The Wave, or Why to Publish (corrected and expanded)

Contemporary Literature cover and frontispiece
Fred Schreiber's copy of Contemporary Literature, 1956

My father was a skilled and productive writer. He published many novels, including the recently reissued National Book Award nominee The Balloonist. There were a few non-fiction books as well: some early scholarly work about Italian literature, a book about solo sailing around the world, and a series of literature study guides for students with the usual plot summaries, discussion of themes etc. The crib books were the least important thing he had done, and my mother had done a lot of the work with him grinding out summaries.

Now, a leap. In the early 1990s I was an America Online user and an avid player of online trivia. Online social networks were very new, and this was a great one. Intelligent, educated obsessives battled for free online hours at a time when connection time was expensive. I made some good friends among the “Triviots” and not too many enemies, and some of these people are close friends to this day.

One day in chat I talked about my father and his work. Later I received an email from a fellow Triviot: Are you really this guy’s son? He changed my entire life around! We have to talk.

The email was from Fred Schreiber, an antiquarian bookseller in New York and a former professor of Classics.

And now, a lesson. The three paragraphs below are completely incorrect, which is why they’re in strikeout. I am not sure how this happened, but a story appeared in my mind — backed up by memories of conversations that did not occur — that is in fact not true. The story is told in the link below, and is very different: a working-class kid and compulsive reader, a love for books, and a formal education that started a mile behind and finished to win.

My Life With Books: How One Thing Leads to Another

After gently correcting my bizarrely fictional account, he was kind enough to say:

“The fact remains that your father’s book played a VERY BIG part in my early education; the proof is that I have kept it for well over a half century.”

So there we are, with a new story. At this point I really have no idea what part my father’s little book had, and I’m going to back slowly away from the story and just say that Fred’s pretty amazing. For my own part, I seem to have fallen into one of my father’s novels, possibly Hemingway’s Suitcase, in which the line between fact and literature becomes thicker and thicker as imagination and fraud switch places.

I apologize to Fred for inadvertently romanticizing him into a kind of high culture Horatio Alger character. The true story is better and more complicated than accidental fiction, as lives usually are.

Fred’s story did not begin in academia. In 1956, he was uninterested in school or anything else in the straight world. By his account, he was a tough guy headed for a working class life at best, and constantly in some kind of trouble. Some twist of fate, probably a court order, put him in night high school at the age of 21, taking bonehead classes and hating it.

For his sweathog English class, Fred picked up a copy of Contemporary Literature, one of my father’s crib books, with plot summaries and critical paragraphs to get him through this nightmare with the minimum of actual reading. And then something odd happened.

He became fascinated with the stories, the ideas, and the writers. In a recent email to me, he put it this way: “I remember how fascinating and instructive I found the book: your father had a way of telling the essential facts about an author in a most readable and elegant way.” I have to drag out a cliché here: a door opened for him into an entirely new world, full of stories and characters and ideas, the last thing he’d expected from an enforced trip back to high school.

The transformation took Fred from the streets of New York to college, graduate school, a Ph.D. in Classical Philology from Harvard, and a professorship at CUNY in Classics. He was as immersed in literature and ideas as a person could be, and loving it. When he got tenure and a job for life, though, he was immediately bored. He left academia and began dealing in old books. To this day he and his partner wife are E.K. Schreiber, dealer in books before 1700.

So this is the story of how a young person headed for a tough life in a hard city became a seller of “Early Printed Books, Incunabula, Renaissance Humanism, Early and Important Editions of the Greek & Latin Classics, Early Illustrated Books, Emblem Books, Theology, Early Bibles (in Greek & Latin).” And my father’s books were the key to that world. Not any of the award-winning novels, or the studies of Italian post-war literature, but the plot summary study aids he bought for $1.95 so he wouldn’t have to read his assigned work in remedial adult high school.

Publish! Record! Blog, even! Don’t just create, distribute, as far and wide as you can. To this day my father’s mostly out-of-print books are in libraries and used bookstores all over the world, in many languages. I have no idea if there’s just one Fred story there, or a thousand. If you have something to say or make, please put some effort into sharing it.

