FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 06/11/2012

In the Library, with the Candlestick

May 1, 2012  Volume 5, Issue 8

Faith+Ideas= an e-conversation with the faculty of Gordon College

Editor’s Note: Provost Mark Sargent is completing sixteen years at Gordon College in Wenham, MA, and assuming the provost’s job at Westmont College in California, his native state. We asked him to write a final column for the faculty and staff.

By Mark Sargent

For my first teaching job, I was assigned a small, windowless office on the second floor of the library. At that stage of my career, moving in was a do-it-yourself affair, so I convinced some friends to help, but only after some late-night basketball. We hustled to the library moments before midnight, just as the librarian trimmed the lights. With risky grace, he loaned us the key, a few flashlights, and a battery-powered candle. The move took only an hour, including a few gratuitous games of laser tag in the dark stacks. As I recall, I met my end twice, the last time near Hume and Kierkegaard.

Quite soon now, I will be boxing books again, making this one of the few occasions when I wish I owned a Kindle. The prospect of moving all that weight leads me to wonder how many novels I really need to do the provost’s job. After all, it’s been a while since I consulted Crime and Punishment for guidance on tenure.

Dostoyevsky will survive the cut, though I will undoubtedly have to surrender others. Usually I’m willing to toss paperbacks once their spines unhinge, but a few disheveled ones will, for pure sentiment, make the trip west in their rubber bands. My first copy of Great Expectations will be among them, as will Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion’s essays about California in the late 60’s.

Didion’s anthology was already in rough shape when I found it at a used book store for 75¢, but I have long preserved it, largely for one essay—"On Going Home." That brief memoir recounts a visit to her parents’ house in the arid foothills below the Sierras. Since she never settles the question of whether you can go home again, you might imagine how that essay resonates anew for me these days. Didion recalls how her husband, a New Yorker, remains uneasy amidst her family’s laconic ways and real-estate idioms. What he does not understand, she admits, is "that when we talk about sales-leasebacks and right-of-way condemnations we are talking in code about the things we like best, the yellow fields and the cottonwoods and the rivers rising and falling and the mountain roads closing when the heavy snow comes in."

So, let me admit it: when I talk about books, as I am doing now, I am usually talking in code about people and places and small epiphanies. Great Expectations is the shade of my parents’ pine tree, where I read the novel, and the childhood friend who sparked my love of literature by endorsing it. Slouching Towards Bethlehem is the shrill wind that swept into my dissertation-soaked life in my late ‘20s. After years of grad school papers, I envied Didion her prose: tight, cadenced, at once highly observant and allusive, able to balance irony and elegance. Suddenly I realized that parentheses could be art and appositives, if carefully pitched, had the contrapuntal texture of a Bach fugue.

During the interminable meetings in my office, more than one person has caught my eyes drifting over titles, deciphering the code. Out Stealing Horses—a Father’s Day gift—will always be the midnight alpenglow during our family’s train ride through Norwegian fjords. The Iliad—at least my copy—can never be read again without hearing the jazz keyboards of our classicist.

My wife gave me Silence to open a window on Japan, where she once lived, but I will keep a second copy in solidarity with the professors who fit the novel bravely into First-Year Seminar. Atonement is the rainy-day purchase I made at Heathrow after a London reunion with friends. I bought Mansfield Park —a colleague’s favorite—as a small, largely private form of empathy after he lost his wife. Sometimes when you no longer have words to say you reach for words that have already mattered.

In between the scholarly volumes on my new shelves I will slip a few detective stories recommended by faculty, sometimes under their breath. And, of course, there will be all those books written by colleagues and warmly inscribed. Packing their books means reliving their journeys.

My youngest son, now in Manhattan, recently sent me a New York tale, not aware that I already had a copy on loan from a friend. I can return that loan now when we get together, as I promised her we would do, to talk about The Sense of an Ending. Julian Barnes’s novel—winner of the recent Booker Prize—reveals how things we thought had ended keep changing, or at least our sense of them. That’s one power of literature—it alters the past, makes history elusive, blends memory and longing. The best books stretch our moral contours: they offer new words for what we thought we were, new words that bind us together as readers.

So, when I clear my shelves and trim my lights in Frost Hall I will have a sense of an ending, but I also know that the history I have shared with my Gordon colleagues will have a future. It will come, in large part, with the titles that they pass on to me at the edge of the Pacific. Those titles will reshape our remembrance of things past—every book a new lens, a new light, a new clue.


Mark Sargent