Daniel Coleman and In Bed with the Word
(LETTERS • BOOKS)
BY WILLIAM JESSE DOREY
INT. STUFFY SEMINAR CLASSROOM – THIRD FLOOR – CHESTER NEW HALL – EVENING
The hallways are completely empty, save for a few mice scurrying through TA offices and scrounging for food in the garbages. The fluorescent lightbulbs that hum above the oval desk are the only lights left on in the building. A handful of sleep-deprived potential graduands fill some of the seats. Many more remain empty. Copies of Daniel Coleman’s In Bed with the Word, in varying conditions, sit on the table in front of each student. C. sits at the head of the table.
***(Note: All (italicized) lines are narrative asides in place of what were likely awkward silences.)
Why do we read?
(A simple enough question, I suppose. But one that I had never considered before, at least in a serious manner.)
To escape, I guess. To survive.
Escape what, exactly?
This. The bricks and mortar of the ivory tower. The shackles of institutional oppression. The deadlines. The meaninglessness of existence.
To name a few, at least.
(I was in the midst of my own personal brand of rebellion: Too much exposure to Michael Hardt and Bob Dylan and quote-unquote ‘revolutionary’ white dudes + A middle class desire to be different = faux rebellious young adults.)
But that’s not answering my question. Why dedicate four years of your life to reading?
Why not something else?
Because I… Well, I don’t really know…
(Four long, difficult years spent as an English and Cultural Studies student at McMaster, and for what? Surely it wasn’t a career-planning move, or I would’ve listened to my high school teachers and actually applied myself in math and science. I would’ve gone to all of my classes and chosen to study Commerce or Engineering and wind up in some kind of personal hell like that.
But I didn’t. So, what had I gained from taking the road less travelled, aside from a nagging anxiety disorder and what I would later realize are the early onset symptoms of depression? Sure, I could deconstruct texts at the snap of a finger. I could write an essay blindfolded while walking backwards.
Hell, I could even argue my way out of a sealed box left floating in the middle of the ocean if I had to. But why did I choose to read?)
I’ve always been a reader, I guess. My parents pushed me to read at a young age, so I read whatever I could get my hands on. I became secretive about my reading habits throughout high school because I knew that I’d never fit in with the popular crowd if they knew I read. But then I never fit in and realized I wasted my time, so when I got to university I said fuck it and them and everyone else and decided to do what I wanted to do for once. Fast forward four years and here we are, having this discussion about why I read.
That’s all well and good, but that still doesn’t answer my question.
Why do we read?
I don’t have a reason, then. Reading is just something I do. It’s an urge that I can feel deep in my bones. It’s an itch I desperately need to scratch but can’t quite reach. I just know that I have to read.
[Turning to the class.]
Please open your books to page 35.
I’m not entirely sure if the above discussion actually happened or not. Or, more accurately, I do at least know that if it did happen, I certainly haven’t portrayed it word-for-word. Dr. Coleman, the “C.”, was always much more animated and engaged in the classroom (though equally philosophical, I must add), and I, the “1048048”, am (hopefully) much less dramatic. My interior monologue, however, remains unchanged. Daniel Coleman, a brilliant professor and even better person that I had the immense privilege of studying under in the final year of my undergraduate degree, challenged me intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. He took everything that I knew—or, more accurately, everything that I thought I knew—about myself and my reading habits, crumpled it up into a ball, and threw it into his trashcan, to be as dramatically cliché as possible.
Why do we read? With one simple question, Dr. Coleman put me through the intellectual wringer. I searched the deepest crevices of my mind for an adequate answer to what was most definitely the greatest philosophical quandary of all time. I contorted my intellect in ways that I didn’t think were possible to avoid replying “I don’t know” yet again. I confronted my own spirituality in the hopes that I would find a loose thread that would ultimately unravel the elusive answer. I searched and searched and searched, but always failed to find the words to articulate my own thoughts. I could list the reasons I read, but I couldn’t say why I chose to read in the first place. At the end of the term, I still hadn’t provided Dr. Coleman with an adequate response. I will say this, though: An A- had never felt better.
Now, two years and two degrees removed from Daniel Coleman’s classroom, I still don’t think I have an adequate answer to his initial question. I can say that I read David Foster Wallace to tell myself that someone else once knew what it was like to fight with your own mind on a daily basis; that I read Miriam Toews to remind myself to be optimistic, even when the darkness is closing in on all sides; that I read Mark Danielewski and Chuck Palahniuk to soothe my inflamed rebel gland; that I read Douglas Adams to remind myself that it’s okay to laugh every now and then. But why did I pick up a book in the first place? A good cover? A psychic urge? Some weird kind of magnetic connection thing that science will never be able to fully explain? I don’t think that I’ll ever know the answer to that great philosophical problem. But that’s okay, because I’m not entirely sure that there is an answer. I’m sure Dr. Coleman wouldn’t mind if I continued searching, though.
William Jesse Dorey is a writer and editor from Hamilton, Ontario. He holds a BA and MA in English Literature from McMaster University. His fiction and reviews have been featured in The Paper Street Journal.