Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Riverside Shakespeare

The secret bane of college life, as I remember it, was having to buy over-priced text books for classes. It had to be the biggest racket on campus – books that should have gone for no more than $20 being sold for $120. And you had to buy them. Luckily, the campus had a pretty good used store, so I could buy these shit-bag, never-to-be-used-again books for $50. Of course, the worst aspect of used text books, and even worse for novels: passages highlighted in yellow that made no sense to highlight, and scribbled notes in the margins that suggested the previous owner was a complete moron on acid.

I now own only one book purchased for classes from that time: The Riverside Shakespeare. I’m not really sure why I still own it, as I haven’t read any Shakespeare in years. If you’re not familiar with this edition, the thing is twice the size of a New York City phone book. I’m trying to remember how I carried this thing to class – in a wheelbarrow? I think it’s a lot like the poetry books I bought so many of in my 20s; I can’t seem to part with them even though I rarely read them. (I just don’t have the time more than anything.) They’re status symbols of past ideals, so I can show people I really gave a shit about such things, once upon a time.

Hell, since discovering the joys of the New York City Public Library, I may never buy another book again. I’m looking at my life and recognizing time is an issue in terms of re-reading books … so why buy them? I say this knowing full well that if I had a few lucky breaks, I’d be begging people to buy my books. When the reality is I can’t be bothered to buy them myself. And I can’t stand the atmosphere at bookstores. I like the atmosphere in my boxing classes. I wish I could merge both and beat the shit out of various art snobs and such who make small indie bookstores such a stale experience.

But let’s get back to The Riverside Shakespeare. I was lucky enough to have two professors who worshipped him, so I actually pulled something from their classes, as opposed to the millions of kids who take similar classes and feel like they’re sleepwalking in hell. Charlie, my English professor/mentor at the branch campus I attended for two years, specialized in Shakespeare, to the extent that he’d insist when we read in class, we’d need to re-enact everything. Ergo, if there was a thundering storm, he’d enlist a few kids to bang the shit out of close-top desks and wail. It was great fun. And since Charlie was such a hip guy, at least as far as English professors went, he knew how to connect the writing to contemporary issues. Not in that shithead “let’s re-do Hamlet with helicopters and a hiphop soundtrack” way – just in making the emotional connection between those characters and how people are now.

My second professor, at the main Penn State campus, christ, I can’t remember his name, an older man, but this guy was excellent, as good as Charlie in terms of his knowledge and passion, and just as engaging. For the quality of instructors I had teaching me Shakespeare, I should be a lot more enamored of his writing than I am now. I guess the problem was/is I can’t stand stage acting and plays. I hate seeing actors act. I can handle movies, but when I see people on a stage, over-emoting and carrying on like mental patients, I just turn off. I’d rather watch American Gladiator reruns than any Sam Shephard play. One-man shows? Forget it. Hideously bad over-acting in my book. No one ever acts like that, unless they’re high and/or deranged – which is the case some of the times with the characters portrayed, but just as often not.

And directors have a way of mangling Shakespeare to “update” his style, which always comes off terribly. I know a lot of actors eat this shit up, a chance to tap into the classics, throw in Ibsen and such, but it’s just an art that I don’t appreciate, and lord knows, I tried. My response to "let's go see play"? It's "let's just fuck instead, and save $20 a piece and bad plastic cup of warm white wine at intermission, ok?".

But The Riverside Shakespeare, this haunting doorstop, goes on sitting in my apartment. I keep telling myself, “it’s good to have that as a reference,” but god-damn, the last time I referred to it was probably about 1991 or so. Why do I keep this fucking thing?

I guess it’s like the baseball glove I keep in one of my drawers, which dates all the way back to the late 70s when I bought it at the tail end of my Little League stint, to use in neighborhood ball, which went on a few years more. I used it, too, in the short-lived publishing/advertising softball league days of my mid-late 20s, which I enjoyed at the time, but more for the rambunctious bar scene afterwards, getting really hammered and flirting with those nutty/beautiful advertising chicks who never knew what they wanted. And I do have nice memories of being out on Ward’s Island as the sun set on a mid-summer evening, cool breezes coming off the East River, playing softball, catching a look at Manhattan between pitches, as our team usually lost 26-7 or so, but no one gave a shit. When the game ended, we’d take a yellow school bus back to a dive bar on the upper east side. I distinctly recall pissing on the streets of the Bronx like a dog marking his trail, because I just couldn’t make it home in time to unload about six pints of Guinness I’d had in the previous two hours.

The glove isn’t so much a reminder as a physical extension of a memory – something that seems so elemental and tied into who I was that it makes sense to keep it. I have baseball hats like this, too, that I’ll probably never wear again. Sentimental things, when you get down to it. Throw in The Riverside Shakespeare. With college stuff? There are damn few physical reminders of my time there – a few pictures, some yellowed newspaper columns (that make me cringe the few times I’ve looked at them), a diploma. Everything else is carried in emails and conversations I’ve had and continue to have with a handful of old college classmates over the years.

And none of us are nostalgic for those college days, even though most of us had a blast at Penn State. The Riverside Shakespeare makes me think of this girl Ann from South Dakota who was in my second class at the main campus. A beautiful girl with long black hair – looked a lot like the actress Jordana Brewster. I was dying to fuck her, but we never quite clicked. I’ll never forget the night I snuck into her dorm, so we could play Chuck Berry’s “Great 28” album I had just bought ("Bill, you bought the album? Get over here, now!"), and she went nuts doing the twist for about an hour – I should have went for it then, dude. But it didn’t happen, and we went on, carrying our gigantic copies of The Riverside Shakespeare to class three times a week. We both got A’s, and I guess she went back to the Badlands to live out her days.

Why is it that I think just as much about her, or Charlie, as I do anything I actually learned while reading The Riverside Shakespeare, when I look at that book on the shelf?

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