Old School

Last night we discussed Old School in my book group. My friend and I had so many insightful remarks that the leader asked us if we’d lead the discussion in January of Pillars of the Earth.

Spoiler: Old School is about a prep school boy trying to win a literary contest so he can meet Robert Frost, Ayn Rand or Ernest Hemingway. The three authors are characters in the book as they visit the school. I found the portrayal of Ayn Rand to be quite unfair, as did many of her followers on Ayn Rand websites.

The group leader played us a video of Mike Wallace’s interview with Ayn Rand from a billion years ago, as if to prove that her portrayal in the book was accurate. I argued that, while she has very strong opinions, she is kind in explaining her point of view to Mike Wallace, whereas in the book, she is nasty and condescending to the school boys who have not memorized her books and philosophy.

One of the themes of the book that spoke to me was literature as a shared experience. Early on, the author explains why he and his classmates have such high esteem for English teachers in particular:

Say you’ve just read Faulkner’s “Barn Burning.” Like the son in the story, you’ve sensed the faults in your father’s character. Thinking about them makes you uncomfortable; left alone, you’d probably close the book and move on to other thoughts. But instead you are taken in hand by a tall, brooding man with a distinguished limp who involves you and a roomful of other boys in the consideration of what it means to be a son.

Much later, that brooding man with the limp is described:

He’d been a reader since childhood, and the habit had deepened during his years of travel for the Forbes-Farragut shipping line, but until he began teaching he’d rarely had occasion to talk about what he read. He could read a story like “The Minister’s Black Veil” and both shrink from and relish the soul-chill it worked on him without having to fix that response in words, or explain how Hawthorne had produced it. Teaching made him accountable for his thoughts, as as he became accountable for them he had more of them, and they became sharper and deeper.

After he leaves the school, the experience of reading is changed for the teacher:

For thirty years he had lived in conversation with boys, answerable to their own sense of how things worked, to their skepticism, and, most gravely, to their trust. Even when alone he had read and thought in their imagined presence, made responsible by it, enlivened and honed by it. Now he read in solitude and hardly felt himself to be alive.