Monday, July 20, 2009

Remembering Frank McCourt

I did not grow up reading books. In fact, I avoided them like the plague as if not reading was some kind of badge of honor. This ridiculous code was absorbed from a combination of "jock" mentality and the "country boy" image we absorbed in my small-village upbringing that was rural in its essence. I didn't even read the books assigned for school. The only book I can honestly remember reading up to grade 12 was a 1982 edition of Don Cherry's Grapes: A Vintage View of Hockey.

That changed after my conversion to Christian faith when I was 18. At that point, I became a voracious reader. But I was devouring a very particular strain of "non-fiction" that was a long ways from "creative"--books in biblical studies and theology, and later, works in philosophy. My waking hours were spent trying to inhale all that I could, trying to make up for my readerly sloth up to that point. As I progressed through my undergraduate studies into graduate work, my interdisciplinary interests multiplied my reading obligations but still restrained my universe within a narrow sector of the world of books, a million miles from "literature." Indeed, during this phase I would have looked askance at a novel as "soft." I was doing "serious" reading and refused to be distracted by "stories." Sitting beside the pool I'd be reading Heidegger; on the beach I'd exhibit my "rigor" by reading Derrida; rocking the baby in the basinette I'd be paging through Augustine or Foucault. Little did I realize how small my world was.

Today, almost the exact opposite is true. Reading philosophy and theology is, for the most part, my "job"--an obligation I discharge at the office. I don't bring those books home. Instead, my home library is filled with Julian Barnes and Evelyn Waugh, Updike and Flaubert, Ted Hughes and Charles Wright. But not until last week had I given much thought to what had changed.

And then it hit me: it was Frank McCourt.

It's strange: for almost all of the books in my library, I can recall where and when I got them. But for the life of me, I can't remember how these first two volumes of McCourt's memoirs made their way to my shelf (Teacher Man was a gift from my mom). I know from the dates inside that I read this in my last year of grad school. What would have prompted me to do so is lost in the sands of my aging memory. And yet, as I try to trace this shift in my reading habits--this expansion of my reading world that took me into the environs of literature--the paths seem to stretch back to Angela's Ashes as a sort of fulcrum or hinge, a turning point. McCourt's enchanting style, suffused with the religious in the most sacrilegious ways (all that "wanking!"), coupled with the power of Irish story-telling had me hooked. And his explorations of his own psychic life were, for me, like new adventures in a foreign territory. (Indeed, his persistent description of that experience of a "clouding" of his mind--a dark, swirling interior storm--has stuck with me for years, giving me a picture to name realities.)

All of my "serious" reading to that point had worked with a reductionistic fixation on a certain kind of truth--reading for "information," for "knowledge," for propositions and ideas. Not until I dove into McCourt's memoirs did I come to appreciate the truth of story, the revelatory capacity of narrative, the ability of literature to not only "make up" worlds but to break open our own world. I owe Frank McCourt more than I realized.