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· A Slam Dunk for Thomas Mann ·

I learned students' names today. It's always my task the second day of a new term. Classes go better on an all-first-name basis, especially if students figure out (fast) that academic literary criticism needn't take itself so seriously.

My trick is simple. Since "writing about reading" is our common theme, I ask everyone to mark in a paragraph the experience of "getting lost in a book." Next I've the task of linking faces to texts — applying names and joking with everyone about their getting suckered by "virtual reality."

I start everyone out with

A Slam Dunk for Thomas Mann

That I missed a basketball game is all I remember. The year was 1962 and Reading University, my alma mater, was playing a home game across the street when one of my dormmates, Bill Keyes, griped loudly of my lackluster enthusiasm: "You mean you are going to stay here in your room while we go off to the game?" Sure enough, I was letting them go off to the game while I sat there reading. I had just begun a translation of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice to support my beginning studies in German. Perhaps because I was so rudely interrupted, I have only a vague memory of the book now. All I have in mind is the sad image of poor Gustav Aschenbach, a famous writer on vacation in Venice who, in tarrying over a vision of ideal beauty in the form of a young boy, succumbs to a cholera epidemic his Italian hosts have hidden from the guy as he soaks up a few rays on a sunny beach. I now think he might have gone to the game. In any case, old Gustav's experience serves to raise an interesting question: "Why should any beautiful work of the human imagination so fascinate us?" With Mann's considerable authority behind me, all I can say is that ideal beauty gets us all at last, as does the grim reaper. Only basketball provides the form for some, and, for others, books do.

You'll be interested to know how I learned today of a "Brandy" who started a small kitchen fire by solving a Who-Done-It one night here, and of a "Leah" who ran her car out of gas to the sound of her husband's reading Riptide over the "Continental Divide" in Wyoming.

As both discovered coasting thirty-seven miles to safety, literary criticism, naturally, I suppose, always goes downhill from there.


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