I’m far from done discussing issues of race, racism, civil rights and education this summer. Not by a long shot. Especially with the half-century anniversary of the March on Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois’ death just over five weeks away. But a one or two blog break is needed, if only because I need it today.
When it comes to so many things in my life, my memory is better than IBM’s Watson. You give me a date anytime in the previous seventy years, I can tell you within a day what day of the week it falls on. I can tell you what I had for dinner on many a given day twenty or thirty years ago, what 616 smelled like in the middle of a July heat wave in ’82, and which of my former Humanities classmates were dating in the summer of ’85. Yeah, and where I walked to clear my head on any given Saturday or Sunday between July ’85 and August ’87.
But I frequently forget people’s names, but never their faces. I forget to bring reuseable bags with me to the grocery store, but recall physics facts and figures I haven’t looked at since AP Physics my senior year of high school. And — most importantly for today’s post — I often forget book titles. But I almost always remember the book’s content, context, audience, writing tone and style, where it fits in the historical literature or in its genre (and even whether it gave me a headache or inspired me), or whether it forced me to truly change the way I thought about a given issue or topic.
When I was a grad student at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, reading books the way Joey Chestnut and Takeru Kobayashi suck down hot dogs, I couldn’t keep the book title’s in my head when I referred to them in seminars or in my papers. I just couldn’t. Maybe it was because the titles were boring, or because the books themselves were regurgitative snorefests. Whatever the case, by the middle of my second year of grad school in late ’92, I needed a way to find a way back to a title and an author’s name, especially when in class refuting another student’s argument, in delivering a paper at a conference, or in answering questions from my professors about multiculturalism.
That’s when I inadvertently took my penchant for pop cultural references and began applying them liberally to the task of keeping book titles and authors’ names straight in my head. (I would’ve tried to memorize them otherwise). It started with the late Derrick Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well (1992), which somehow bounced around a few neurons to conjure Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay” (1966). I didn’t need Redding to remind me of Bell or the title of his best-selling allegorical book. What it did, though, was free my mind to think of my massive amounts of reading on two levels, one scholarly, and one as reminders of my life and the lives of those suffering from inequality on the basis of race, class, gender and education.
So, when more boring book titles and/or books would come along, my mind would automatically go there. I turned David Tyack’s One Best System (1974) — a book about America’s K-12 system as a sorting out machine for the majority of the nation’s students — into Paul Carrick’s “One Good Reason,” a minor pop hit from ’88. My mind translated Patricia Cooper’s Once a Cigar Maker — all about gender and working-class issues in industrialization at the turn of the twentieth century — into Chicago’s “Once In A Lifetime” (not a hit, but on the Chicago 17 album). Or, even more often, I’d go, “You’re once, twiiiceee, three times a cigar maker, and I looooathe you” — a nod to Lionel Richie and The Commodores.
I went further — and sillier — as I transferred from the University of Pittsburgh to CMU. Sean Wilentz’s Chants Democratic (1984) became Sean Wilentz “and the Pirates of Penzance” because of the rhyme scheme between “Wilentz” and “Chants.” Historian Christine Stansell was “don’t stand, don’t stand so, don’t Stansell close to me,” my homage to The Police. Leon Litwack’s Been in the Storm So Long (1979) became Anita Baker’s “Been So Long” (1986) from her Rapture album, while Michael Katz’s In the Shadow of the Poorhouse (1989) for me morphed into “Under The Poorhouse,” set to the tune of The Drifters’ “Under The Boardwalk” (1964).
It’s been nearly two decades since my last graduate seminar, yet I still find myself setting my book titles and authors to tunes and cinema. It makes reading an adventure for me, even as it helps me remember who wrote what. Silly, yes, it’s true. But don’t tell me I’m the only one who does this!