Where’s Waldo for Nerds: Gleason Edition

4 weeks ago Triangle 0

Written by: Nathan Ecarma, Editor-in-Chief

In this series, I will be doing what I do when I go into professors’ offices with them. That is, I play “Where’s Waldo for Nerds.” I start analyzing, theorizing and categorizing the books on their shelves. I like that book, that author. Why does he have that book? I’ve never heard of that. I want that. Instead of going in and talking to them face to face, I go in and talk face to shelf. Then after I investigate, I inquire: “What’s your favorite?” “What’s your one?” I do this because I love books, reading them, looking at them, collecting them. Rosaria Butterfield wrote, “You are what you read.” So, I want to know what people have read, because I want to know people and want to know what I should read. Books tell stories, both stories of themselves and their keepers. And I happen to love those stories.

For this edition of “Where’s Waldo for Nerds,” I went to Dr. Daniel Gleason’s office.  

What are you reading now?

“A bunch of poetry collections that I just bought. I like to spend some of my faculty development funds on new contemporary poetry collections. And, this summer, I read American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassins by Terrance Hayes—an amazing book, I wanted to go back into Haye’s body of work. I started Hayes’ How to Be Drawn, which is innovative and challenging.

Also, in my grab shelf is, which I started but I think I’ll be done with it, Power, Politics and the Fragmentation of the Evangelicalism by Kenneth J. Collins. A topic I’m interested in, but I didn’t find the writing as compelling as I had hoped.

There’s probably 20 more, but another is Twelfth Night by Shakespeare; I’ve never read it. When I was younger and more ambitious or optimistic, I wanted to have read all of Shakespeare’s work by age 35. But I didn’t get that. I wanted a fun, light read and it’s a hilarious comedy. It’s fun and light–if you’re a Shakespeare nerd.”

What books have shaped you as a professor?

“Some books on higher education and Christian education, but those are more about conceptualizing what the professor is. But there is an essay by David Bartholomae, “Inventing the University,” which helped me figure out how I wanted to teach academic writing and help students access academic discourse.

I took a course from The Great Courses called “The Story of Human Language” by John McWhorter. That course helped me think about how I wanted to teach my courses and helped me look at how we tend to approach language in different settings. It gave me a broader view of how an encounter with language is not just about correctness and effectiveness; it can be weird and subversive and fun.

Aristotle’s The Poetics—we haven’t really gotten better than that. He created the foundation for what we do across the university. He’s still pretty central. In [Plato’s] The Republic, in chapter 9 or 10, where he kicked the poet of the society, one of my professors explained that he’s not kicking the arts, he’s kicking orality and replacing it with literacy.”

What authors have most shaped your prose and poetry?

“Most of the prose that I’ve written has been academic, if I could imitate somebody it would be

Cathy Caruth. She has written Unclaimed Experience and Literature in the Ashes of History. Her academic prose is readable and clear, and it has an artistry to it, not with the sentences but the structure. The way she creates momentum allows you to experience the epiphany; you get the sense of discovery. I would hope she has influenced me. She can take something so abstract and theoretical and speak about it in a direct way. A lot of academic writers intentionally confuse their audiences because they’re afraid of getting kicked out of the club.

For poetry, Seamus Heaney would be at the top of the list. The way I’ve been teaching myself to be a better poet is to do imitation. It’s where you take a poem you like or a part of a poem, and you use its structure: the meter, the rhyme, even the grammatical functions of every word, and you write your own poem. Imitating Heaney’s tight free verse has helped me figure out how free free verse can be. I have some structure at least. That has helped me internalize rhythms.

Billy Collins has also influenced by writing style because he has given me permission to write my real experience. A lot of Collins is not dark and brooding; a lot of Collins is quotidian, every day, but it’s significant. He’s a white middle class male that doesn’t have to pretend that he’s something else. He can still write with heart and honesty. When you’re writing poetry, there’s a little sense that you want to be cooler than you are, angrier or more broken or brooding. Collins gave me a sense that I can write whatever I want as long as it’s me. I don’t have to have some poet alter ego.

Terrance Hayes has influenced me. He is on the other side of Collins. His writing is not casual; it’s very intense. I admire that intensity and there’s some of that in me. He’s intense while at the same time being playful. He’s also deeply invested in the political moment without being politically didactic.”

If you could do another Ph.D., who would you study?

If I would do another terminal degree, it’d be an MFA not a Ph.D. I would probably do something that would be thematic and less centered on a single author—actually you know, I say that, but I think it would be fun to do something entirely different, like become a Medievalist, or I could see myself doing like the Gawain poet.

