How Faulkner Convinced Me Not to Become an Astronomer
Alan Jacobs on a House Full of Books and How He Came to Literature
I grew up in a house filled with books, but by the standards of the cultured they weren’t good books. We had no bookshelves, which meant that you couldn’t set a glass on a table without first moving a cheap paperback of some kind, or, more likely, several of them: I spent much of my childhood making neat stacks of Erle Stanley Gardner, Robert A. Heinlein, Ellery Queen, Grace Livingston Hill, Barbara Cartland, Louis L’Amour, Max Brand, Rex Stout. My father read the Westerns and science fiction, my mother the romances, my grandmother the mysteries. I disdained love stories, but the rest I consumed.
We were perhaps an atypical bunch of readers, not normal even among readers of schlock. I don’t believe any of my grandparents graduated from high school. Both of my parents took equivalency exams instead of earning high school diplomas: my father because he lied about his age and enrolled in the Navy in 1943, when he was 16, and stayed in the service for 11 years, during which he found time to take tests by mail; my mother because she was the brightest girl in the little country town in northern Alabama she grew up in, and so was waved through all the grades available by age 15. My younger sister ended up earning her high-school diploma but never considered going further. Everyone in my family except me is educated far beneath their intelligence—but this, I must admit, is not because they confronted roadblocks to their ambition. None in my family ever thought education especially valuable, and when it eventually came time for me to tell my parents that I wanted to go to college they just looked at me blankly. My interest was, to them, an incomprehensible eccentricity.
I might also add that in our house the television was on all the time—and I mean quite literally all the time, at least after my father returned from several years in prison. That happened when I was ten or 11, and I soon learned that his strictest rule was that the TV stayed on. He didn’t switch it off when he went to bed—he was always up later than anyone else because he worked a late shift as a dispatcher for a trucking company—and I distinctly remember our leaving the TV on when we took our invariably brief vacations to the Florida panhandle. I think I worried that the TV would be lonely while we were gone, having only itself to talk to.
Yet no one in our household ever watched the television. We had no favorite shows, and the only program I can remember anyone paying attention to was the Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC: when it came on—announcing its arrival with the opening of the second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—someone would turn up the volume, and then turn it back down again when the news was done. The rest of the time everyone just read. (Everyone except my sister, who probably didn’t read a book all the way through until she was in her forties and has since become a voracious reader.) When I close my eyes and try to remember the house I grew up in, what arises in my mind is an image of several people sitting on shabby old chairs and sofas in the salmon-pink living room, all absorbed in their books, with a cathode-ray tube in a wooden box humming and glowing from a corner.
The motley collection of mass-market paperbacks that littered our house dominated my childhood. I learned to read early, via the ministrations of Dr. Seuss, and then went straight to the pulp fiction, never encountering any of the classics of children’s literature until I had a child of my own. (My son, Wes, and I discovered together The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Wind In the Willows, Charlotte’s Web. I had never encountered any of them before.) When I was six my favorite writer was Robert Heinlein; not the more ambitious think-books of his later career, like Stranger In a Strange Land, which I picked up and quickly set aside in puzzlement, but rather the space-age boy’s-own-paper potboilers like Tunnel in the Sky and Starship Troopers. For some years Tunnel in the Sky—an interplanetary survivalist tale, a futuristic steroidal Boy Scouts’ Manual—was my favorite story in the whole world.
I cannot be sure, at this late date, whether my interest in science fiction was a cause or a result of my other chief fascination, astronomy. I do remember that my most cherished possession was The Golden Book of Astronomy, in part, I think, because the clerk in the book department of Pizitz in downtown Birmingham, where my grandmother bought it for me, was reluctant to sell it to us, believing that I was too young to read it.
My grandmother handed me the book and ordered me to read aloud from it, which I did, eliciting widened eyes and lifted brows from the clerk, which received in turn a glare of triumph from Grandma. So I must have been quite young, which makes me think that this memorable event may have occurred before I even discovered Heinlein.
