Life, Backwards

backwards-coverLife can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.
—  Søren Kierkegaard

I work at a large research library at a large research university in the American South.

I came to work at the library thirty-five years ago, fleeing poverty and graduate school.

I got my first job at the library because I could read and write French and German, and the work-study office thought I might be able to process orders for new books without making too many typos or misspelling too many words.

I could read and write two modern European languages because I had come here to pursue a Ph.D in comparative literature.

I became interested in comparative literature because the department where I did my undergraduate work offered a course in Arthurian legend.

That department was led by a middle-European folklorist who was eager to exploit the borderlands between folklore and mythology.  Comparative literature promised to let me roam such interstitial zones that the English Department had no use for.

I’d become interested in those borderlands after reading T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces.


I’d run into both of those works early in my undergraduate English major during a course on modern British poetry, which I took more because it promised modernism that because it was about poetry.

I needed to learn more about modernism because I was fighting my way, on my own at that point, through the works of James Joyce.

I was a proto-Joycean scholar, or so I thought, because of all that I had heard about Ulysses.

My first exposure to Joyce came from my brother, a decade older than me, on his return from college one summer.  He stories intrigued me with the idea, as he explained it, of symbolism in the novel, by which I understood saying one thing but meaning something hidden.

I was thrilled by the idea of a modern retelling of the Odyssey.  Also, my brother had pledged ΚΣ, so things Greek partook of his sophistication and cool.


But beyond hero worship for an older brother lay an abiding passion for Edith Hamilton’s Mythology; I’d dog-eared a paperback copy with repeated rereadings.

I’d come to Hamilton’s anthology of tales out of Jane Werner Watson’s retelling of The Iliad and the Odyssey, a book I’d checked out of the public library more times than I’d reread Hamilton.

I have no idea how I first encountered Watson’s book, but I know I was entranced by the tales of adventure, especially in the Odyssey, and I spent hours poring over the illustrations, copying designs from the armor of the Greeks and the Trojans and making up a few of my own.  I doubt that any other single book has had such a profound impact on my life.


Of course, the story that I’ve told here today, like all biographies, is incomplete.  It doesn’t account for my love of visual arts, much less for all the music that I’ve listened to and made in the course of my life.  It says nothing about the Prof, the love of my life: I could note in passing that we met shortly after I began working at the library, and so the path that led from the rocky shores of Ithaka off mainland Greece to this little college town brought us together as well.

But books and reading have been the core of my story since pre-school days.  Reading was my favorite subject in primary school and high school, and by the time I left for college I knew I wanted to be an English major and to teach literature.  That desire led me from a bachelor’s degree to a master’s, and ultimately into the Ph.D program.  And when it became clear that the life of the professoriat and I were destined to part ways, life at the library took over and has been my vocation and my career.  And when I think about retirement, I think about all the books that I can read, not the paintings I might look at or the songs I might sing.

And so in a very important way, that children’s edition of Homer is where my story springs from.

A lifetime is required to understand life.
—  Wallace Fowlie


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