Conjuring an education

Someone on Amazon wrote that the title How to Think Like Shakespeare is misleading. And it’s true that, after reading the book, I’m no better prepared to write a good play or sonnet. But the title — with its subtitle Lessons from a Renaissance Education — makes for an effective opening in a classical argument. Aristotle taught us to focus on specifics, particularly in our openings, and Scott Newstok’s opening closeup is Shakespeare. I can’t fault Newstok for ultimately giving me much more than Shakespeare.

Newstok’s quotes end up being both ancient and modern, sacred and profane (that helpful and outdated distinction), variable and constant. The variable part is the use he makes of quotes, which is unique as far as I know. He quotes not only to support his arguments but also to release the dead’s phrasing into living space. He quotes, I might say, as a farmer plows. The reader may as well be walking along a Vermont road on a bright, spring morning, smelling the turned-up soil.

Here’s a plug I pulled up this morning:

A methodical man, John Shade usually copied out his daily quota of completed lines at midnight but even if he recopied them again later, as I suspect he sometimes did, he marked his card or cards not with the date of his final adjustments, but with that of his Corrected Draft or first Fair Copy. I mean, he preserved the date of actual creation rather than that of second or third thoughts. There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings.

No, that’s Nabokov. But Newstok is, in a different way, as playful as Pale Fire:

What is good fit? Bad fit is easy to recognize, whether someone’s not fit for a task or out of shape (or both). In Cymbeline, the cloddish Cloten presumes that because the garments of another character “fit” him, Why should his mistress, who was made by him that made the tailor, not be fit too? The illustration to this chapter [and you’ll love the often-Renaissance-era illustrations] depicts a mis-fit man, his boots on his hands and his gloves on his feet. The world is turned upside down, with the cart before the horse, and the cat had the dire disaster / To be worried by the mouse.

Newstok doesn’t get in the way of his source material, signified by italics and superscribed footnote numbers. Instead, he conjures his sources in the act of his own writing.

What’s constant in How to Think Like Shakespeare is the constancy of the dead. To hear the dead yet speak so well and for so long — and about a matter that concerns all of us, our individual and collective education — moves me. Newstok’s arguments bring the past to bear on many aspects of a good, lifelong education suggested by the chapter titles (e.g., “Of Ends,” “Of Craft,” “Of Conversation”). The arguments fuel and extend my imaginary debates with my district’s administration. I bought a copy of How to Think Like Shakespeare for my department head, my chief ally in my own slow fight for the longer view.

So if I’m no more prepared to write like Shakespeare (and if that’s the test of thinking more like him), then at least I’m more emboldened to write like myself. Newstok, an accomplished English professor and editor, has a better ear than I: I like listening to his sentences whether they come adorned and unadorned with quotes. I am a hoarder in line with Newstok, though I’m focused on mostly political and religious theorists. My commonplace entries aren’t as common as Newstok’s, but my dead can speak, too, in their own way and in their own time — perhaps in some future they see more clearly than I do (“They can tell you, being dead,” to quote Eliot), thanks to the past.

Despite my more finicky interests, many of my favorite writers — political, philosophical, and (of course) literary — are present. Newstok quotes Hannah Arendt in his prologue (appropriately titled “What’s Past Is Prologue”), and she returns among some excellent back matter (“Kinsmen of the Shelf”) with the likes of Alasdair MacIntyre and Jenny Odell. In a footnote in “Of Attention,” Newstok produces an unprinted work by Richard Sennett that I’ve now read and read, salted and stored. Just the names of the quoted suggest that the field of education is universal and therefore personal, too serious a matter to be entrusted to grim and narrow experts.

These footnotes, where you’ll find many such blessings, are half the fun and occasionally almost half the page. If you’re a quote nut — and I think you will be if you poke around in this book — you’ll be pleased that Newstok cites them in footnotes and not endnotes (an improvement over Pale Fire).

Newstok has given me a hundred more books to read. But his approach to reading and learning is so vivid and slow that nothing in me regrets it.

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