Wednesday, January 23, 2013

`The Memory of Their Meaning Never Stops'

The first book I wrote was a collection of potted biographies of the American presidents. I was nine and the last president included, the one then in office, was John F. Kennedy. My primary source was a pleasingly plump little paperback, Facts About the Presidents. In my book, each chief executive earned a page of his own. I wrote on ruled note paper and bound it in a three-ring binder. Even then, I didn’t have publication in mind. The format was simple: birth, important events, death – life reduced to its public essentials. Len Krisak learned about the presidents at a young age from bubblegum cards (perhaps including this one). In “Presidents Cards, 1958” he writes: 

“…I wonder that so much
Of value came from tacky, corny props
That helped me on whatever path I took.
The memory of their meaning never stops
For one who conned them like a history book.
But more alive than even they themselves,
The parents, scraping by, who for their son
Once claimed these men from supermarket shelves.
Who knew? Who’ll ever know what they have done?” 

My parents were not well educated but they seemed to assume that toys ought to have a pedagogical purpose. Like Krisak, I remember presidential minutiae and can recite their names in order, like a poem. Grover Cleveland’s second term always sounds like a mistake, a typo in memory (years later I interviewed his great- and great-great-grandsons). Because of a plastic jigsaw puzzle of the United States, their names, shapes and capitals are inscribed in memory. The card game Authors taught me the faces and vital stats of Longfellow and Louisa May Alcott. My brother and I collected Civil War cards, as much for the gore (“Painful Death”) as the history. 

The long-term result is a gift for winning at Trivial Pursuits, but more importantly the assumption that education is unending, informal and cobbled together from unlikely scraps ("tacky, corny props"). It has little or nothing to do with accumulating degrees or even showing up for class. Autodidacts start young.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I played the Authors card game as a kid. My interest in good books began at about the same time by reading Classics Illustrated Comics. I'd buy these regularly at the local drugstore with money earned from my newspaper route delivering the Detroit News each afternoon and Sunday mornings.

Scraps accumulate and can add up to an education. Kierkegaard, who wrote a 7000-page journal, titled one of his books Philosophical Scraps. Chesterton, the extraordinary writer of the ordinary, titled an essay collection Tremendous Trifles.