“Things Are Just Things”
There are a couple of stories I delight in telling any time I get the chance. This one, above all, is my favourite. It’s also the reason why I no longer have qualms about writing, highlighting in, and cracking the spines of my books. I can feel your grimaces, and I get it – believe me, I do. Ten-year-old me would be appalled.
This story comes from my first year of undergrad when I took a year-long course called Arts One. It counted as 18 credits (instead of the typical 3) due to its intense course load: we read a novel every week, and wrote an essay every other week. Yes, that’s right. A full-length novel every. single. week. Our first two texts were Homer’s The Odyssey, and Virgil’s The Aeneid. While the novels we read were more or less ordered by publication date, I’m convinced that this doubled as a warning to those considering joining the course: beware all ye who enter here. (If you’re really curious, you can take a look at that year’s reading list that me and my peers worked through.)
Arts One, as a lecture, was quite big. It involved more than one hundred students working under the same theme and thus the same reading list. From there, though, students were split among four professors. Mine was the delightful Dr. Carla Nappi. Throughout my five years of university and even my 14 years of schooling up until then, Carla remains to this day my favourite teacher. If it’s any indication of how much inspiration and delight I took from her time as my professor, she was the reason I decided to endeavor through not one, not two, not three, but four semesters of Mandarin Chinese. Why? Well, not because Arts One had any kind of focus on Chinese texts – only two on our reading list came from Asia – but because one of Carla’s areas of expertise is in ancient Chinese medicine. I remember Carla impressing upon us once – perhaps just to someone as we were trickling out after a seminar – to take Chinese. So I did, under the faint hope that in some way it’d make her happy. (Also I’m pretty sure she’ll end up reading this at some point. Hi, Carla! 您好!)
Am I taking this chance to ramble about my favourite course and professor? Absolutely. But this lead up is – at least I think so – important for context. Then again, it might not be quite as important as I’m making it out to be, and I could be fooling myself there. It’s more likely than not. So thank you for reading this anyway.
We were a few weeks through the course by now, and we knew the drill. Today, though, Carla had brought in a book she’d described earlier, and passed it around. Instead of the pages all connected to the spine, this book (or at least parts of it) folded out like an accordion, with pages connected to each other. It was a big book, and not easy to fold back together before handing it to the next person to take a look at.
Somewhere early on in its way between students, it dropped, with a large thunk to the floor.
“Oh my gosh! I’m so sorry!”
The book was hastily picked up in an attempt to minimize any damage.
We all looked to Carla, who, to our surprise, seemed not bothered in the least.
Still, the young woman who had dropped it was flustered, and likely apologized more. I can’t quite remember.
What I do remember – more clearly than any moment in my university years – is what Carla did next.
She sighed. “Okay,” she said. “Look.” She picked up her copy of “Medea”, which we were studying at the time, and opened it up. Without hesitation (and as I recall, hardly looking at it), Carla bent half the book back to crack the spine. A spark of silent alarm went through all of us in the room. Carla continued, putting the book on the desk and pressing along the crease.
Then she held it up for all of us to see – an example to us all.
Carla held the book with both hands and began tearing the book in two, causing an unmistakable tear in the top quarter of the spine. Carla continued to rip. Now the spine had only half its length in tact.
Surely, I vividly remember thinking as she paused here, she’s going to stop. She’s made her point by now. She must be done.
Carla was not done.
Carla continued until the two halves had only a quarter of the spine holding them together, and then, in one final motion, the book was torn entirely in two. Carla held the halves for a moment before letting them drop from her hands onto the desk in front of everyone.
I exchanged looks with my classmates – our mouths were all open, completely at a loss. We had just witnessed a murder.
Carla was calm as ever.
“Things,” she said, “are just things.”
And like that, she went back to the whiteboard behind her, back to the class discussion we’d been in the middle of. She seemed baffled when she tried to prompt us for our thoughts, instead finding we were still enthralled by the corpse of the book lying in front of us. I even remember Carla asking if one young woman was okay – she seemed about to cry.
