About a month ago, before we decided that September would be PAT CONROY MONTH!, I went to the bookstore to buy a copy of Lord Jim. On the way I passed the shelf devoted to Conroy’s novels, and I waved to them sadly as I passed. “Hi, Will McLean,” I said. “How are you, Ben Meacham? Jack McCall, Tom Wingo, you’re looking well.” I couldn’t quite bring myself to make eye contact. “I can’t really hang out with you guys,” I said. “I have to read Lord Jim. The AP English Challenge says so. Maybe we can get together some other time.” I felt like a kid born into a religion that forbids fun.
When I was a senior in high school, I used to come home from babysitting or exercising or working on the literary magazine any time between around 7 and 10 pm. I went straight to my room, changed into sweats or shorts, set an alarm for one hour, and got in bed. Usually I felt too keyed up to sleep, but the rule I made for myself was that I couldn’t so much as stick my head out from under the covers until the alarm went off. Generally I went to sleep and probably ended up with a half-hour catnap.
When the alarm went off, I went to work – homework, studying, college applications – for as long as I could stand it, usually until two or three in the morning, and then I slept for a couple more hours until my alarm went off at six am. I felt like a genius for “inventing” this method of staving off my exhaustion so I could work all night long. Years later I learned that this method is called “hollow sleep” and I hardly invented it – the idea is that we sleep most deeply shortly after we fall asleep, while the middle portion of an eight-hour sleep cycle is taken up with REM sleep, in which we dream. So it is possible to function well on the short term sleeping only for an hour or two twice a day – you still get the same amount of deep sleep that you would if you slept the whole night. On the long term, very bad things happen. It is through REM sleep and dreams that we process the things we think, feel, and experience during the day. If we deprive ourselves of REM sleep, our reality goes unprocessed – and that’s bad. The sense I get is that too much hollow sleep can lead to a total divorce from reality – in short, a person can go insane.
Unprocessed food is good for you. Unprocessed reality, not so much.
But I didn’t go insane – I actually worked well in the hours between 10 pm and 3 am – the house was quiet and I could focus. And this is the long way of telling you that during my first experience with Lord Jim I tried to read it all in one night during this time slot. I remember where I sat – on the end of the couch in our family room, where my dad sat every morning to drink his coffee and work his crossword puzzles and still does. I mixed myself a huge ceramic stein of a sludgy beverage I made by mixing together instant coffee, loose tea, hot chocolate powder, brown sugar, milk, and boiling water (sounds appetizing, no? It’s what kids did in the days before Red Bull – and we liked it, dammit!) and settled in with Lord Jim in one hand and the Cliff’s Notes in the other.
Now. About Cliff’s Notes. I did use them when I was in high school – although I was sneaky about it and wasn’t proud of it. Unlike some of the students I’ve known in my teaching career, who will happily send an entire hundred-page Spark Notes document to the school’s color printer and show absolutely no remorse when confronted about it, I a) was desperate to hide from my teachers the fact that I used Cliff’s Notes and b) knew deep down that they didn’t really work. By the time I was a senior, I had known for many years that anything I read about a book in Cliff’s Notes stayed in my brain for about fifteen seconds and then went away. In order to retain the details of the book, I had to read the real thing. It actually really frustrated me that other people could read Cliff’s Notes and manage to use what they read meaningfully in class discussions and on tests. Even as a teacher, if I caught a student using Spark Notes and actually doing well on quizzes without reading the books, outwardly I would reprimand him while inwardly I was thinking, “How do you DO that? I could never do that!”
But I did find that Cliff’s Notes could be useful if I read a chapter in the book itself and then read the corresponding chapter and analysis in the Cliff’s Notes. Not only did this technique give me a chance to review and think about each chapter immediately after I read it, but it also kept me focused. At any given moment, I had an attainable goal: not the book itself, but just the single chapter I was reading at the time.
There is nothing more boring than the Cliff’s Notes version of a boring book. They’re never more interesting simply by virtue of being condensed. I remember staring at the pages of Lord Jim blankly, taking a sip of my nasty sludge, then staring blankly at the pages of the Lord Jim Cliff’s Notes. Then I looked at the clock and wondered how many more hours needed to pass before the daily early-morning Happy Days marathon on TBS would begin.
So, yeah. Lord Jim. I think there’s a boat in it.
But in all honesty, I am cautiously optimistic about this reading experience. I don’t really expect to like it (I know from reading Heart of Darkness – which I know well and have taught several times – that there is a great deal to admire about Conrad’s writing but that I personally don’t find it very compelling), but I figure that when my previous experience with the novel is so pathetic, there is nowhere to go but up. I mean, it shouldn’t be THAT hard – at 36, with two college degrees – to get more out of this novel than How many more hours until Fonzie, right? The whole point of this AP challenge was for Jill and me to use literature as a yardstick to measure our own growth – and at the way our adult lives as avid readers have changed us – and in this case, that growth should be even more apparent than usual.
Oh, and I was also thinking that it would be fun to sample my very first Red Bull while I’m reading Lord Jim. I’ve never had one before. I won’t have a heart attack just from trying one, will I?