one of my friends jokes that we are the type of academics our students most mock: those who sit around and actually think being smart is fun. and he’s right, really; he recently corrected my use of desultory, which led to a long conversation about how, and why, none of us can ever remember the correct meaning of “non-plussed.”  what a grand old time we had with that one. i learned what “peruse” means when i couldn’t figure out the answer to a clue in a nyt crossword: “to study deeply,” i announced to a room of phds, is not synonymous with “peruse.” ahem. apparently, it is. of all of us, mac actually took latin and so has a quick and facile (and usually accurate) brain for etymology. if language nerdiness had been a major, we all would have signed up. and taken extra credits.

when we’re not correcting each others’ usage we’re being “deep” about books.  we rarely have the “hey what’re you reading these days” kinda talk, either. instead we have the more heady (and to us, at least, more seductive) “you know, every time i teach pride & prejudice i try to get my students to help me understand why darcy is like he is,” or “anse bundren is the most evil character in all of literature” kinda talk. “hmmm,” one of us recently mused, “who among us is most like anse bundren?” now really: who sits around deciding which member of their group is most like the most evil character in all of literature? and has fun doing it?

all of which to say: aside from having post-preggo brain (“words are not my friends,” i frequently announce into the embarrassed silence when i can’t finish a sentence), i’m a little embarrassed that i’m not reading much these days. or that when i do read it’s not heady stuff.

it’s not that i couldn’t be that reader right now (at least this is what i tell myself). the summer after effie died i chose the strange distraction of reading some of the classics i had put off in graduate school, including those that had been on my reading or even exam lists, EVEN moby dick, which i have always been proud of NOT having read. ulysses. the inferno. all the faulkner in our house (which turned out to be quite a bit; i have since developed a twisted attraction to the f***ed up south, as i fondly call it). anyway: it was a great exercise in discipline and a fine way to recover some sense of an earlier, not-quite-so-sad version of myself. 

and a self that turned an unexpected corner, away from the nyt’s top-100 list (i can’t even begin to guess what will be on it for 2008) and toward my very own bookshelves, shelves that mac and i have blended and merged over more than a decade until they are about half-full of things i’ve never read. and should read. and so, now, do.

and this turn has taken into me into one of mac’s favorite genres: non-fiction. i loved loved loved “the professor and the madman,” so much so that i daily ponder the goings-on at ye olde OED and wonder, wistfully, if i’ll ever have my own tin shed in the backyard where i can sit all day and write. just a few nights ago i finally finished what has turned into my epic read of the fall: david simon and ed burns’s “the corner.” i am shocked at how much i loved this book — although perhaps i shouldn’t be, given how much it reads like a novel — and moreover, i am now convinced that i need to go to baltimore. more specifically, to baltimore’s ghettos. and even more specifically, to the drug corners.

i am hypnotized by this prospect. i have this half-baked notion that i could go to the fayette strip and would recognize folks from the book — ridiculous, given that some of them were junkies 10 years ago and are dead now, or that others have cleaned up and moved on out. mostly, i am enchanted by the belief that i could walk through the ‘hood — the shooting galleries, the open-air markets — and be emotionally engaged but physically unharmed. it’s a strange feeling, and i have to remind myself that that’s how stupid tourists get themselves killed.

much safer, then, to rent (or buy — ’tis the season for shopping, after all) hbo’s “the wire,” which is based on “the corner.”  the drama of the tv series is so large — stringer bell and avon barksdale are such lush, layered characters, and their dramas are the dramas of the kingpins — that it’s easy not to pay much attention to what’s happening on the street. in the background. it’s in the background, i think, that the life so richly detailed in “the corner” is visible: the daily life of mothers and sons and babies wandering to the corner, of touts shouting their wares, of slingers and stick-up boys. i want to see the underside of those stories in ways i wasn’t able to see them before.  i feel like i watched all of the wire and somehow missed that this was the story. 

i never thought that a book would send me to watch t.v. but there it is. sounds like a nice way to spend christmas vacation.