The effect on me wasn’t immediate. It took a little while to sink in. But with the next book we studied, I decided to let myself experiment. I would take a pen (purple, as it so happened), and underline passages I thought were interesting as I read. Pretty quickly, I found myself not only understanding what I was reading better, but enjoying it more too. I didn’t have to worry about getting sticky notes to mark passages I might want to refer to later, picking and choosing phrases, debating on whether parts of a book were “important” enough to dedicate a sticky to. I just underlined stuff I liked the sound of, or that seemed to be part of an ongoing theme I was noticing or thought was interesting.
This is what I attribute my general success in the remainder of my English literature degree to. When it came time to write an essay (as it always, always did), I would flip through the pages and let my eyes catch the colours I had marked on the pages. From there, I could collect the quotes, and see what kinds of patterns or themes I had found myself enjoying in the novel whether or not I was conscious of it at the time. Essays – and anything else for that matter – are much easier to write when it’s about something you’re interested in.
Carla’s point was that things – material things – are replaceable. If a copy of your favourite book gets ruined, it’s just paper and ink. You can get another copy. People, however, are not replaceable. You cannot buy another friend at Safeway.
As it turns out, this was not the only time Carla ripped a book in half to make the same point.
A year or two later, I took an introductory course in creative nonfiction. One of the assignments was to interview someone – to get an audio recording and make a transcript, among other things. The catch was that it couldn’t be a friend or family member. (Pets included. A student had taken advantage of that loophole, requiring the professor to make a revision to the assignment for future terms.) Teachers, however, were fine.
Any excuse to capture Carla’s voice was an excuse I was more than happy to take.
When I questioned Carla about this moment, she told me that just one year later, she had found herself doing the same thing. This time, it was with Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho’s poetry in If Not, Winter. (We had also studied that book in our year of Arts One, and was the reason I grew to love Sappho enough to get one of her fragments tattooed on my back. If you’re gay and don’t know who Sappho is, this is me telling you to open up a tab and read the wonderful remnants we have of her. She’s the OG lesbian (though I’m pretty sure she was actually bi), and I find Carson’s translations of her the most beautiful. Carson’s stuff in general is my favourite; I have all her books.)
Here’s a transcript from part of my interview with Carla from back in 2018 about her ripping books in half.
Icarus: “Things are just things.” Was it the first time that you had done it – like to a class?
Carla: I’ve only done that twice in Arts One, and I didn’t plan either time. Like, it was completely spontaneous and I’d never done that before.
Carla later, about books: It’s a living thing. You have a relationship with it, and you’re making it into something that’s part of you and yeah, I don’t treat things as sacred, and like, everything breaks. Everything ends. Everything changes. And if you treat the things in the world as if it’s possible for them to not change and to stay pure, that’s just [not fair]… right? I mean, so for me that’s just not how I experience things, that’s not how I experience the material world, so if it helps students… So I like the creation that comes from destruction…
“Creation that comes from destruction” is something I’ve considered ever since.
In fact, that year was the year I discovered centos – a form of poetry where you take printed words from newspapers, books – anything – and rearrange it into your own poem. So as a goodbye and thank you gift to Carla, I took the final drafts of all the essays I had written for Arts One and made them into centos. There are layers of creation and destruction there to unpack that I start to think about sometimes before quickly letting go of.
If there’s a point to this post, it’s an encouragement from myself (and Carla) to let yourself write in your books, and to treat things like things. Things are meant to be used – to be enjoyed. As the proverbial wisdom from “Home Alone 2” goes, “I had a nice pair of roller blades. I was afraid to wreck them, so I kept them in a box. Do you know what happened? I outgrew them.”
Find creation in destruction. Enjoy things by using them. Rip books in half (so long as they’re your own). Don’t put things in boxes just because you’re scared of wrecking them. Wear that outfit. Eat that food before it goes bad. Use those art supplies, those empty journals, those pens.
Because things, after all, are just things.