October 12, 2018
St. Andrews, Scotland
I belong to a book club.
There. I said it. Okay?
In my golf league this is not something one admits. The fellas in the golf league, while certainly readers themselves, find the idea of men getting together to “discuss” books a little too close to the kind of “sharing” they presume takes place at bridal or baby showers, or god forbid . . . women’s book clubs. “It’s okay to read, Rob, but do you have to talk about it?”
My book club is made up of 12 guys. These guys
They are, with the exception of the outstretched guy in the white shirt, very intelligent, very insightful, very well spoken, and very, very well read. And my good friends.
We “bookies” read a book a month, but designate one book–what we deem to be a classic in literature–to read over the course of the year and discuss at our annual retreat. Two years ago it was Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment. Next year there is talk of tackling Don Quixote. (Yikes!)
This year we chose Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” Most of us had read this classic anti-war novel in college and each of us enjoyed it very much.
It spoke to us . . . in college.
Now? Not so much. The absurdity, the humor, the irreverance that so appealed to us, so resonated when we were young . . . fell flat. Milo Minderbinder just wasn’t funny anymore.
Same characters. Same story. Why did something that struck a chord when we were twenty seem so out of tune to us in our sixties and seventies?
The book hadn’t changed. We had.
I walked through the campus of the University of St. Andrews tonight in the rain. It is a very prestigious university dating back to 1413 and ranked in Great Britain behind only Oxford and Cambridge. It has produced three Nobel prize winners, prime ministers and captains of industry. John Knox went here. Jean Paul Marat went here. If they don’t impress you, how about Prince William and Kate Middleton. Still not impressed: how about John Cleese.
This place is more steeped in tradition than my English Breakfast tea. Hell, they even have names for class levels. Oh no, freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors just won’t do. At St. Andrews, your first year guys are known as ‘Bejants’ and first year gals are known as ‘Bejantines.’ Second years, “Semis”. Third years, “Tertians” And final years are Magistrands.
Old? I’ll give you old. There are initials in the cobblestones in front of the gate to San Salvatore’s Quadrangle spelling “PH” to show where, in 1528, a 24 year old student Patrick Hamilton, was burned at the stake for espousing Protestant beliefs.
Tradition has it that if a student steps on the ol’ PH, they are cursed to fail. The curse can only be lifted if they run around the campus eight times naked. I stood near the initials and watched. I didn’t see a whole lot of hopping over ol’ PH.
That . . . at last . . . is my point.
These cobblestones stay fixed. This place, this town, this campus stay fixed. Generations of bejants will hop . . or more likely . . .because they are young and bold . . . walk right over silly curses.
It’s time. It’s time. It’s time that changes where we walk.
As my bookie friends and I have oft discussed, how we react to a novel very much depends on the moment in time in which we read it. Experience has intervened. Changed our perspective. We have grown world weary. We’ve grown afraid to run around naked.
St. Andrews is a college town, like any other college town on a Friday night. As I sat in a coffee shop enjoying my tea, the young man at a table to my right, desperately tried to impress the young woman across from him with his soaring erudition. You could tell from his confident manner that he was convinced it was working. You could tell from her bemused expression that it wasn’t.
I wanted to lean over, freeze frame the conversation, and tell him, “Whoa, whoa, whoa . . . stop with the discourse on Hobbes; trust me, I’ve been here before; I’ve sat in that same chair; I was a bejant once.. “Just be yourself; she’ll like you.”
But then I thought . . . no.
Experience shouldn’t intervene. That so called wisdom that may come with age is overrated. Knock yourself out kid. Swing for the fences. You may go down in flames like ol’ PH; you may be cursed by this misstep, but what’s the worst that will happen?
You might have to run around naked.