“I did not take hold of my studies with avidity, in fact I rarely ever read over a lesson the second time during my entire cadetship. I could not sit in my room doing nothing.”
I’m appalled by the good students, the ones with purpose and focus, who arrive on campus knowing what they want and how to get it. They seem blessed with a freakish maturity. I was lost, and like any devoted lay-about, I resolved to get even more lost. In high school I had coasted and earned good grades without effort or application. That regimen didn’t work for long at the university. My refuge was the library. Instead of studying or even going to class, I went there daily, trolled the shelves, found what I didn’t know I wanted, and carried it back to my carrel. That’s where I first read Tristram Shandy, At Swim-Two Birds, Auto-da-Fé, and bound volumes of an English film journal, the name of which I no longer remember. This curriculum sustained me for three years, and then I dropped out, and didn’t return to earn my degree for another thirty years.
The author of the passage quoted at the top is Ulysses S. Grant, describing his time at West Point in Chapter II of Personal Memoirs (1885). That’s another volume I first read in my carrel. Except for Lincoln, no president has written better prose. Grant attend the U.S. Military Academy starting in 1839, and graduated in 1843 (twenty-first in a class of thirty-nine). Besides sharing Ohio as our birthplace, Grant and I took a similar approach to study:
“There is a fine library connected with the Academy from which cadets can get books to read in their quarters. I devoted more time to these, than to books relating to the course of studies. Much of the time, I am sorry to say, was devoted to novels, but not those of a trashy sort. I read all of Bulwer’s then published, Cooper’s, Marryat’s, Scott’s, Washington Irving’s works, Lever’s, and many others that I do not now remember.”
The unfamiliar name on Grant’s reading list is Charles Lever (1806-1872), an Irish novelist and occasional con man who was touted by Trollope. In short, Grant’s tastes in fiction favored the popular and romantic, what later critics might have dismissed, at best, as middlebrow but "not those of a trashy sort." About the rest of his studies, Grant writes:
“Mathematics was very easy to me, so that when January came, I passed the examination, taking a good standing in that branch. In French, the only other study at that time in the first year’s course, my standing was very low. In fact, if the class had been turned the other end foremost I should have been near head. I never succeeded in getting squarely at either end of my class, in any one study, during the four years. I came near it in French, artillery, infantry and cavalry tactics, and conduct.”