Tuesday, August 11, 2009

An Open Letter Composed While Unpacking Books

Dear Amherst College,

I get it. I really truly do. After ten years in which I didn't give you more than a passing thought, you have reasserted yourself into my thoughtscape. We didn't get along, you and I, something you repeatedly told me was "my problem." Ok, time heals most wounds. You gave me my life partner and that's no small feat, so, um, thanks for that. I never thought my single on the 2nd floor of Stearns would yield a suitable mate, and yet twelve years later...yes, we're all bored with the twelve years later story. But, I always felt as though there was something more, something you were forbidden from openly disclosing, but something so important, so mania-inducing, that you nearly burst from the pressure of holding it in. And now, as I stand in a sunny office in my new dwelling in the Amherst College-appropriate location of Greenwich, Connecticut, I understand what it was you were trying to tell me those four (ok, three) years you had me in your boring, icy grasp.

You love Proust.

You love him like chocolate and ponies and sunbeams all rolled into one.

The hard-on you have for Proust is so enormous, not even the lofty yet architecturally derivative Johnson Chapel could hope to contain it.

You cannot, for love, money, or your own sanity, get enough of Le Monsieur des Madeleines.

Though perhaps I go too far. You didn't seem to have much use for, by my count, 1,934 of his pages (and let's be fair, you didn't really seem to ever get past the Combray section of Swann's Way, so let's make it an even 2100). But those 150 pages, by Vishnu, did you collectively experience the mother of all petits morts every time you broke the spine!

How else can I explain the sheer number of copies I am currently unpacking? It is true, I read about all of Marcel's diarrheic dyspepsia long before I trod your hallowed halls, and I maintain that it is entirely possible that by slogging away through Cities of the Plain, I successfully read more of this pile of fumier de cheval than any of your tenured professors (in my edition, boys, it's in the second volume). One of your shepherds of my mind didn't even bother asking us to purchase the complete book, but assigned a Vintage Classics copy of just Swann's Way. What can I take from this decision? It couldn't possibly have been your concern for my or my fellow student's pocketbooks (Amherst students don't have those kinds of concerns, and god help you if you were a scholarship student attempting to major in a frickin' science), and were the book as monumental as its repeated inclusion on syllabi all but assures, why wouldn't I, a fertile plain in the hands of a seasoned farmer, derive much from further reading. Having gotten so much out of the mere first book of this treasure trove, wouldn't you want me to inflame my passions further over the summer by completing the book? Yea, wouldn't my education be woefully incomplete without having this experience?

I contend that your frequent repetition of this tranche, was intellectual fraud of the lowest kind; a poseurism so devoid of artifice so as to convince the onlooker that it was sincere all along. The transparent attempt to make one's faculty seem hyper well-read by assigning and reassigning a book which, had any of the faculty ACTUALLY read would have obviated the need for even contemplating instructing others in its self-indulgent onanistic crapulence, was a masterstroke simply because it was so obvious as to not possibly have been true.

And for ten years, I bought this line of thinking. I couldn't imagine that the 150K or so your bachelor's degree was valued at in the late 90s was the product of the selfsame bombastic bullshittery we students so excelled at (excelled at, as luck would have it, in the very courses that taught Proust). No wonder students and faculty got along so well - all of us were talking utter gobshite about books we had never read!

But it leaves me with quite a conundrum. I have not even reached the halfway mark of my book unpacking and so far I have:

1. The first copy of Remembrance of Things Past, hardcover, two volumes, I ever bought, circa 1994 at a used book store, quite possibly in Hadley, Mass (this should have clued me in come to think of it);

2. The Modern Library hardcover edition of Swann's Way assigned by a professor who obviously thought my upper body strength could use some work, and that I should use those dollars I had earned art modeling for something more important than cigarettes;

3. Volume 2 of the old Vintage Edition whose existence is suspect to me as it does not contain the inimitable Swann's Way, leading me to believe volumes 1 and 3 are lurking in another box;

4. And of course, the Vintage paperback of just Swann's Way.

I shudder to think how many others are waiting to join these already shelved. Sure, an astute observer would wonder why a student would continue to purchase the same book when she had purchase it a semester or two previously, but there's the rub: had I known I would be assigned the book again, I might have brought it back to school with me. Without that foreknowledge, I was consigned to the Soviet-era booklines like all my classmates rather than suffer the indignity of showing up to class without the book while my put upon mother ransacked the house to find it and send it up.

And of course, the kicker is, no matter how much I know I will never read any part of this book again, not even in French as practice; no matter how many copies emerge from my boxes, I know they will stay, year after year, as part of the Yelena permanent collection because I suffer just like you, my wayward profs. I know in my heart of hearts the simple truth you tried to impart to me those many years ago:

only the lowliest of Plebes, the least accomplished Lord Jeff of them all, would dare do something as crass as to throw out Proust.

Yours repetitively encore et encore une autre fois,


1 comment:

  1. I am an Amherst Grad who has never read anything by Proust, having avoided "literature" classes in favor of ones that promised to deliver more "facts," such as history and poli-sci. Sadly for me, I went to college during the sad, last gasp of PoMo and was, in fact, taught few facts. BUT -- I am a big fan of Mendini's Proust chair (http://portal.cappellini.it:7778/portal/page/portal/Prodotti/1_Collezione/5_Poltrone/Proust), and, in the great Amherst tradition apparently, have told countless design history students about madeleines and memory as described in a book I've never opened. So, there you go, Yelena. xx-Amy