Sometimes you read a book for no good reason. You pick it off the shelf and open it up.Sometimes you read a book that seems to have little connection to you, that does not deal with any subject that you are interested in. You just like the way the book looks, or feels. And sometimes you are helped by a blurb on the cover (yes, of course, I know that blurbs often highlight fake news). Here the blurb was by Oliver Sacks, who praised the writing ability of the author. You pay no attention to the fact that you have never heard of the writer or, for that matter, of the publisher, Hawthorne Books and Literary Arts, of Portland Oregon.
The book is a beautifully written memoir, that just carried me along, even though nothing extraordinary happens. The author, who now teaches at a university in Georgia, grew up in Connecticut. His mother was his father’s third wife – she was a beautiful Italian woman who never quite learned English and probably would have done better if she had never met her much older husband. The author was a twin, a rather rare twin who didn’t (and still doesn’t seem to) get along with his twin brother. His father was a fascinating, if somewhat irascible guy, an inventor, who formerly worked for the Bureau of Standards but was born in Italy and spoke a bevy of European languages fluently, and wrote books (mainly unpublished) on a variety of subjects. But it turned out that there was something about this Roman Catholic atheist father that Selgin only found out about at his father’s funeral – he was born Jewish, and was a descendant of two prominent Italian Jewish families. Who knew?
Selgin seems to have been a fairly ordinary kid (that’s good), who had a series of epiphanies in the eighth grade, when he met a new teacher, probably no more than 10 or 12 years his senior, and became the proverbial teacher’s pet. Well, maybe not proverbial, because this was not a case of a teacher simply favoring one particular student, but of a teacher who seemed to want to spend all of his time with this student, almost every day, after school at his rented house, where they would discuss all sorts of intellectual things, and drink tea. (And, I think, did nothing else.) But it turns out that the teacher, who disappeared after a year or so and went traveling, was also not what he pretended to be. He was not a Rhodes Scholar, as he said he was, but a community college graduate. But his influence on Selgin’s life was a profound as a Rhodes Scholar’s would have been.
So both of these men, his biggest influences, had lied about their pasts and reinvented themselves. And Selgin needed to reinvent himself, too. His brother had a straight academic experience, but Selgin needed to figure out who he was, including hitchhiking to Oregon to find his former teacher and to learn that you cannot recapture the past. And he became a commercial artist, and a writer, and a teacher, and he married and divorced, and he had a daughter whom he doesn’t see often enough. Most of this is pretty ordinary, or at least not earth shattering, but Selgin’s way of expressing himself is not ordinary at all, and it is this talent that makes all the difference.