At any rate, from that time until my freshman year in college, my answer to anyone who inquired what I wanted to be when I grew up was invariant: I wanted to be an astronomer. It was only when I began to explore calculus that I realized what a grave error God had made in setting the heavenly bodies into motion, and irregular and unpredictable motion at that: no circular orbits, only variously elongated ellipses along which planets moved at different rates, spinning at different speeds. There was no thought then of demoting Pluto from the ranks of planets, but how odd to learn that it isn’t always farther from the sun than Neptune, just usually; and odder still to discover that Neptune’s big moon Triton stubbornly proceeds in its retrograde career, opposite the planet’s own rotation and the rotation of its other moons. Weird.
All this made it difficult, and indeed beyond my mathematical capacities, to plot and grasp the motions of the heavenly bodies. My vision of an astronomical career suddenly and permanently collapsed into itself, leaving a black hole in the galaxy of my mind.
What remained was a pleasure in science fiction—and an increasing interest in good writing about science. I discovered Carl Sagan, who was witty and vivid; but far, far more important, through the epigraphs to some of Sagan’s chapters I discovered Loren Eiseley. From age 14 to 18, perhaps, Eiseley was my favorite writer.
I read the essays in The Night Country again and again, and thanks to Eiseley I came early in my apprenticeship as a writer to see the essayist’s craft as a worthwhile one—indeed, the only one that fit my mind, that gave me a real chance to succeed. (I wrote fiction throughout high school but always knew that I was no good at it.)
I believe that the first essay by Eiseley I read was “Barbed Wire and Brown Skulls,” which explains why Eiseley (a paleontologist and archeologist by profession) kept skulls in his office. It ends with these words:
Generally I can’t refuse skulls that are offered to me. It is not that I am morbid, or a true collector, or that I need many of them in my work. It is just that in most cases, people being what they are, I know the skulls are safer with me. Call it a kind of respect for the bones, ingrained through long habit. That, I guess, is the reason I keep those two locked in the filing cabinet—they are delicate, and not in a position to defend themselves. So I look out for them. I’d do as much for you.
When I read those words for the first time, I barked a laugh and felt a chill. I knew immediately that this was the stuff for me.
The style of that essay is more straightforward, and its tone less melancholy, than is typical of Eiseley. His high style—which I first discovered in The Firmament of Time, his account of how geologists exploded our sense of the scope of history, and above all in The Immense Journey—put me off at first but eventually transfixed me.
Once in a lifetime, perhaps, one escapes the actual confines of the flesh. Once in a lifetime, if one is lucky, one so merges with sunlight and air and running water that whole eons, the eons that mountains and deserts know, might pass in a single afternoon without discomfort. The mind has sunk away into its beginnings among old roots and the obscure tricklings and movings that stir inanimate things. Like the charmed fairy circle into which a man once stepped, and upon emergence learned that a whole century had passed in a single night, one can never quite define this secret; but it has something to do, I am sure, with common water. Its substance reaches everywhere; it touches the past and prepares the future; it moves under the poles and wanders thinly in the heights of air. It can assume forms of exquisite perfection in a snowflake, or strip the living to a single shining bone cast up by the sea.
I did not see then that the style could at times be overwrought, that Eiseley occasionally pushed against the boundaries of what (modern) good taste allows. Later, with exposure to more restrained stylists, I began to suspect that my love of Eiseley’s prose was misplaced—but then, in one of my last college English class, I discovered the baroque extravaganza that is the prose of Sir Thomas Browne, and immediately saw that this was Eiseley’s great model, and that in comparison to Browne Eiseley was a model of restraint.
Oblivion is not to be hired: The greater part must be content to be as though they had not been, to be found in the Register of God, not in the record of man. Twenty-seven Names make up the first story, and the recorded names ever since contain not one living Century. The number of the dead long exceedeth all that shall live. The night of time far surpasseth the day, and who knows when was the Æquinox? Every house addes unto that current Arithmetique, which scarce stands one moment. And since death must be the Lucina of life, and even Pagans could doubt whether thus to live, were to dye. Since our longest Sunne sets at right descensions, and makes but winter arches, and therefore it cannot be long before we lie down in darknesse, and have our lights in ashes. Since the brother of death daily haunts us with dying memento’s, and time that grows old it self, bids us hope no long duration: Diuturnity is a dream and folly of expectation.
