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7 March: Reading and Remembering

Published onJul 09, 2019
7 March: Reading and Remembering

If a book really strikes a chord with me I feel like I need to give it to everyone who might appreciate the book in the same way. It’s like a compulsion to organize something equivalent to a ‘literary potlatch’. Turning the last page of a great read evokes a strong obligation to share it with someone else. This isn’t good if your bank balance is on the red side, or if when you take your credit card out in Waterstones it groans. Maybe the impulse to share favourite books is, in part, driven by the paradox of reading itself.

Reading is always about listening to that solitary voice in your head that speaks as your eye jumps from sentence to sentence across the page. But the private act of reading is also profoundly about breaking isolation. As Salman Rushdie once put it, a different kind of identity is produced ‘as reader and writer merge, through the medium of the text, to become a collective being that both writes as it reads and reads as it writes’. For Rushdie, this is the greatest and most subversive gift offered by a book. Perhaps it is this quality in reading which is a kind of sociability that compels bibliophiles to say ‘You have to read this book . . .’

Mitch Albom’s wonderful and moving autobiographical book Tuesdays with Morrie is the story of a great teacher – Morrie Schwartz – who also happened to be a sociologist. I came upon this book quite by chance. It was the last book that my mother-in-law, Gill, read before she died after a long and gruelling illness. She read it in hospital just days before the end of her life. She loved it and wanted her children to read it and each member of her family to possess a copy. Subsequently, her daughter Debbie read it and passed it on.

Rushdie is right when he says there is something surreptitious about the act of reading, but books that have been read many times carry in them the traces of previous readings. This can take the form of the invisible thumbprints that cause wear and tear on the pages themselves, or ‘intelligent graffiti’ left in margin notes or in underlined passages. As I read Tuesdays with Morrie I wondered how its previous owners had written their own feelings of joy, hope, fear and regret as they read. The book contained no marginalia or scribbled notes. The imprint of other eyes was left by thumb and finger marks and pages turned down at the corner.

There are two stories in the book. First, is Mitch’s story. It is the tale of a student who encounters a charismatic and inspiring teacher. Mitch describes the first time he met Morrie in class. We have all experienced the tentative encounters between staff and students in Week 1, as each test the other out. Morrie sat in front of the class and read through the register. He came to the name Mitchell Albom and asked his new student whether he preferred to be called ‘Mitch’ or ‘Mitchell’. The freshman replied that his friends called him ‘Mitch’.

‘Well, Mitch it is then’, replied Morrie. ‘I hope that one day you will think of me as your friend.’ So begins their relationship.

Mitch does all of Morrie’s classes; he is an inspiring teacher who tries zany things to get through to his students and keep their interest. Morrie loves to dance and turns up to student bops in sweatpants and dances emphatically in wild solos to everything from Jimi Hendrix to Frank Sinatra. Mitch becomes enchanted with Morrie. After three years they do indeed become friends. At graduation he promises Morrie that they will stay in touch, a promise that is broken almost as soon as it is made. They do not see each other or speak until years later.

After trying and failing to become a professional jazz musician, Mitch throws himself into a career in journalism. He becomes a sports writer of national prominence and pursues success in a driven way. Yet, he finds only fleeting fulfilment. Then one night the face of his old mentor appears on the TV screen. Morrie is being interviewed for Ted Koppel’s programme Nightline, which is something close to the UK’s Newsnight. Morrie is dying of a terrible wasting disease. The TV programme’s headline reads: ‘A professor’s final course: his own death.’ Mitch vows to get back in contact with Morrie and in doing so begins to re-think his aspirations and what his life has become.

The second story, of course, is Morrie’s. Morrie was the son of a Jewish immigrant and spent his youth living in a poor neighbourhood in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He finds his vocation as a teacher. He possessed an incredible capacity to communicate to his students his love of thinking and reading. During the Vietnam War a minor crisis was precipitated because almost an entire class of students in the sociology department was about to fail. They had spent their time on demonstrations neglecting Durkheim and Weber; Morrie had taught them well. Failure would mean that the male students would be immediately drafted into the army. The sociology department didn’t know what to do. Failing these students at the exam board would mean almost certainly that a proportion of them would end up in body bags. Morrie decided to give all his male students A grades regardless. No one dropped out, and the US army was denied an influx of young sociologists.

Teaching had been Morrie’s life. So he set out to teach one more class in the face of death. It would be conducted as a personal tutorial with his old student who had returned to him from his life as a successful sports journalist. The lessons would take place on Tuesdays, like virtually all of the courses he had taught before. This book is not about a dying man; it is about how to live. I think it’s almost impossible not to love it. Some readers whom I forced it on have suggested that the book sails too close to sentimentality. True, I sometimes yearned for Morrie to do something mean to make him a more familiar human compound of virtue and failing. But the book is not ultimately sentimental – rather, it carries real sentiment.

No doubt there were some of Morrie’s students who were impatient with his eccentric antics and educational experiments. I can imagine that Morrie would have his detractors in today’s universities where students want value for money and lecturers are expected to impart their knowledge in easily digestible forms through podcasts, PowerPoint slides and the like. But beyond all this, Morrie’s story also underlines what is at stake in higher education. Albom’s lean and moving book reads like an extended epitaph. Towards the end Morrie expressed regret for the books he might have written but hadn’t. These are sobering passages in the contemporary climate where the injunction to write looms large over academic departments.

As universities become more businesslike and we end up viewing our students as, at best, paying customers, or, at worst, distractions that keep us from the real work of writing and research, it is easy to forget that universities are also places where teachers can play a small role in helping students, not just through the curriculum, but in life itself. This is, of course, not a one-way process and I am often struck by how much I learn in supervisions and seminars. I am not sure ‘who is teaching who’ half the time. Tuesdays with Morrie is a reminder that sometimes things of enduring consequence happen for those on both sides of the lectern in the lecture hall.

In some quarters it has become fashionable to speak of ghosts and ‘the dead’ in a clever or supercilious fashion. The great Peruvian poet César Vallejo once wrote that ‘nothing is possible in death, except on top of what is left in life’. I think the written word is often an attempt to leave such traces. George Orwell claimed that one of the reasons he wrote was ‘to be remembered’. What I find compelling about Morrie’s story is that he chose to make his mark through teaching. The beautiful irony is that his student turned scribe and page by page transposed his spectral voice. And this, I think, is the miracle at the heart of this book.

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