Book Blues


Reading period, which ended yesterday, was celebrated long before Harvard (or any university, anywhere for that matter) was around. The following is a cursory examination of a still unstudied genre: The Reading Period in Literature.

THE READING period goes back to the earliest artifacts of western literature. We learned from fragments of papyrus discovered in the early 1940's by the archeologist, Ichbin Scheissmann, and now known as the Lead Sea Scrolls. Inside one of these withered "Blue Scrolls" (as Scheissmann calls them) one of the ancient scribes tells a tale of woe: previous to his writing in his blue scroll he had been forced to write scroll after scroll and read even more than that, all in a period of two weeks. The poor fellow threatens suicide because he wasn't prepared to write in the blue scroll.

I must emphasize the fact that the authenticity of Scheissmann scrolls has been questioned, because the German scholar won't submit them to Carbon 14 date-testing--he alleges that writing covers every inch of every scroll.

The first attested reading period in Western literature occurs in Homer's Odyssey, where Odysseus, is kept on Kalypso's island in preparation for his upcoming examination. This is one of the more idyllic reading periods in literature. We can see that it was not always cold and heartless during reading period in the following passage, where Hermes comes to tell Kalypso it's time for Odysseus's exam period to begin:

He stepped then out of the dark blue sea, and walked over the dry land, till he came to the great cave, where the lovely-haired nymph was at home, and he found she was inside. There was a great fire blazing in the hearth, and the smell of cedar split in billets, and sweetwood burning, spread all over the island. She was singing inside the cave with a sweet voice and she went up and down the loom and wove with a golden shuttle. (V:56-62)

Despite the rather comfortable surroundings, even this early reading period has affinities with the reading period we know today:

But Hermes did not find great-hearted Odysseus indoors, but he was sitting out on the beach, crying, as before now he had done, breaking his heart in tears, lamentation, and sorrow, as weeping tears he looked out over the barren water.   (V:81-4)

Modern scholars have noted one important detail here: the parallel between Kalypso's loom and the loom of Penelope, roughly corresponding to the grade on a paper and the grade on the final exam, respectively. There are two interpretations of the water: either it is Odysseus's exam, which he will overcome only with the help of Leukothea's magic veil (corresponding to present-day crib notes), or it is a symbol of Odysseus's knowledge, and thus the source of his consternation, "barren" as it is.

Skipping over some of the major reading periods in literature, the hellish experience described by Dante, Blake's The Book of Thel, Shelley's Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude, Keats's On First Looking into Chapman's Homer and John Stuart Mill's autobiographical A Crisis in My Mental History, I should like to focus on a particularly important work in the canon of reading period. This is a famous Anglo-Saxon riddle.

The Anglo-Saxon riddles (usually in the form of "what am I?") come down to us without any answers, although most have now been reasonably deduced. An example of the early Anglo-Saxon attitude toward reading can be found in this riddle:

If the sons of men will use me they will be the safer and the more victorious, the bolder in heart and blither in thought, the wiser in mind; they will have the more friends, dear ones and kinsfolk, true and good, worthy and trusty, who will gladly increase their honour and happiness, and lay upon them benefits and mercies and hold them firm embraces of love. Ask what is my name, useful to men; my name is famous, of service to men, sacred in myself.

The answer to this riddle is "Book" according to R.K. Gordon, although there seems to be evidence that it is "Blue Book" (thus the work belongs to the literature of the exam period). But clearly we can see how the Anglo-Saxons believed that using a book, or reading it would gain the owner of the book virtual immortality (modern scholars have quibbled over the phrase, "use me," some contending it means simply "put on an expansive shelf," and not "read.")

But the major work of the reading period genre is another Anglo-Saxon riddle:

A moth ate words. That seemed to me a strange event, when I heard of that event, when I heard of that wonder, that the worm, a thief in darkness, should devour the song of a man, a famed utterance and a thing founded by a strong man. The thievish vistant was no whit the wiser for swallowing the words.

Gordon believes the answer to this riddle can be found in its surface meaning, "Bookworm." But if we examine the underlying textures, particularly in the last phrase, one meaning and only one meaning seems plausible. The answer to the riddle is "Person During Reading Period, Cramming for Exams." Although the study of Reading Period works is still young, it would not be stretching the truth to say that this riddle is the apotheosis of the genre.