A bit of yourself, thrown far enough, hits the ocean and makes a little wave. You may never see the shore on the other end, never see the size as it breaks, but make the wave anyway.

The Devil’s Own School Bus

School Bus of Fear

On a side street in a wealthy suburban neighborhood overlooking the water, we see: a schoolbus, unmarked, plugged in to someone’s power, clean and obviously customized, with spikes on the front hubcaps. Possibilities include:

  • Cool awesome extreme sports anti-drug mobile extreme awesomeness vehicle!
  • Purpose-built vehicle for school bus races.
  • Intentionally scary Freddy Krueger type schtick by horror movie aficionados/Coil fans/over-the-top leather guys/Turbonegro fans.
  • Bro mistake.

You make the call.

Just sent. What might happen, I don’t know.

Hello:

I was a student at UCLA from 1983 to 1987. In 1987 I was dismissed for poor academic performance, which was sadly an accurate assessment.

I am close (I do not know how close) to a degree in English, and I am interested in readmission and in completing my Bachelor’s degree.

According to http://www.registrar.ucla.edu/faq/readmissionfaq.htm there is an application. I have no other transcripts since 1987, so that won’t be an issue.

What should I expect from the procedure, and what other information should I gather? I’m very interested in this but also a bit intimidated.

Thanks in advance,

substitute

We have dealt no great blow to the Devil by renaming him “neurosis.”

My high school biology teacher was an original. Passionate about his subject, honest and plain-spoken, and invariably good-natured, he was a hero to me at the time. I was terrible at biology but I loved the ideas and I loved him.

He was a park ranger in the summers, and he took us out on field trips in, well, the fields to find out what our local ecosystem had to offer.

His experience stretched beyond life science. He had been a seminary student and on a serious track to the priesthood at one point, and he was also an expert in several Native American spiritual traditions. He wouldn’t eat meat without apologizing to the animal, for example.

One day in class the subject of the occult somehow came up. I’m not sure, but I think it was related to a classmate of mine who scared the pants off herself with a ouija board. Some bit of aleatory coincidence made her think a dead relative was speaking and she flipped. Our teacher looked thoughtful at this and said “I have a story.”

“When I was in the seminary, I had a lot of trouble with the idea of the Devil. I couldn’t reconcile myself to the idea that an individual, some fallen angel, was permitted to exist and to hate us. And I couldn’t wrap my mind around the dogma of evil, especially personified evil. My supervisor told me to fast and meditate about it and I did.

“So I didnt eat much at all, and prayed and meditated for three days. This is difficult and I do not suggest you do it yourself without a good reason and a supervisor. Near the end of the third day, I got up to go into the other room and there was someone sitting in there. He introduced himself as the Devil, and said he’d heard I wanted to know about him. He didn’t look evil or have horns or anything. But it was clear somehow that he was the genuine article, you know. Not some prank.

“So I talked with the Devil for a few hours, and he explained his role to me, and why there was evil in the world. He himself didn’t know why God permitted him, but he was quite serious about evil and his hatred for everyone. Very calm conversation, but obviously very chilling.

“And then he didn’t leave. I hung around wondering what to do, and he just sat there. I realized then that the problem with inviting the Devil in is that he doesn’t have to leave unless he wants to. I gave up on getting rid of him and went for a long walk, because that’s solved so many problems for me. When I came back there was no Devil, and I had breakfast and went to sleep.

“And yes there is a moral to this story, right? Because there always is with me. Yeah, the moral is that you shouldn’t play with things you can’t understand or control. As much as it may look like a good idea, you’re risking everything. And really it doesn’t matter whether the Devil exists or I was hallucinating after all that fasting. In either case I couldn’t get him to leave and it was terrifying.

“So, yeah. If the ouija board does that to you, leave it alone.”

He had a picture on his wall of the Voyager message plaque, you know the one with the planet map and the humans and the symbols. The right-wing super-fundamentalist creationist smbiology teacher down the hall (yes, I know) got in the room one night and painted it over because it had nakeds on it. He also removed and destroyed the part of the anatomical charts that had genitalia on it. They had a little war, or rather the religioso waged war on my teacher. I think you can guess who won.