I chanted passages like this one to myself over and over, under my breath, smiling. (I still have the battered Penguin paperback of Browne’s selected works that I bought in 1979; more lines in it are underlined than left unmarked.) It was okay for Browne to be so outrageous; he lived long ago, when people didn’t know any better. But from my first encounter with Browne I saw that he—a doctor and naturalist: the book from which I quote begins with the description of some burial urns discovered near Browne’s home in Norfolk in the 1650s—was Eiseley’s master. How Browne wrote is how Eiseley would have written had he lived in more propitious times.
As I consider it today, the discovery of Eiseley feels like the most important one of my adolescent reading. But when I first read him, I had not yet been forced to confront my mathematical limitations, so my chief interests continued to be scientific. Eiseley’s work mattered to me because it made the natural world, and the scientific discovery of that world, dynamic and vigorous in my mind’s eye. I knew nothing of what people call literature or belles lettres, so I did not realize that I was also getting an education in prose style—in the very idea that to write beautifully was a meaningful goal, an achievement worthy of serious pursuit for its own sake. I did not realize that Eiseley was preparing me to appreciate Browne: few if any of my classmates shared my enthusiasm for Religio Medici and Hydriotaphia, or Urn Burial. Nor did I realize that he was preparing me for William Faulkner.
When I was 16 and about to graduate from high school—I finished a little younger than most people, thanks largely to my head start in youthful reading—I learned that a new shopping mall was about to be built just a couple of miles from my house in the East Lake neighborhood of Birmingham, Alabama. The mall was to be called Century Plaza, one of its stores was to be called B. Dalton, Bookseller. How romantic that sounded to me when I saw a notice in the classifieds of the Birmingham News that the bookstore’s manager was looking for staff. I interviewed, I was hired, and in the summer between high school and college I started selling books.
One of my co-workers was a man about a decade older than me named Michael Swindle. Michael and I ended up becoming good friends, and I learned a great deal from him, some of it edifying, some not so much; most of the lessons he taught me involved legal activities. But those are stories for another day. Right now I just want to emphasize one debt I owe to Michael. Michael understood my reading preferences, and politely declined when I tried to push really cool SF novels on him; he took his time, listening more than he talked, and then one day he held out a book and told me I ought to try it. It was called The Unvanquished, and it was written by William Faulkner.
It wasn’t until some years later, and much fuller acquaintance with Faulkner’s work, that I understood the shrewdness of Michael’s choice. He didn’t throw me into the deep end of the pool, with The Sound and the Fury or even As I Lay Dying; instead, he gave me one of Faulkner’s more accessible books, a series of linked stories written in relatively straightforward prose, culminating in that small masterpiece, “An Odor of Verbena.”
I was, pretty much immediately, transfixed. I am not sure now how aware I was of the stylistic kinship with Eiseley: they aren’t literary brothers, to be sure, but there’s a real consanguinity, and Browne is the ancestor of both. Anyone who likes how any two of those men write is probably going to like the third as well. What I do remember very clearly is being stunned—and “stunned” is not too strong a word—that the South that I had grown up in and that I had always thought of as a dingy, shabby place could be taken so seriously, written about with such dignity, considered as worthy of the closest attention and most finely-wrought rhetoric. Faulkner was quite an eye-opener.
This first encounter with him—which led eventually, though over a period of years, to my devouring almost his whole body of work—happened probably in my sophomore year of college, at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. (Given my parents’ indifference, I had to pay for my own schooling and didn’t know that student loans existed, so during school terms I worked 24 hours a week in the bookstore, and full-time during breaks. I asked for financial help once. My father said that I should just be grateful that they were letting me live in their house. I was 17 at the time.) In other words, my discovery of Faulkner was more or less simultaneous with the realization that I wasn’t going to be an astronomer. For the first time in my life I seriously considered the possibility that literature was going to be my thing.