By Rachel Toor
It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.
– Rabbi Tarphon
It begins when you read a piece of literature that reminds you why we read literature: an essay with sentences you wish you had written, a poem you receive like a gift, a novel that self-helps you better than any self-help book. You find yourself writing in the margin, using symbols that embarrass you (exclamation points!), scribbling YES!, and making stars, asterisks, and vertical lines to mark passages that you read and reread and read again aloud. With urgency and heat, you underline and highlight.
You elbow room for the work in the syllabus. You adjust the whole course to accommodate that one piece of writing. You can’t wait to assign it to students. It will change their lives. They will love you for this.
Then comes the day. You wait for the class to weigh in. You wait to hear from the student who always get it, the one you count on to point out what others have missed, who serves as a proxy for you and often leads the class. You wait to hear from the passionate reader whose mind, free from the itchy constraints of critical analysis, always finds something to like about a piece. You wait to hear from the student whose spoken language is tortured by notions of what he thinks sounds smart; usually you can barely figure out what he is trying to say, but that doesn’t stop him from going on about how much he got out of the reading. And you wait for the slacker who comes to class having no more than skimmed the assignment, yet who manages to say something, often funny, sometimes intentionally.
Then you notice they are all looking at their notebooks, fondling their iPads, doing anything else they can think of to avoid looking at you, with your face all kid-happy. Because they know that they are going to disappoint you. And then they do.
It was OK, one of them says.
It was too long.
I didn’t get it.
I thought it was boring, the slacker says.
The class leader claims it was sentimental, flawed.
The sentimental girl—the one who always finds something to love in a piece of writing—checks that her pen is still healthy and won’t make eye contact.
The work that induced that reaction six times, in graduate and undergraduate courses, at two universities and one medium-security prison, was an essay by the late A. Bartlett Giamatti, Red Sox fan, Renaissance scholar, president of Yale University, president of the National League, commissioner of baseball, firer of Pete Rose, swarthy smoker of cigarettes, and eloquent reader of texts, who died of a heart attack at age 51. Written when he was 40, the essay, called “The Green Fields of the Mind,” begins: “It breaks your heart. It was designed to break your heart.”
He continued: “There comes a time when every summer will have something of autumn about it. Whatever the reason, it seemed to me that I was investing more and more in baseball, making the game do more of the work that keeps time fat and slow and lazy. I was counting on the game’s deep patterns, three strikes, three outs, three times three innings, and its deepest impulse, to go out and back, to leave and to return home, to set the order of the day and to organize the daylight.”
In class I ask: What is the essay about? Students understand that it’s about the ways that baseball helps us to live, the immersion in the immediate, the appeal of illusions of something everlasting. It is not that they do not get it. They get it. This is not like when I ask them to read something challenging and complex, and their distaste comes from intimidation. With difficult texts, after we discuss them in class, they often see what they had missed and, in retrospect, come not only to admire but to like the work.
At first I thought the problem was that the students were too young, or that they hated sports, or that they were plain stupid. But no. My students just tend not to cotton to Giamatti’s flavor of sweetness. He ends the essay with this comment on those who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts: “These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.”
I love this essay. My students do not.
Bart Giamatti was my college president. Most of my friends remember the first speech he ever delivered to us, in the pomp and circumstance of Woolsey Hall, when we had been Yalies for about 15 minutes. He quoted to us the idea of the ancient Rabbi Tarphon: “It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” We revered Giamatti and committed to not desisting from tasks, once we found out what it meant to “desist.”
When I started teaching his essay, I had passed more than 40 summers myself. I had followed baseball only once in my life, when I had lived in Brooklyn with my future ex-husband, and together we rooted for the 1986 Mets. We had a good season.
But I don’t think about baseball or my ex-husband when I read “The Green Fields of the Mind.” Instead, Giamatti’s sentences transport me back to Durham, N.C., where I had moved after my divorce. I spent hot summer evenings sitting on the hard bleachers of the old Durham Bulls’ stadium, next to my friend Scotty, listening to him talk about the Haitian revolution, about the Negro Leagues, about the inexpressible ickiness of cheeseburgers. He didn’t seem to be watching the game, but every time the crowd whooped and hollered he always knew what had happened on the field. Chipper, Javy, or one of the other boys—they were so young—had made a play. We didn’t know then, Scotty and I, how young we were.
I tell my students that the reader is always in it for herself; she will look to connect with some part of a work that reminds her of who she is, was, or wants to be. There are good and important pieces of literature, I tell them, that will not appeal because even while students may be able to see the art and craft of a work, they may not be able to read themselves into the feelings. There is a difference between taste and appreciation. And of taste, of course, there is no disputing.
As for me, I go back, again and again, to Giamatti’s essay to think about the ways in which literature helps us to live, helps us to understand the world and our place in it. I think about how reading good words makes our own better, and about what happens when I am so moved by a piece of writing that I want to sit down and write. I think about how Giamatti’s essay helps me to appreciate baseball, and how my experience with baseball—with Scotty—makes me love the essay. I realize “The Green Fields of the Mind” may not be as good as I want it to be, that my students may be right (too long, too slow, too sentimental), and I don’t care. It moves me every time.
My students are not going to resonate with everything I love. I know that. But I also know that if I pitch enough beautiful work at them, something will wallop them with the clean thud of a fast ball arrived in a mitt. Something will touch them, and that will bring them into the game. Their syntax will change in affectionate imitation; their ears will ring with riffs and harmonies. They will read in a way that makes them want to write, and their writing will be better.