What books do you re-read?

For a long time, it was Hamlet. I would read half a dozen pages of Hamlet every single day. It was something I wanted to do, and I loved it. I didn’t read Hamlet until after my time at Bryan. From age 22, maybe 25, to maybe 32, I was always reading Hamlet. It got a little obsessive, maybe a little unhealthy.

I re-read Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner. I describe reading it like if you put it down you have to start from the beginning. It’s such a recursive tale. It’s impossible to read it in a sitting. It feels like once you start you have to keep it in the back of your head the entire time you’re reading it. It messes with you once you read it multiple time: where did I leave off? It’s a great story; it’s kind of a detective story, solving the problem of what happened. I wrote about it in my master’s thesis.

There are certain poems I love re-reading. There’s probably half a dozen Emily Dickinson’s poems I read 10 or 12 times a year. They’re fun to memorize, too.  

*Pause*

I’m looking around the old shelf for other ones—the book of John: it’s the most poetic of the gospels and the structure is so fascinating to me. It’s fascinating because as a teenager and as a young man, I would take for granted the artistry of the narratives. I could get into the artistry of Isaiah, easy, but it seemed like a pretty linear narrative, but coming to understand the two halves of the book, the way it’s structured, the crescendo of the whole thing. It’s a chiastic structure. That’s really fun on an aesthetic reading level. But on a personal faith level, it’s really easy for me to receive a lot of devotional benefit.

What’s your one book recommendation, a book you think everyone should read?

I feel like making a book recommendation is a really personal thing, so I don’t like making recommendations without knowing something about the person. Part of it is the individual’s taste. I could just walk around telling everyone to read Old School by Tobias Wolff, which would be a good thing to do—that’s my default. I also make my students read it. It’s not a recommendation; it’s a requirement.

What’s one book you think I need to read?

The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy, for you, Nathan Ecarma, and for no one else at this time: only personal prescriptions—besides Old School. That’s just what everybody needs.

Read the Bible, read Shakespeare, read the dictionary, read Old School.

This is advice for me. How do you keep from being overwhelmed at thinking of how many books you still need to read?

My dad has read more than I have. He reads these big fat books. He doesn’t read in a frenzy or phrenetic way. He just reads a certain amount every day, at pretty much the same pace. He sets a standard. He has built in parts of his day and week.

Also, you get overwhelmed by reading when you’re young because you haven’t had time to read stuff. You have read way more by your age than I had at your age. That might bring the pressure down. Comparing yourself to other people isn’t a great habit for stress relief but sometimes it feels good to look at someone who has accomplished a large task and know that at one point they had not accomplished that task. You are ahead of my reading plan.

Another question to ask is why. Why do I want to read all this stuff? Examine your motives and figure out if they’re good or not. If you’re motivated to read something to say “I have read the complete works of Shakespeare.” But if you’re motivated to read the complete works of Shakespeare because you love Shakespeare and want to read everything by him, then that’s a good motivation.

When I was in high school, in my junior and senior year, and then when I was in my undergrad, a lot of the books I was drawn to were books that, once I read them, then I would feel intellectually superior to others. That’s why I read so many Russian novels. Which is a bad motivation. Those books helped cure me of that.

I wrote on T.S. Elliot because he was one of the hardest modernist poets to understand. I felt like if I understand that guy, I must be really smart. That wasn’t a great motivation; I still love Elliot, and I do recognize that you have to know a lot before you can start reading The Waste Land, but it’s a pleasure instead of a competition.

My wife is a big reader. She has an English degree and is a teacher, and she’s so smart. She’ll use this phrase so often: “Life’s too short to read… (whatever she thinks is boring).” She has a whole guilt complex with reading, too.

What are you learning from what you’re reading now?

It’s such a different spell of reading than my doctoral work. So, I’m learning about what my real taste is. I’m learning exactly how timely and timeless the right word can be. Both Hayes and Shakespeare do that. They would so be homeboys. They would get drunk immediately. They are so much fun and of their time and so transcendent at the same time. Shakespeare is Shakespearean. He is so of the Elizabethan era. But we always keep coming back to him with a sense of how contemporary he is. He gets human emotion and relationships and cultural moments. Hayes is going to be like that. They’ll be reading, and they’ll say, “That is so 2018 and that is also so now! How did he do that?”

Gleason wrote a poem entitled, “A Shelf of Books,” and here’s a recording of him reading it: 

Nathan Ecarma is a senior who studies Bible and journalism.