My No-Longer-Secret Shame

I need to tell you a shocking secret, but you must promise not to tell anyone. If you tell even one other person, it will ruin my professional reputation and call my credentials as a friend of culture and the written word into question.

Okay. Here goes.

I, Robert Benson, have never read Of Mice and Men.miceandmen

Shocking, right? I’m a college library director, and I’ve never even once read this short, accessible literary classic. My team at work found me out this week and are now questioning their life choices. How can they work on a library team led by someone who has never taken the time to experience a 100 page staple of American literature read by millions of American middle school students every single year? I have no answers.

It gets worse.

I also have never read Pride and Prejudice; The Diary of Anne Frank; Little Women; Wuthering Heights; The Picture of Dorian Gray; or The Old Man and the Sea.

I once started Moby Dick but thought it was boring and stopped.

Hard Times is the only Charles Dickens novel I have ever read.

I’ve never watched Gone with the Wind, Casablanca or Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

I don’t particularly enjoy Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong or Billie Holiday recordings. I desperately love the music but the sound quality of those early recordings hurts my ears.

Too much? I know it’s painful, but there’s more you need to know.

Most rhyming poetry is willfully opaque and boring. Unless its not.

Emily Dickinson seems pretty sexy to me, but I can’t explain why.

I definitely enjoy William Blake’s poems best as decoration for his engravings.

I don’t get the big deal about Robert Frost.

When I read Shakespeare, I don’t feel like I completely understand what’s happening or even what the characters are saying until I can see it happening on the screen or stage.

You still with me? Are we still friends?

I’m sorry you had to find out this way. I know this is a lot to process.

In my defense, there’s a lot of culture to take in, and we keep making more of it.

I am 43 years old and have been actively reading a book every day of my life since I was five. My Goodreads profile says I have read 462 books, but that’s just since I started keeping track in 2008.

I have read a lot of great stuff, both classic and contemporary, but there’s so much greatness I cannot take it all in.

My “To Watch” list is a hot mess. I hope to live long enough to see Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and 200+ other classic films that will make my life richer but one of my best friends loaned me the first three seasons of Game of Thrones on DVD over two years ago, and I still haven’t returned them. Sorry, not sorry.

There are 24 hours in a day, seven days in a week, 52 weeks in a year. Movies last about 2 hours. You do the math. There’s a mathematical limit. I sleep, eat and work. I have a family. We do stuff together.

At this moment right now, I am listening to Yo-Yo Ma’s rendition of “Sarabande” from The Cello Suites Inspired by Bach. This gorgeous 6 minute and 36 second track is just one of 8706 songs in my iTunes library rated 4 stars or higher. It would take 25.6 days of continuous listening to hear all of those songs I love play just one time. I’m trying. I have a version of my playlist sorted by date last played and another which extracts only those songs I haven’t played in the past year. There are 621 songs on that list which would take 48 continuous hours to hear. I still buy music.

But I digress. I was telling you about how I haven’t read Of Mice and Men. Yet.

You and I live in a miraculous time amidst the staggering abundance of cultural riches. At any given moment, we can access visual, aural and written art created across most of recorded human history. It is, in fact, the absolute greatest time to be a person.

But our time is also one of scarcity. We have precisely as many hours in our day as Monet and Newton and Voltaire, yet we feel ourselves constantly time-starved. We pack our own lives with activity and distraction. We often feel the lack of time as if it is a thing that is being stolen from us, as if we are being robbed.

I am going to read Of Mice and Men and also Charles Dickens. Soon.

I am also going to keep watching movies and listening to music. I am going to read poetry and see brilliant (and not-so brilliant) productions of Shakespeare. I am going to keep writing things and and playing piano.

There is no end to it, no bottom to the list. I can’t take it all in. No one can. But we never stop trying because art is sustenance. Art feeds life. The books and poems and movies and songs and paintings and plays are not culture. What we do them is culture.

Abundance and scarcity. The absolute greatest time of all.


Recipe Not Written

Take out the recipe index card, the one typed up and laminated, rescued from the handwritten scrap of paper in the back of an old spiral notebook. Look over the ingredients. Preheat to 350.

Measure out the proper dose of mayonnaise. Two cans of cream of mushroom soup. Whisk four eggs. Dump in a bag of cheese. Crush the little cheese crackers. Bring five bags of broccoli to a boil, then carefully separate florets from their stalks. Pay attention. This step takes time. Allow the soft stems to participate. Keep out any tough, unpleasant bits that might poke or jab.

While doing this, listen to John Coltrane. His life’s work is the official soundtrack of gratitude and abundance.

Think of your wife sitting quietly in the other room. You have been together all of your adult life. You have seen each other at your absolute best and absolute worst. You still choose each other every day.

Think of your 10 year old daughter watching videos in the den. She has your sense of humor and is your greatest, surprising joy. So far, so good. Be careful not to screw her up.

Think of your mother and father busily preparing the main meal at their house. Wonder if they can know how important they are, even though you hardly ever call or stop by anymore.

Think of your brothers who live too far away. Wonder what their lives are like and if the sun is shining where they are today.

Think of your grandmother who is always ready for a visit and your grandfather who you never met because he died a few weeks before you were born. And the grandparents you knew but never got to spend much time with because you lived too far away from their kitchen full of quick wit and basement full of books which sometimes you got to peruse and pilfer.

Think of your mother-in-law who welcomed you into her family years before you realized you were joining. Her talent for giving the right gifts — small, clever things you never knew you might need.

Your wife’s aunt who died too hard and too young and how she made her life the art of perpetual motion and generous action. We sang Free Bird at her funeral, which was a time I felt closest kinship with God.

Think of your closest friends, these families we make for ourselves as we move through our days. How they think of you, notice your mood, ask the useful, difficult questions.

And the people with whom you work, who bring their gifts and talents to mix with yours to make good things happen.

Think of your students as they struggle and prepare to find out what they might become.

And the people in your neighborhood who wave and smile. The people in line at the gas station or grocery store who may or may not look familiar. You are in each other’s lives even though you can’t always see how or why.

Oven is ready now. Ingredients are mixed.

Place pan in oven. Set timer. Wait.

Enjoy the spreading, radiant heat of the kitchen. Notice the room you have made inside yourself to welcome this rich meal of shared abundance.