“The saleswoman in Moline, Illinois, will go to the library and borrow Anna Karenina.”
In a modest, oblique way I watched Saul Bellow’s affirmation fulfilled. I spent most of Monday with a third-grader in the special-education program. He’s tall for his age, good-looking, silent most of the time, eyes averted, wary as a cat. He communicates elliptically, in murmurs. You could spend a long time with him and conclude he was mute.
We did two pages of math. He answered slowly and accurately, weighing his calculations with care. I assumed small talk was out of the question. On the playground he pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his head, walked the perimeter like a sentry and had no dealings with the dozens of kids running and yelling around him. In music class he was silent and motionless. Helping him to write a letter was almost futile. I gave him most of the words and he nodded in agreement or rejected them with a shake of his head. It didn’t help that he had a cold and was coughing much of the time.
After lunch the teacher suggested I take him to the library and look for books on astronomy. As I steered him toward the 520’s the student asked if I knew Pluto was no longer a planet, and could I identify Eris and the Kuiper Belt. He pulled a space atlas off the shelf, turned to the section devoted to KBO’s (Kuiper Belt Objects) and explained how they differ from true planets. “People still think Pluto is a planet but I explain to them that it’s not,” he said, and abruptly asked if I could find him a book about the Bermuda Triangle. There were two. He sat on a couch and read both in silence while I sat next to him, boning up on KBO’s. “I don’t think the Bermuda Triangle is real. I think it’s made up,” he said.
The Bellow line comes from “The Sealed Treasure,” an essay he published in 1960 in The Times Literary Supplement. In it, the novelist describes a journey he had made three years earlier through Illinois, on assignment for Holiday magazine. The piece that resulted from that trip, “Illinois Journey,” also appears in It All Adds Up (1994), Bellow’s collected nonfiction. As he describes his 1957 visit to rural Illinois in “The Sealed Treasure,” Bellow sounds like a sophisticated avatar of Sherwood Anderson, or rather George Willard, the newspaper reporter and central figure in Winesburg, Ohio. A quintessentially urban writer, Bellow is sympathetic to the rural people he meets. He’s free of condescension and projects himself imaginatively into their lives:
“I went to the public libraries and was not surprised to learn that good books were very much in demand and that there were people in central Illinois who read Plato, Tocqueville, Proust, and Robert Frost. I had expected this. But what I did not understand was what use these isolated readers were making of the books they borrowed. With whom did they discuss them? At the country club, the bowling league, sorting mail at the post office, or in the factory, over the back fence, how did they bring up Plato’s Justice or Proust’s Memory?”
My 8-year-old student may never read The Republic and I’m not likening accounts of the Bermuda Triangle to À la recherché du temps perdue. My point is that reading is often secretive and passionate, like an extra-marital affair. When I told the regular teacher of the kid’s binge on astronomy and the Bermuda Triangle, she acted surprised and skeptical, but it wasn’t the first time I’d met a devoted reader in an unexpected place. Of the three most ambitious readers I’ve known, only one was an academic. Autodidacts of every species – Civil War buffs, adepts of Spinoza and Schopenhauer, Latin freaks, closet readers of Austen and Trollope -- proliferate. Bellow writes:
“…the intelligence or cultivation of a woman in Moline, Illinois, would necessarily be her secret, almost her private vice. Her friends at the bridge club would think it very odd of her to think such things. She might not reveal them to her sister, nor perhaps even to her husband. They would be her discovery, her treasure ten times sealed, her private source of power.”