borders of my country were closed at that time. There was no reason to think I would emigrate to four other lands, that I would become a restless wanderer too. Did Terra stay with me because she later grew in significance, or because she quietly shaped my life to match her adventures?
Even when we know a book has hypnotized us, its commands remain a mystery. When I was around ten years old, my father ordered a copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology from a mail-order book club. Hamilton blends Greek and Roman sources in her account of pagan myth, covering everything from the creation of the world to the Trojan War and the great tragic families of classical literature. At the very end of the volume she includes a brief section on “The Mythology of the Norsemen,” a cloudy afterthought after all the dazzling love stories, adventures, and wars of the Mediterranean. Reading Hamilton’s accounts of Greek myths was like sitting in the hot sun. All I wanted was to learn Greek and travel to Greece, preferably back in time to its ancient iteration. I had no time for Christianity, but would have worshipped the Grecian pantheon if someone had so much as thrown a garland around my neck and started playing the flute. Germanic mythology, on the other hand, struck me as unbearably dour. Who could stomach a religion of incestuous, suicidal heroes and mutilated, doomed gods?
I never did learn Greek. Instead, I studied the medieval varieties of English and Norse and German. I read Icelandic sagas, Beowulf, and the Nibelungenlied in the original, and devoted my career to exploring the early Middle Ages, a time when the classical gods I adored were considered monstrous misunderstandings. Still, it was hard to understand how, given my sybaritic tendencies, I had fallen for poems about sorrowful exiles and burly heroes who make strategic errors in dragon combat. While the Northern myths described in Mythology were gloomy, they were also haunting and enigmatic: they fascinated me, even if I did not quite like them. Hamilton had presented medieval Germanic literature as dark and stern, but she had also given me a taste for it, even if it would take years to develop into hunger.
Unsurprisingly, when I began scholarly work on Anglo-Saxon literature, it was the obscure influence of early textual encounters that stoked my curiosity. A boy who was dedicated to a monastery at a young age in early medieval England would typically have had to learn Latin and memorize the Psalms as part of his new life. These were not simply bookish tasks: the Benedictine Rule required all hundred and fifty psalms to be sung every week as part of the liturgy. Not all monasteries in the period hewed to the Rule, but many a monk in early England would have chanted the prayers often enough to go beyond memorization, making their language and emotions his own. Even Latin, which we think of as a language to be read, was taught as a spoken language in monastic classrooms. Children pronounced and translated Latin proverbs, interpreted the morals of animal fables, and at least in some schools, progressed to reading more advanced poetry, both pagan and Christian.
If the first words I learned in any given language still resonate with me, might that have been true for the Latin these boys (and sometimes girls) began to learn within the monastery walls? And if my early linguistic memories are closely bound up with the culture shock of emigration, what did the emotional rupture of leaving their families do to young monks? How did it affect their experience of Latin, and of the books they learned to read in that language? And what did it mean to memorize and sing the Psalms every week, prayerfully?
The education that medieval and Renaissance authors received certainly shaped the literature they went on to write. Anglo-Saxon religious poets wove images from the Psalms throughout their creations. In his poems, Geoffrey Chaucer often repeats the kinds of proverbs he would have memorized and translated as part of his grammar school learning. He does so ironically, with a schoolboy’s pleasure in mocking authority. The comedies of Terence were used to teach Latin as a spoken language in the early modern period; Shakespeare would likely have read them in school, learning, as if by accident, how to write lively plays with audience-pleasing happy endings.
I have spent over a decade thinking about how children were educated centuries ago, and what continues to strike me is how emotional and sensational the texts they read often were, how wildly inappropriate according to our more enlightened modern standards. Around the year 1000, a shadowy teacher named Ælfric Bata wrote a series of dialogues for the students in his monastery to practice their Latin. In these lively classroom dramas, boys argue, threaten each other with knives, and are harassed by leering, drunken old monks. Later in the middle ages, schoolboys read a histrionic poem called Pamphilus in which the main character rapes his beloved with the help of a dodgy old woman. (This was a bit of a textbook bestseller in the medieval period.) And the Renaissance kids who rehearsed Terence would have practiced speaking Latin using dialogue that described masters beating slaves, children rebelling against fathers, wayward sons carrying on affairs with prostitutes, and, unsurprisingly, men violating women.
Books shape the people we become in ways that are often tantalizingly hard to articulate. I suspect many of the children learning Latin from salacious schoolbooks were taught a handy moralizing interpretation intended to make the material less outrageous. Medieval teachers were masters at making books about sex not about sex: the Song of Songs and the poems of Ovid were sterilized in this manner. To take just one example, a now-nameless medieval French poet cleaned up the story of Semele, incinerated when she has intercourse with Jupiter in his godly form, by saying it was a metaphor for “the soul drunk with the love of God.” And yet there was always the possibility that what stayed with pupils was unintended: emotions, fears, and desires that escaped the confines of the lesson, sensibilities unspoken but profound, the pressing rhythm of a powerful line.
The volume of Byron I fell in love with as a teenager was not on any Ontario public school curriculum. I found it on my seventh-grade teacher’s personal bookshelf, and later bought the same edition for my own collection so as to replicate the magic. Most of my other youthful literary obsessions were also accidents. They spanned the range between Plato and off-brand Star Trek fan fiction, both of which I could still quote if the Piraeus or Vulcan love sonnets ever came up in conversation. The few assigned schoolbooks I remember taught me a dark vocabulary: “Out, damned spot” and “Kill the pig” are the gist of it. Margaret Atwood’s Edible Woman left me with nothing but the vivid and revolting feeling of eating a fertilized egg, the tiny beak and claws scratching against the walls of my mouth.
I think about my own unpredictable relationships with books when I enter the classroom. I now stand on the other side, trying to guide my students through difficult and fascinating works from the past, drawing their attention to strange words and telling rhymes they might otherwise overlook. I know, however, that their journeys will be personal, idiosyncratic. The lessons and pleasures they take from the pages in front of them will be their own, often beyond the scope of my imagination. There is little rhyme or reason to the ways books imprint on our minds, our ears, or our tongues. Their endurance in our imagination is connected to literary quality, but not absolutely; it has little to do with prestige or authority. In learning to read we are taught to follow ordered lines of text, but our awakenings take place in the margins. Enchantment is an unreliable alchemy, and so, in the end, is education.
Irina Dumitrescu is Professor of English Medieval Studies at the University of Bonn. She is the author of The Experience of Education in Anglo-Saxon Literature and the editor of Rumba Under Fire: The Arts of Survival from West Point to Delhi. Her essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Politico.eu, The Yale Review, Southwest Review, Washington Post, and Longreads, and been reprinted in Best American Essays 2016 and Best Food Writing 2017. Find her on Twitter @irinibus or on her website irinadumitrescu.com.