It’s been a while since I’ve blathered on about how much I love Tobias Wolff’s Old School. Lucky you, stopping by today. It’s a great book, the best book about writing and writers and school that I’ve read. The layers that he gets into such straightforward writing. It may be time for a third re-read, soon. I’d write more, but this post is coming to you pre-purchased-by-office-co-worker-iced-coffee-treat, so I’ll save the extensive blather for another post.
The Atlantic’s summer fiction issue has a new Wolff story, alas only available in print, and so out of reach of my dollar-impoverished hands, but while clicking around their site randomly like a monkey, trying to find my way to the whole story, I did come across this interview with Wolff on the occasion of the release of Old School. Lazy blogger that I am, here’s your fun excerpts:
You said the way the boys in the book regard writers is partly a reflection of how they’ve lost perspective.
It’s also real, though. It’s real passion. The narrator in particular is obsessed. The narrator sees writing as a passport out of what he sees as the mediocrity that he’s been born into. He knows he can’t belong to the class that the people around him belong to, so writing is a way of transcending class altogether. This adds fire to his obsession. But it’s certainly true that many of the boys that I went to school with were, like me, smitten with books and writing. Our idols were writers.
Do you think that happens today for teenagers?
No, I don’t. Why? I’m not sure. For one thing, I think the whole class question has been considerably mitigated. We live in a much more democratic society than the one I grew up in. The schools themselves are coeducational now—that brings a level of coolness and sanity to the proceedings. The other thing is that in the forty years or so since I was in school, movies and television have become much more influential in the lives of young people and to some extent have drained away some of the passion for literature that we used to feel. I used to get a certain picture of the world from what I read and even a sense of how to be in the world. I’m not sure young people find that in literature anymore.
I also wonder how many young people see their parents reading. My mother was a reader—it was just something we did. We didn’t sit and watch a box in the corner at night. We read. And certainly the families of the boys I went to school with read. When I visited them on vacations, we would talk at night, but then people would pull out a book. It was a much more literary culture than it is now.
How common do you think it is for adults, as opposed to teenagers, to have that feeling of being overwhelmed or consumed by a book? Do you ever feel that?
I sure do, with the right book. Most recently, I’ve had that feeling reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex. I found that an extraordinary and indeed overwhelming read. I was completely taken up into the world of Asia Minor at the beginning of the century, the diaspora of the Greeks when Kamal Ataturk was driving them out of Turkey, and then the Prohibition days in Detroit. It has a great epic sweep, a very powerful current. I frequently have that experience when I read. If I can see as I begin a book that it’s just not the kind of book I enjoy, then I don’t usually pursue it to the end. There are so many books that I do want to read and am probably not going to have time to read in my life that I go on to the next one.
There’s so much in Old School about the layers of lies we tell ourselves and each other, and how in a weird way some of these lies actually get at the truth. Do you think most people walking around are lying either consciously or unconsciously, or are liars the exception?
I think we’re all self-deceived to a degree, and it can become pathological in some people. There’s a wonderful line in Eliot’s "Four Quartets": "Mankind cannot bear very much reality." There’s a great deal of willful blindness in our living that’s probably necessary. For example, when we eat, we don’t look too deeply into where our food comes from. If we did, we probably wouldn’t be able to stomach it. The clothes we wear—where do they come from, who makes them, at what expense, to whose profit? They are rare people who are willing to look at every aspect of their lives and say, "I can’t do this anymore because whenever I start this engine, I bring the world that much closer to extinction. I can’t wear this shirt because the people who made this shirt are being exploited—they’re not even allowed to go out on break, they’re fired when they get pregnant."
How many people are there who will parse their lives in this way, take them apart analytically and, if you will, morally? Most of us don’t do that, and the truth is, most of us can’t do it. Just in day-to-day living, there’s a built-in dimension of self-deception or blindness, and that gets carried on in our relations with each other. We tend to overlook our selfishness, to almost forgive ourselves for it in advance. We fudge things to get ahead without thinking about it much or meaning to—people who consider themselves honest perhaps don’t always correct a misapprehension that another person has about them to their advantage. There are many levels of falsity, conscious and unconscious, in the way we live.
There’s your interview excerpts. Here’s your excerpt from the book. Now go read it. And remember, if you buy it from my "Bookshelf", I get a tiny cut, which will be applied toward the purchasing of more quality books from same sterling independent bookseller(s). It’s a win-win! (Of course, you’d be a bigger winner if you borrowed it from the library, but whatever. Actually, you should get it from a library, so forget I mentioned the bookshelf. Except that I’m going to leave it there anyway, just in case, you know.)