I have an unshakable memory of Charles Donahue, a professor of Ancient Germanic and Celtic literatures at Fordham University; this was over forty years ago. He was explaining to me, after a close reading of an Old English text, the nature of the heroic boast or brag, the preliminary challenge to the combat that was to follow between two Germanic warriors as in Beowulf or the Finnsburg fragment. His face reddened, he intoned the words, and he spoke them with a passion that transformed him. He was the book, the age, the heroic ideal revisited. He stood then as an exemplar of what I have come to think of as a man of the book. He knew the classics, was an adept in traditional philology, and had an unassuming command of medieval literature and Celtic languages. The term of the book has had a peculiar resonance ever since then, implying an impossible (for me) level of erudition and thought. A man or woman like Charles Donohue has the learning and experience to make reading virtually a sacred act. Even if the work is secular, its study involves a discipline informed by humility, and naturally the scholarship that reveals links or patterns or revelatory associations. I think of him and others like him, as the scholar who lets the work speak, does not force meaning, and in the exceptional cases discovers, offering to others what is found. I idealize here, I know, assuming that such reading is in itself chastening and causes an experience out of time, an escape to the still point in the turning wheel. There is a communion across eons, a fellowship of mind, of readers and writers that connects us to the ancients or not so ancients. Undoubtedly the flesh still very much clings to the spirit behind such an act of reading, and all the fallibilities of the reader, the fallen human facts and facilities that we are, persist.Those whom I have met - teachers, lecturers, critics, and artists - who have had such discipline and humility are in turn humbling. They present what they have found, without condescension, speaking as with grace. Recently, I have tried to make sense of a scriptural scholars analysis of the poet and artist William Blakes exegesis of the bible. This brought me up against both the depth of the reading of the contemporary critic and that of his focus, Blake himself. I read commentary on commentary, and exegesis of exegesis. The body of an original text was cross-sectioned, reconnected and presented and then the procedure itself analyzed Blakes unity of word and image and then interpreted. Such higher lever pursuits show the mind exploring itself yet not as in a narcissistic mirror but in the image of the maker whose humility seems to dis-limn self-regard.Reading such people of the book, we witness a rare interplay, one that momentarily exists in what appears an absolute world. Perhaps this is what Augustine sensed when he watched as Ambrose read silently, not intoning the words or moving lips or tongue, as was the expectation of his time. I have never doubted the good, indeed sacred nature of such reading nor the remarkable achievement of one who is of the book. The paradox, it seems to me, is that one cannot work to achieve such a readers stance. The transformative nature of the discipline is ingenuous or perhaps I am simply offering a rationale for failure that is mine, to be of the book.
Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.