Wednesday, December 09, 2020

'Often Mistaken for a Talmudist'

Only twice have I been awarded nicknames and neither stuck. Only those who gave me the names used them. In college, a friend called me “Wyatt,” based on my surname: Wyatt Kurp. Occasionally, he referred to himself as Virgil – not the Roman poet but the famous lawman’s brother. The other nickname came earlier, from my step-grandfather. He called me “Professor,” pronounced “Perfessor,” because I was always reading. We were not a notably well-read family so my behavior stuck out, as would a hairlip or stutter. The name was used affectionately, I think. 

In Heathen Days, 1890-1936 (1943), the third volume of his autobiography, H.L. Mencken recounts joining the YMCA at age fourteen at the suggestion of his father, who worried his son spent too much time reading and neglecting his health. Mencken admits he was “already a bookworm and beginning to be a bit round-shouldered.” He writes of his father:


“Apparently he was convinced that exercise on the wooden horse and flying rings would cure my scholarly stoop, and make a kind of grenadier of me. If so, he was in error, for I remain more or less Bible-backed to this day, and am often mistaken for a Talmudist.”


Best to remember that Mencken had problems with Talmudists and other Jews. In Terry Teachout’s words, he had “peculiarly mixed feelings about the Jews [that] might amount to something more than a quirk.” He also seems to have been  conflicted about being identified as a dedicated reader or bookworm. The critic who championed Willa Cather and Joseph Conrad writes in Minority Report, the collection of notebook entries published shortly after his death in 1956:

“There are people who read too much: the bibliobibuli. I know some who are constantly drunk on books, as other men are drunk on whiskey or religion. They wander through the most diverting and stimulating of worlds in a haze, seeing nothing and hearing nothing.”


I’ve spent most of my life fretting over the scarcity of time to read. Because reading is solitary and sedentary, an activity that requires discipline and focus, Robert Burton in his great Anatomy warned that it can trigger a form of melancholy he categorized as a “disease of the imagination.” Burton writes:


“What a glut of books! Who can read them? As already, we shall have a vast Chaos and confusion of Books, we are oppressed with them, our eyes ache with reading, our fingers with turning. For my part I am one of the number—one of the many—I do not deny it . . .”

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