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November 21, 2009

Joshua Gaylord: The Gift of the Unreadable

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Oh, the things we do for love.... Today's guest blogger, HUMMINGBIRD author Joshua Gaylord, reminisces about an adolescent crush and the impact of his affections more than 2 decades later.

In the ninth grade, I was in love with my English teacher. Her name was Carol Mooney, and what made her so irresistible was her belief that I was extraordinary --- a delusion which, when I discover it in people around me, never fails to raise them in my estimation. It was one of those classic student-teacher romances. I found reasons to hang out in her classroom before school, after school, during lunch. I offered to help her hang posters of the Transcendentalists on her walls. I made pathetic romantic overtures in my awkward fifteen-year-old way, and she tolerated them with grace and politesse. Far from trying to avoid the label of teacher’s pet among my peers, I flew that flag as though I had battled nations to win it --- and the result was that everyone eventually acquiesced to my right to the title, including Carol Mooney herself.

When Christmas came, she gave me a gift. It wasn’t wrapped, but it was contained in a brown paper bag, the kind I used to bring my lunch to school. Inside I discovered a book, a mass-market paperback copy of William Faulkner’s THE SOUND AND THE FURY. She had inscribed it to me:

for the gothic in you, J. Alden

J. Alden Gaylord was how I liked to think of myself at that age. It was the moniker of a portentous writer, someone who had so many names of such gravity that one of them had to be elided, and I was glad that she was able to appreciate the direction my future would take. I had not known before that I had any gothic in me at all, nor did I quite know what this meant, but I was pleased to discover that I could add this to the gradually accumulating list of things that made up my identity.

“It’s one of my favorite books,” she said, while I turned it over in my hands.

“How come we don’t read it in class?” I asked, suspicious.

“Most ninth-graders aren’t ready for it,” she said.

I took this as a winking acknowledgment that I was better than everyone else in my class, and I winked back. I understood. It would be our secret. We were like secret agents in the service of my awesomeness.

I brought the book home and immediately fell to studying it as though it were the Rosetta Stone of the adult literary world. If I could decipher it, it would be my key to untold poetic wisdom.

The cover showed a mansion on a hill, one of those neoclassical Southern-style homes with six columns in front and a porch balcony on the second story. There was a leafless tree reaching down its claw-like branches over the roof of the mansion, and a sky filled with black clouds that looked like a flight of vengeful specters. The whole picture had a distorted fish-eye quality that I would later come to associate with Thomas Hart Benton. Very sinister all around.

The cover also declared that this version of THE SOUND AND THE FURY was “The Corrected Text,” which made me feel like an aficionado, someone who could appreciate this particular brand of academic-sounding nuance. And the back cover claimed that this was the first “indisputable masterpiece” of this “central figure in twentieth-century literature.”

Surely, what Carol Mooney had given me was not simply a book, but Greatness itself.

The problem was that I could not read it.

What were “curling flower spaces”? What was a “flower tree”? Who were “they,” and what were they hitting? Was Luster really the name of someone? What was going on here?

But this book was meant for me. The inscription by Carol Mooney proved it. So I read it --- in the sense that I put my eyes on every word of every page in that book. I did not understand more than ten percent of it, but I read it in three days and closed it and went around declaring it a masterpiece.

Now, over twenty years later, when I read THE SOUND AND THE FURY, I can proclaim its beauty with a respectable amount of authority, with conviction based upon actual comprehension. But back then what I remember most is believing in the beauty of the book before I had even opened it. It was the gift of Greatness given to me by a person of Greatness, and if I was going to be Great as well, I had better damn well see the beauty in that book. I didn’t actually see it, but I said that I did --- and that was enough to hold me over for a while, until the next time I read it. In my second reading, about a year later, I did actually see a bit more of the beauty, and my blind belief in the book became a little less blind. The next time I saw a little more, and the time after that a little more. And now, twenty years later, I make pilgrimages to Oxford, Mississippi, to visit Faulkner’s grave.

It’s true: I would have taught myself to adore any book Carol Mooney gave me, so I’m grateful she gave me William Faulkner rather than Anthony Trollope. Nonetheless, I sometimes wish I could go back there, wish that Carol Mooney could give me more books, wish that I could read a book with the same religious faith in its greatness that I once did. Not all authors write in the service of their readers’ instant gratification; there are some whose books require a certain blind trust to get you through. Frequently these are the greatest authors, and what may be required is that you pick up the book and hold it to your lips even before you open it, incanting it with your whispered devotion: This book is meant for me, for me. For me.

-- Joshua Gaylord

Check back tomorrow as Edward Falco shares some fond memories of a large, rowdy Christmas, and Wendy Smith gives reflects on what a gift can truly mean to someone.