[Ed note: This month’s post is brought to you by M, one of my favorite guest bloggers.]
There’s a book I’ve been trying to read for over half my life, and by that I don’t mean a book I’ve always meant to get to but haven’t yet (that would be the Brothers Karamazov), or a book I’ve occasionally thought about getting to but maybe never will (Stephen King’s IT), or even a particular title from the list of books we’re all supposed to have read at some point or another (too many to count).
Instead I mean a book I’ve picked up and plowed into with the best intentions, time and again, only to spectacularly and convincingly fail to make any headway with, every time. My sister Anne gave me this book for Christmas or a birthday, probably around 1980, or 1982. I think she found it on the shelves of a bookseller friend of hers in Ann Arbor, but that was long ago and I may be way off. Certainly it was the sort of book you’d have expected to find in a used bookstore in Ann Arbor, then and now. It wasn’t Borders, by the way, but Borders was there then, just the one shop (that’s how long I’ve been trying to read this book: Empires have risen and fallen).
The book was called – is called – “Three Medieval Rhetorical Arts”, and was compiled and edited by a man named James J. Murphy who in the interval between my being given the book and the present has become Googleable, though back then he and his book seemed beyond arcane, and that seemed right up my alley: fairly short (235 pp) and made up of modern English translations of three early medieval prescriptive essays on Letter Writing, Composing Latin Poetry, and Sermonizing. It seemed like an important book to have, and to read.
Unfortunately, the book put me to sleep. Repeatedly and predictably, once or twice every year or so for 30-odd years. It was always on a shelf in plain sight – no forgetting it or shoving it away in a spare bedroom — but on some long winter afternoon or a slow summer evening — sitting up or lying down, quiet or with music playing, indoors or out — I’d pick it up and have a go: zzzzzzZZZZZZZZZZZZ, and always in the first few pages of the first essay, or even somewhere in the short introduction. It was fairly ridiculous; sometimes it bothered me, sometimes it didn’t. But the pattern never changed.
I packed the book up and moved it eight times. It survived the periodic book purges between then and now because it was on that short list of items you’d feel not quite like yourself if you got rid of it — like some small but irremediable change had occurred. But only if I eventually managed at some point to read the thing at least once– never getting to it would have been just depressing.
All of which means that when we started this project and I saw this category listed I thought Oho!, and it doesn’t surprise me that this is the first category I chose.
And hey guess what, I read it. Finally it was easy, and not because I’d given myself a deadline (I’d tried that one before). Or because I thought “OK, if I can only average 10 or so pages a day for a month, that’ll do it” (I’d tried that angle before, too, along with “You don’t have to even enjoy it, just read the book and then tell yourself you did it.”)
What finally worked, oddly, was concentrating on it. I told myself I wasn’t going to skim, I wasn’t going to let my mind wander as i glazed past a paragraph and say that counted. I used a highlighter and a pen, read slowly, took notes, and stopped to think about what I was reading or to look something up. It turned out easy that way, and the book paid me back, as they usually will– I learned a ton of stuff, a lot of which I’d have been happy to have known 20 or more years ago. I laughed a few times. There were interesting connections to works I already knew, and generally it was a light shining into corners I’d spent a lot of good times in long, long, ago. I’m happy to have finished it: introduction, appendices and all.
Three Medieval Rhetorical Arts, 235pp., James J. Murphy, Ed., © 1971 by the University of California Press (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London).
Highly Recommended for Students of Early Medieval Epistolary, Prosodic, or Homiletic writing, for the General Reader interested in a challenge, or for anyone who likes a good long nap.
Our books for month 2:
We’d love to know what you read this month. Please leave a comment telling us about it!
The category for the coming month is:
We’ll see you back here on April 9!
This post is part of our multi-year reading challenge. We’d love to have you join us for the whole challenge or any portion. Take a look at the checklist to see the current category (in green). We’ll announce the next category on the 9th of each month.