READING DANIEL COLEMAN
In Bed with the Word
(LETTERS • BOOKS)
BY SHANE NEILSON
“Reading as Counterculture,” the second chapter of Daniel Coleman’s In Bed With the Word, begins as follows:
We live in the midst of a transition from print culture to screen culture and, while it is too early to tell what all the effects are going to be, there are spiritual demeanours, habits of mind and heart, developed in print culture that will be increasingly important to us in a culture increasingly dominated by the screen. This fact was driven home for me through two conversations I had with students in the past few years. . . (18 )
Notwithstanding the irony of the statement read in this publishing context, an internet literary magazine, the quotation sets up the parameters of Hamilton Arts & Letters’ feature on Daniel Coleman, who is variously: professor of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University; author of several academic works; a talented writer of nonfiction; and everything else I might not know.
Six months ago, I was sitting in Coleman’s office, discussing my PhD project much like a grad student described in Coleman’s In Bed With The Word is depicted discussing hers. Well, sort of – I’m getting old, and that student sounded more energetic. As Daniel and I talked, a shockingly young student popped her head in asking for an “emergency copy” of In Bed With the Word. Daniel obliged, since the text was required by the student in some way in the few days before submitting a paper. The student had remembered something from Coleman’s book, and she wanted to quote it in the paper she was currently writing. After the student left, our conversation turned to Daniel’s split identity of being an academic and a writer of creative nonfiction. Daniel said something that surprised me: “Of the work that I do, I find I get the most gratifying responses from people who have read my memoirs. I get relatively less response from my academic work nowadays.”
I thought to myself: but . . . you’re the guy who wrote White Civility, a text that changed how I read Canlit. And you’re beloved at McMaster – I’d say it’s “ritual practice” in the hallways to praise your teaching if it weren’t an actually heartfelt, almost fervent act. Students really appreciate you. I began to wonder how Coleman’s scholarly and writerly selves could be reconciled in one place, how the Colemans I was coming to know could be wrapped in the words of students I’ve chatted with personally, students who responded strongly to In Bed With the Word. Because so much good happens away from us, away from our notice, I schemed a positive plot: why not show Dr. Coleman how beloved he is by having his own students write their testimonials about his words, and thereby his person, by using a memoir of his that was taught within the academy? Why not encourage a range of responses, from epistolary to mock-play to formal response paper?
I invited Jesse Dorey to be a part of these proceedings. Jesse studied with Dr. Coleman as an undergraduate and, at present, Jesse purveys words on screens at The Paper Street Journal, a literary magazine based out of Hamilton. Jesse had a very spiritual response to In Bed With the Word, as you will read. Jesse pointed me to Julia Empey, another former student of Dr. Coleman who also experienced what I will call an inquiry and courage conversion. HA&L’s first intern, Rachel Harvey, was asked to recollect her profound former and ongoing response to the book. I wanted to reach out to non-converts, however, so I asked Elizabeth DiEmanuele to contribute. Elizabeth is a whip-smart woman who, though she studied at McMaster for both undergraduate and graduate studies in English, managed to evade Dr. Coleman’s tutelage. In response to Coleman’s writing, Elizabeth reaches outward to A. M. Klein’s work to explain the spiritual benefit of reading.
As the organizer of this initiative, I provide less a review or interpretation of Daniel’s book and more an aesthetic vote of solidarity by endorsing its premise – that reading in contemporary life is vital because it is a spiritual act, and those acts are what keep us kind and alert – by hearkening back to the opening of In Bed With the Word. The text’s inaugurating anecdote involves Daniel’s brother, John, who, according to a longstanding tradition held by his family, is found reading in his bed one morning in the dormitory of a missionary school. The anecdote is richly drawn and best read in the original, but the gist of it is that reading has iconic significance – that it is familial, societal, and individual. John is found in bed with a book at six years of age because it is what he knows to do and because it is what he wants to do. He wants solace, comfort, home, and a contemplative world.
I have such an anecdote too, and I think all readers do. I am not sure that readers are born. If anything, we are made. We see a parent or a close relative in what Coleman calls “the posture” of reading. And we emulate that posture. So it was with my mother, who read romance novels and murder mysteries every day of her life. She was a constitutive reader and though I consider myself a fairly heavy consumer of books, one who has professional pressure to work through them (as reviewer, as student of literature), I know I will never approach the number of books my mother read in her life.
One of the strongest memories I have of her involves not a bed, but a chair – I remember her sitting in a plaid love seat with a reading light on above her head and a book on her lap. That this is also one of the first memories I have of her, but also a memory reinforced countless times in my life in many different chairs over the years, says something. My mother gave me the gift of reading by reading books herself. Carting me to church every Sunday paled in comparison to the tremendous spiritual gift she gave me by modelling the act of reading.
Reading books will not necessarily improve a person, nor will reading increase empathy. Coleman admits this. But for some of us, it does: the spirit is willing, as it were, and we allow books to serve as our acknowledgement of humility in the world. We learn awe through great writing. We learn how we are alike. Through reading I learned how much I owed that woman in the chair, who read too. By reading this feature, perhaps you’ll see how much the words of some students are enamoured of Dr. Coleman.
Shane Neilson is a poet, critic, and memoirist who lives in Oakville, Ontario. He was born in New Brunswick and much of his writing reflects this origin. At present he works as a family physician and is a Vanier Scholar completing his PhD in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University. Shane is editor of Frog Hollow Press based out of Victoria, BC and is self-appointed “Manifestoist Editor” at Anstruther Press of Toronto, ON. The author of several books, most recently he published On Shaving Off His Face (PQL), a book of poems about the iconography of the face in mental illness. In 2015 he also edited The Essential Travis Lane with PQL and How Thought Feels: the poetry of M. Travis Lane with Frog Hollow Press. In 2016 he will edit a selected prose volume (Palimpsest Press) and a collected long poems (Goose Lane Editions) by Travis Lane. Shane Neilson is Guest Poetry Editor for HA&L issues eight.2 and nine.1.