Where we sat at lunch

What were the cliques at your high school or equivalent (ages 14 to 18)?

Clarification: This isn’t a request for your particular affiliation or lack thereof; there’s loads of quizzes and “memes” where you can relive that for good or for ill. I’m fishing for descriptions of the social groups from your teen years as you observed them, whether from the inside or the outside. It’s a survey of environments: what were the groups you saw? If you weren’t at anything like a school with social groups then, none of this really matters.

I went to an almost entirely white public school in a Southern California beach resort town from 1979 to 1983. Think Fast Times at Ridgemont High. So, mine were, in roughly hierarchical order:

Preppy/”Sosh” (rich pretty kids or those who could pass for rich, anyway): pink and green clothing, lots of chinos and khaki, cashmere sweater knotted around the neck, penny loafers.

Jock/Cheerleader (sports and beauty competition winners in the classic American vein)

Surfer (specific to my locale; not quite the same as jock: they were too obsessive about surfing to participate in much of anything else or deal with the hierarchy at all)

“Band-O”: marching band members as obsessive social phenomenon

Theater club: actors singers dancers and technical theater types and wannabees

Pop Music Lifestyle Subculture: at the time this meant rockabilly revival kids, metalheads, and some of the new wave stuff.

Mods and Punks: this was the early 1980s, so a Mod Ska/The Jam flavored revival was going on, and punk was a seriously transgressive style that set you apart. the two groups were pretty interchangeable because they were scarier than the other pop music identities. The mods were always high on black beauties and the punks burned things and put safety pins in their noses.

Academic/geek/nerd. You know the drill. The straight A’s crowd plus anyone who liked computers or Dungeons & Dragons and science fiction.

Stoner

Total outsider of some kind (doomed).

I’m interested for a few reasons. Subculture identities are multiplying, for one thing, and most of the pop music-related ones that have appeared in the last 20 years became permanent options on a kind of menu. And high school has a huge presence in American life. Some people spend their whole lives rebelling against the slights they got in their teens. Others don’t ever move beyond the subculture they found then. If you know what clique an American middle-class person claimed at age 16, you know a lot about them right away.

Beep! click click click

ch linked me to this marvelous antidrug filmstrip from the 1970s. I have so many memories of filmstrips from my grammar school education.

To start with they were the bastard stepchild of movies, which we all loved. On a Friday afternoon we’d hope for a movie. At a minimum there would be entertaining footage of animals or cool science stuff, and if we were lucky we’d convince the teacher to play the movie backwards when it was done for double the movie time and the unstoppable belly laughs we got from watching birds walk in reverse, etc. But if the filmstrip projector came out, we were getting second best. Someone would have to thread the filmstrip into the machine and then help out by pressing the advance button.

Filmstrips were always about the most boring topic available. I remember seeing one about Where Borax Comes From, several detailing How the Indians Ground Up Corn With Rocks, a whole series on How Erosion and Silt Change Our World, and maybe fifty different social science filmstrips about How Some People Live in Big Buildings and Others In Little Huts and related topics.

But the most frequent use of filmstrips was to tell us things the teachers didn’t want to discuss. The nearest we got to sex education, for example, was an extremely medical strip about How Your Bodies Are Changing Now That You’re 12 Or So, with terrifying closeups of peach fuzz stubble and line art of Your Head With Squiggly Red Lines Signifying Emotional Stress. There were separate filmstrips for girls and boys. It was incomprehensible. And of course the drugs ones. I’m not sure I saw this particular drug filmstrip, but we had several on Not Taking Stuff From Big Kids Because It Makes Question Marks Fly Out Your Nose, also known as If You Light Something On Fire and Put It In Your Mouth, You’ll Grow a Leather Jacket and Die in a Car Crash.

I think nowadays teachers put in a videotape and dive under their desks when bad topics arise. But to this day when I hear an old antidrug speech I immediately go to that crappy narrator voice wobbling along with the tape, the piercing beep, and the hum of the fan on the filmstrip machine.

One day the teacher left it on too long on one frame while she explained something and the film caught fire. We all had to go outside while the Fire Department came to check it out. I got a face full of burning plastic film smoke and I was light headed for the rest of the day. Drugs are bad!