Monday, January 12, 2009

Read, mark, learn . . .

When I arrived at Valparaiso University to begin law school, there was an assignment posted on the notice board just inside the entrance to Wesemann Hall. First year students were to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” several cases on lost or abandoned property for the required property course.

At the time, I did not know this language had been appropriated from the Book of Common Prayer. Though I had spent six months in Oxford as an undergraduate, and had frequently attended Anglican services, it was not familiar to me. I was oblivious to the irony of using language taken rather too freely from a completely different context to make a school assignment about lost or misappropriated property. Years later, I wondered whether the irony was intentional or merely the result of what Walker Percy calls linguistic drift. In any case, the theme of digesting reading material, in the sense of making it part of one’s inner apparatus, still carries power for me, a quarter century later.

In Real Presences, his remarkable meditation on the nature of creativity in the arts, George Steiner picks up the ingestion metaphor. Citing Ben Jonson, he writes eloquently of how what we know by heart becomes an active shaping force in our consciousness. Memory is crucial to identity – a fact known to the Greek muses and a reality that becomes agonizing for those suffering from forms of dementia, when they feel the old anchors of the self slipping away.

On the subject of criminal justice, what have I (in a secular sense) ingested? In high school, I came across Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol in our little library, and portions of that poem stay with me. Around that time, I also read much of Solzhenitsyn’s monumental Gulag Archipelago, as well as Falconer by John Cheever. A little more than twenty years later, when Tom Wolfe published A Man in Full, I had occasion to compare Cheever’s prison descriptions to Wolfe’s. More importantly, by then I had first-hand experience of visiting real correctional facilities to draw upon, starting with Clarinda, Iowa, in 1999, followed by most of the state-run correctional facilities in Minnesota, including Stillwater, St. Cloud and Oak Park Heights, in 2001. What I quickly learned, on these visits to actual correctional facilities, is that books can only take you so far. How could it be otherwise?

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