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On Not Reading Wordsworth

What is it about certain books that draw you back to not reading them again and again? I have not read Wordsworth’s “The Prelude” six times. The first time I did not read it was in an undergraduate class on … Read More

By / December 12, 2006

What is it about certain books that draw you back to not reading them again and again?

I have not read Wordsworth’s “The Prelude” six times. The first time I did not read it was in an undergraduate class on Romantic literature. I took the course in order to study Blake, whom I’ve adored since first encountering the phrase “dark Satanic mills” through Monty Python. I knew nothing about Wordsworth except that he “wandered lonely as a cloud” and “danced with daffodils,” which was pretty bad, but not automatically disqualifying.

So I bought the Norton edition of “The Prelude,” with the cover illustration that looks like an unmade bed, and dutifully carried it to class. I still have the thing. Its flyleaves are dense with lecture notes — awful, cringe-inducing, undergraduate lecture notes: “W. in preface sets himself in opposition to the literary ancient regime. Shakes reader out of lethargy into new sense of wonder—indeed of divinity—in the everyday.” It’s possible I read as far as page 3, where I have scribbled “epic of secular transcendence” in the margin. At that point I think I came down with mono, or possibly just gave up.

The second time I did not read “The Prelude” was two years later, in a class for which I also did not read “Paradise Lost.” Fortunately, I was able to read enough about “Paradise Lost” to cobble together a credible thesis on Milton’s treatment of Satan, although most of that paper ended up being about Blake. In graduate school I took another Romanticism course, attracted again by Blake and newly seduced by Byron (“so do the dark in soul expire / or live like scorpion girt by fire” — I mean, come on!) I did not read “The Prelude” then, nor did I read it for a class on the role of theater in literature. In fairness to me, only Book Seventh was assigned for that one. (This is not a misprint. Chapters in The Prelude are titled “Book First,” “Book Second,” “Book Third” etc. Yet another reason to steer clear.)

Concerned that I might be expected to teach, I eventually bailed on grad school and got a regular job. Reading was downgraded to a leisure pursuit, and since I had no leisure I read little. At one point, mentally bloated and blotchy after subsisting for months on a diet of horror and mystery anthologies, I determined to put my brain on a stern exercise regimen. Up from my basement bookshelves came three volumes: The Tale of Genji; The Decameron; and, of course, “The Prelude.” I can’t imagine I was serious. But by then “The Prelude” had become my anti-Everest: the monumental challenge whose mere existence compelled me to sit tight.

Assuming mortality pans out as described, I will die without having read most books. But I will have not read “The Prelude” in a more purposeful way than all the others. I guess I’m a book-tease: encouraging Wordsworth’s epic to hang out in the background of my life but unwilling to go all the way. Most of my reasons are superficial. “The Prelude” is long. It’s in blank verse. There’s not enough action. There’s too much nature. It seems really boring.

Or perhaps this repeated refusal to submit is all about me—a fitting interpretation, given the Romantics’ fascination with the self. We define our lives by the big things we accomplish; the big things we don’t accomplish have no such distinguishing effect. After all, there is nothing special about not rising to great challenges. The world is lousy with non-mountain-climbers, non-cancer-curers, non-great-American-novel-writers, non-I-lost-300-pounds-and-now-fit-into-my-high-school-cheerleader’s-uniform-ers. To dream such dreams yet fail to chase them is to be human. And is there anything more drearily generic than that?

By contrast, there’s something beautifully specific about the things we might just as well do but repeatedly and purposefully avoid. I had a friend with an enormous music collection who would never buy an album by the Beatles—a band he liked just fine—because he saw himself as a guy who didn’t own an album by the Beatles. Another friend refuses to shop at warehouse clubs for no better reason than that she refuses to shop at warehouse clubs. I have never watched “The Tonight Show.” If I walk into a room where it is playing I will walk right out to preserve my perfect record.

I briefly considered writing this column as a Moby Dick-like tale of haunted pursuit culminating in apocalyptic confrontation (I have, in fact, read Moby Dick. I’ve read the non-cetology chapters twice.) In that scenario, of course, “The Preludes” would be Ahab, and I the whale. I would read “The Prelude”—really, finally —and describe how I vanquished or was vanquished by it.

Thus passed my sixth flirtation with the text. At this point in my life, reading “The Prelude” might make me smarter. It would probably make me sleepier. It would certainly make me different. I will never read it.

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