"Fervor is the weapon of choice of the impotent"... ...Frantz Fanon.
Commentary of the Day - August 23, 2003: The Book Not Taken. Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.
The activities that surround graduation season are well known: high schoolers, many drunk since prom night, cackle in their seats as a full-of-himself (or herself) speaker uses the words of Robert Frost's poem, "The Road Not Taken" as a launching pad for a speech about nonconformity. No doubt the hipper members of the class are quick to figure out that almost nothing could be more conformist, which is to say, lazier, than a speaker who relies on the Frost chestnut rather than pick an edgier, more adventurous poem by, say, Robert Pinsky, Stephen Dunn, or Gerald Stern. As for those less attentive to irony, the talk about being a nonconformist is likely to sail over the heads of those with green Mohawks and nose rings.
College graduations are both more ceremonial and more sophisticated, especially in schools where every ten students marching to the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance" represent a cool million laid out for four years of tuition. What these students want is a speaker they've seen on television, somebody like David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld, or anyone on "Friends." It's not so much that these people have anything important to tell them (they don't), but the coolest speakers are good for bragging rights when the class of '03 returns home and the new graduates swap stories about graduation day at their respective colleges. This year, alas, I suspect that there will be lots of time for these post-graduation debriefings because few of them are likely to snag anything remotely resembling a good job.
Too bad that the high school graduation speakers weren't around to tell them about "road not taken" and how being different e.g., studying and working hard rather than playing quarters and goofing off might have put them on a better path after graduation. Admittedly, what my last sentence lays out is the sort of generalization my wife attributes to the crankiness of old age. Perhaps, but let me add a specific example to the mix. I recently returned to the college where I teach on my way to our summer place. I arrived, several weeks after graduation was over, to exchange one handful of books for a new handful, and to make sure I had enough computer paper and ink cartridges to last until early September.
As I waited for the elevator to take me to my office on the third floor of the humanities building, I noticed a cardboard box stuffed with paperback books. A hand lettered sign taped to the wall overhead made the following announcement: "If you want it, take it!" Nothing could have been easier or more inviting, but not one of the books found a taker. I realize that such boxes are commonplace and that most professors fill them with examination copies that were not adopted for course use or other books crowding his or her already crowded shelves. But the box that so caught my eye was different because the book at the very top, the one so conspicuous you couldn't miss it, was none other than Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth. Apparently, you couldn't give it away! Such was not the case when I began my teaching career. Then, professors - with the possible exceptions of the no-nonsense guy who taught Chem I and anybody in the business department - found a way to wrinkle Fanon into their courses. In many cases The Wretched of the Earth was a required text, but even when it wasn't, especially pertinent pages were copied and then distributed for intense scrutiny a class or two later.
Fanon's name was also dropped at faculty meetings, usually when the speaker wanted the rest of us to know that he or she was both hip and very politically conscious. Long before "political correctness" raised its head on our campus (and everywhere else it seemed), Fanon was politically correct. Why, I wondered, had The Wretched of the Earth become the book not taken. No doubt part of the reason is most students no longer recognize the name and no doubt a larger part of the reason has to do with the sea changes about politics that has gone on during the last decade or so. Most students don't identify with bottom feeders, much less bottom dwellers "Wretched" is, for them, an off-putting word, and Fanon just isn't their cup of tea. By contrast, the noisy minority, including those who count themselves as Dead Heads, neo-hippies, or just plain rebellious, might resonate to the title, but they aren't notable for being heavy readers. Which left a slightly used copy of The Wretched of the Earth languishing in much the same way that Beckett's characters waited for Godot.
When school starts next September I suspect that the book will still be there - and if it is, I plan on hauling it away myself - not that I agree with Fanon's revolutionary politics, but because I number The Wretched of the Earth as one of those books you need to know. Others on my list include the Communist Manifesto, Mein Kamf, and The Quotations of Chairman Mao. I'd like to have an extra copy in my office just in case the right student ambles in and we end up talking about the Middle East. Why do I feel this way, and why would I gladly give my extra copy to anybody who promises to read it? Because I find it hard to imagine how one "understands" Osama bin Laden without knowing what Fanon is trying to tell us in The Wretched of the Earth.
As it turns out, when I picked up the Fanon book I noticed the one just underneath: Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. As a character in a Mary McCarthy novel liked to announce, "Who'd a thunk it?" I found myself muttering the same thought as the elevator lifted me up to the third floor where, I feel sure, still other boxes of books not taken are awaiting me.
©2003 Sanford Pinsker
Sanford Pinsker is Shadek Professor of Humanities at Franklin and Marshall College. He is nearing the end of his phased retirement.
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