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William C. Altreuter
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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

I suppose a community-wide shared literary experience is an increasingly rare thing. Once, no doubt, it was more common for a number of people to all read the same book at the same time, but it seems more unusual these days. I'm guessing it was about 30 years ago my cousin walked into an employment office waiting room full of about a dozen young women about her age. She reported, "And every single one of those chicks was reading "Sybil" On the one hand, those chicks were sharing a literary experience, I suppose, but on the other, the event was sufficiently unusual as to provoke comic comment.

You could say that this experience has been replaced by television-- certainly the flurry of "Sopranos" references following the final episode of that program argues that way-- but it is just as true that TiVo and DVDs of entire seasons argue against tv as a shared cultural bond. I would say that there are still books that achieve this-- a little later this summer there'll be enough Harry Potter out there to make my case. There are book clubs, of course, but that's a smaller circle than what I have in mind. Something that I first became aware of when EGA started her undergraduate career is the blending of the "What if everybody read the same book" programs that you see here and there into the notion of assigned reading. EGA's entering class at Smith all read Ian McEwan's "Atonement". (At her commencement weekend, as we were visiting a used bookshop, she wryly noted that there were always plenty of copies of "Atonement" available in Northampton.) We all read "Atonement", too, and I expect we will do likewise with CLA's assignment from Geneseo, "Into the Wild", by Jon Krakauer. I finished it today, actually, and found it an interesting, provocative choice for a incoming freshman class. Krakauer starts by reconstructing an account of how a middle-class white kid dropped out from society and wandered into the Alaskan woods, where he starved to death-- an interesting story, and a heck of a good bit of reporting. That sort of clear-eyed reporting about "counter-cultural" youth has been done before-- Robert Christgau, before he turned to criticism exclusively, did a great "New Journalism" piece about a woman who starved herself to death by following a strict macrobiotic diet. Krakauer does something different with his story, though. First he ties the idea of wanting to escape into the wild to other examples of people who have wandered out of civilization, only to be found dead, or not at all-- historical examples from the early and mid-Twentieth Century. This sort of myth-making could have just be annoying, but then he takes the whole thing a step further, and does something that I think was very risky. Smack dab in the middle of the book he starts relating a story about how when he was just about the same age, he did something very similar. This could have been a disaster, but he pulls it off, and by doing this manages to take the whole thing into a completely different place.

About ten years or so ago a group of recent UB Law grads decided to walk across the ice on Lake Erie over to Canada. They didn't make it, and drowned, and the whole thing was very sad, the way it is when young people die. These particular people happened to be friends of one of our associates at the time, and when I learned this I told her, "What's awful about it is that it is exactly the sort of thing I could imagine my friends and me doing." It was a rare example of me saying the right thing, and it was probably an accident, but I meant it. My colleague later told me, "You were the only one that didn't just say that they had been stupid." Sure, it was stupid, but that wasn't the whole point Although I was never so stupid as to wander off into the wilderness without a map, there were many times when I wandered into something without a clue. The one thing we promise ourselves when we are young, when we are kids, is that we won't forget what it felt like-- but we always do. In a way, that's a good thing. If we kept thinking the way we did when we were children, we would never understand that our perceived indestructibility is an illusion created out of our lack of experience. The race would have died out long ago if we kept thinking the way we did in our twenties. Krakauer gets this, and reminds us about it.

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