When our children were little, some of our best conversations took place in the car on the way to or from aikido or voice or ice skating or drum lessons. One time we got on the subject of Occam’s Razor, the philosophical principle that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one, and somehow it has become something of a family joke.
One of my daughters might begin a sentence with, “According to Occam’s Razor…” and my son jumps in to argue that her point is not a good example of Occam’s Razor. Then he invariably urges us not to bring up Occam’s Razor in conversation because it makes us sound “weird.”
I really can’t help being a nerd, though. One of my nerdy habits is having favorite quotes. For example, on leaving the writing center on the South campus the other night, I was greeted with the smell of a bakery. Usually when I leave there, I’m greeted with the smell of stock yards, so the bakery is always a welcome change. As my children will attest, whenever I smell a bakery, a quote from Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies pops into my head (and often out of my mouth): “Ah, the intoxicating breath of bakeries and the dullness of buns.” They look at me like, what are you talking about?
I read Vile Bodies years ago in college, and I seem to recall the gist of the story was about materialism and the spiritual and emotional bankruptcy of the post- World War I “Lost Generation.” I read a lot of great books in that literature class, and learned everything I know about writing academic papers from that professor. He was the one who handed out a full, single-spaced sheet on “Some” uses of the comma.
But I digress. I may have forgotten exactly what happened to the characters in that book and half the uses of the comma, but I still remember “the intoxicating breath of bakeries and the dullness of buns.”
Another great quote that has stuck with me over the years is “Once more unto the breach, dear friends.” That’s the immortal bard, of course, and a quick Google search confirms my suspicion that it’s from Henry V. I usually say it to my husband on Monday mornings in a cheerful voice as I am dropping him off to work, and he responds with a half-hearted attempt at polite laughter. He would probably like to roll his eyes, but he must know in his heart that a guy who reads horology books in his spare time can’t be too critical.
One of my favorite quotes of all comes from William Faukner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. I took a seminar on Faulkner’s short stories in graduate school. Now that dead, white, male writers are passé, I’m not sure anyone still offer seminars on Faulkner, but this professor knew everything there was to know about the inhabitants of Yoknapatawpha County, and he transmitted his love and knowledge with irresistible intensity.
The professor was wheelchair bound and held the seminar in his home early on Saturday mornings. That winter, my husband and I were poor, young college students without a car, so I had arranged to get a ride from another student. He was a surly, scruffy guy named Mike, who passed right by our apartment on the way to class and grudgingly agreed to slow down his car long enough for me to hop in.
It didn’t last long, though. After the second or third week, Mike started asking me for a run-down of the week’s reading on the way, and one morning, when asked a pointed question about a story involving murder, rape, and incest, he mumbled that nothing much had really happened. He was met with disbelieving stares and appalled silence from the graduate students and was called out by the professor. He dropped the class soon after, and I started taking the bus.
But back to the quote. Faulkner said, “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”
A lot to ask of a piece of writing, you say? But I loved the idea so much that in subsequent years, whenever I assigned literary analysis to my comp classes, I would give a speech about the power of literature, “the queen of the arts,” and read them that quote. One would expect—wouldn’t one?—that an English teacher would be exactly the kind of nerd who quotes writers. But, alas, most of my first year student just looked at me like, “what are you talking about?”
When I was my son’s age, I did everything in my power to blend in with my peers, including hiding and even denying my basic nerdy nature. Today I embrace it. I’m not saying that my son is a nerd. People have to make that admission for themselves. But he certainly is genetically predisposed and shows signs. He likes math and spent the summer learning to ride a unicycle.
This morning, his car wouldn’t start, but, before panicking, I asked him to go back out and check to make sure it was in Park. When I looked out the window, he was driving away, and I couldn’t resist sending him a text that said “Occam’s Razor strikes again.”