I went to NYU as an undergraduate and after about five minutes as a film major, I transferred to the English Department. It was a cool time to be there because they were just starting to lure professors away from the Ivy League. The department was still in a transitional period and the faculty was a strange mix of big names and obscure talent. I remember sitting in The Violet, the campus café, overhearing E. L. Doctorow being interviewed at the next table and considering slipping him a note regarding his gratuitous overuse of the word raucous in The Waterworks. I restrained myself.
I also remember Blanford Parker, who taught Milton and Dryden, a class I wanted to drop after the first reading assignment. As far as I was concerned, Dryden was dry and Milton was a bible junkie. But Parker, a zealot of 17th Century English poetry, would not let me leave. I can’t recall if he talked me out of the drop or was simply too intimidating to address outside of answering a direct question. Whether or not I actually proposed resignation, I feel he saw it on my face and met mine with a look that demanded surrender. And I did.
When we got to Paradise Lost, Parker went to the board and, instead of a list or an outline of important points, he wrote out a mathematically configured compendium of the epic poem. Specifically, it covered the structure of the twelve books. It made the chalkboard chart in School of Rock look like a frat boy’s grocery list. In time, there were charts for each of the books, for characters and symbolism. I think there was one solely devoted to the words that Milton had invented in writing the poem.
Parker did all of this in a blasé posture without notes of any kind. I remember thinking that he was pulling knowledge out of his ass. He later told us he’d begun his study of literature as a translator and had done Paradise Lost into Latin and back again. Maybe it was Greek. More than likely, both. The man had memorized the whole thing.
The last work of any length that I had memorized was the complete dialogue of the 1985 Val Kilmer vehicle, Real Genius. “Was it a dream where you see yourself standing in sort of Sun God robes on a pyramid with a thousand naked women screaming and throwing little pickles at you?” This is the sort of material that, as it passes through my ears, I lock onto with my mental tractor beam. It’s what my mind deems worthy of the vault. I don’t know why, but I can only retain the whimsical.
Because he performed so proficiently that which I could not, I quietly became a Blanford Parker groupie. Everything he said was art. For similar reasons, I suspect, he was ignored by most of the other students. The class discussion was basically me and BP, and one other kid, sometimes. To my mind, this student-teacher ratio was the bomb. Parker, on the other hand, was disappointed.
Once near the end of the term he lost all patience with the class. We were discussing Samson Agonistes, and by we I mean he and I, when he asked a question so simple it was obviously meant to invite even the most dunderheaded pupil to speak up. That is to say, a pupil other than me. I can tell you that the answer was Delilah and that, for once, I kept my mouth shut. So did everyone else.
After a frustrated pause, he regarded us twenty-some navel gazers with intensity and said, “You know, I am envious of you.” That’s when he told us about his early career in translation, how he’d read the Canon front to back and over again, and in dead languages. “You have it all in front of you. Think about what an opportunity that is.” What we were thinking was that we were in for a shellacking. But he was just speaking honestly, trying to make something more than light of our apathy. “I will never read Shakespeare for the first time again. You can’t imagine how it feels…to have nothing left.”
That sentiment made a huge impression on me. What Parker meant was that he would never, for the rest of his days, be surprised by the bard. What his admonition meant to me was that I must take care to relish new experiences, especially those that I knew would be satisfying. As with most everything, I ended up over thinking this.
I possess a library that, by the standards of New York City apartment square footage averages, runs to the extensive end of the spectrum. The paperbacks, along with the hardcover Library of America section, take up one of the long walls in my office. The hardcovers, alphabetized in reverse to allow Virginia Wolf, Oscar Wilde, and E. B. White to sit on the top shelf where they rightly belong, requires only slightly less space in my bedroom.
These are the titles that made the cut after eight years of working in publishing, where the one financial gain is that you never, ever have to pay for a book. Far from merely a keepsake, the primary function of this collection is to remind me what I have left to read. I listened to Parker and paced myself. I still have surprises in store from Shakespeare and Nabokov and Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Sartre and Roth and Fowles and Hemmingway and Fitzgerald. I’ve read all of E. M. Forster’s novels and most of his short fiction (By the way, he wrote sci-fi short stories! How cool is that?), but I haven’t touched his criticism. Of course, I couldn’t be expected to hold out on Salinger. But that’s okay; he’s done it for me.
Lately though, I get the feeling I’ve taken a valid observation to the point of ridiculousness. Every time I pick up Catch 22 I reread the first chapter and then put it down again. That might be the best first chapter I’ve ever read. What does that say about the rest of the book? Am I ready to read this entire novel for the first time? Let’s face it; Joseph Heller will never get a second chance to make a first impression on me.
If only the nuttiness ended with books. I have lived in New York for thirteen years and I have never been to the Frick. I know I’m going to love it. I have this funny feeling it might be one of my very favorite places in the city. But I haven’t gone because there was never anyone I wanted to go with, you know, to make a moment of it. I wanted my first time there to be extraordinary—so much so that I’ve been missing out on the place for over a decade.
But let’s stay on topic, for once. Milton. I may have loved Blanford Parker, but it took me some years to warm up to Milton. He was a bible junkie and he took liberties there. He also practically enslaved his daughters when he went blind, dictating his writing and editorial revisions to them hours upon hours a day. Still, when I think of all those words he pulled out of thin air to articulate ideas as no one had before… When I think about those words, along with the careful structuring and symbolism that went into all of Milton’s work; well, naturally I think of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.