Book Review: “The ABCs of Enlightenment; A Memoir of Learning and Teaching” by Robert Day

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When I was asked to write a review of Robert Day’s latest literary gift (I don’t call them mere “books” anymore), I accepted but with trepidation. You see, I’ve known Bob for several years (not long by many standards of friendships but long enough), and I didn’t want to disappoint him. What if—never having written a book review before—I wasn’t up to the task? Or worse: what if I didn’t like his book? After all, students want to please their teachers and although I was never officially one of Bob’s many students, I think I can safely say that he has taken me under his editorial wing and pushed me toward a more literary life. And for that, I simply but wholeheartedly say, “Thank you, Robert Day.”

41gzp623yulNow that that’s out of the way, I can safely go ahead and say buy a copy of “The ABCs of Enlightenment; A Memoir of Learning and Teaching.” In fact, buy it today while supplies last. These essays and the insights and truths contained therein are distilled literary white lightening. One of the things Bob learned early on at the University of Kansas is that the life of the mind is a) a lifelong journey and b) is a gift freely given to be used and then passed on—a daisy chain of letters in the old-fashioned sense of that word. Bob’s own teachers and mentors would be proud of this book; in it, he pays homage to what he learned at their collective knee and he pays it forward to his own generation of students. In fact, although he has now been retired for a few years, this edition displays him at his teaching best: his style, prose, and Kansas drawl; his just-below-the-surface anger and his clear-sighted amusement, as noted by Barbara Mowat in her fine introduction; and finally, his considerable compendium of knowledge of just about everything, not just the ABCs, but the London taxi driver’s full blown A-to-Zed.

Contained within a parentheses of eloquent introductions, forwards, epilogs, and afterwords, “The ABCs of Enlightenment” contains sixteen thoughtful essays. Most are new, some have appeared in the University of Kansas Alumni Magazine, but at least one (the eponymous “ABCs of Enlightenment)” was first published in The Washington Post Magazine more than twenty years ago. In fact, that essay is the reason Bob and I became friends a few years back: we met while walking our dogs out at Turner’s Creek. As Blaze and Lullaby ran ahead and circled back, we fell in step and began to talk. We made perfunctory introductions but at one point, Bob mentioned he was a writer. “Wait a minute,” I said. “Are you the Bob Day who wrote The ABCs of Enlightenment?” He admitted he was. “I read that fifteen years ago and still use it with my students.” (I was a college counselor at the time and Bob’s ABCs were the perfect roadmap for any college freshman who had sense enough to read and follow his directions. How happy I am to see that essay in print again after all these years. Talk about circling back!)

Good as that “old” essay is, there is a lot more wonderful new work in this edition. In “Parts of Their Night,” a reminiscence of Professor Ed Ruhe, Bob’s freshman English teacher at the University of Kansas, Bob finds himself thinking about teachers, “good teachers, bad teachers, great teachers.” He goes on to muse that maybe the best teachers “were always a bit zany around the social edges and no doubt maladjusted to the core as if wounded by what they’d seen near the bone of King Lear, The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” The Seventh Seal, or Mahler’s Ninth.” I don’t know how Bob wrote that particular sentence as he must have been looking in the mirror at the time. For that, friends, is Bob Day in a nutshell, a slightly zany man who, like Mozart, has spent the better part of a lifetime “searching for notes that loved one another.” And as Bob himself says of the best teachers he had, “it shows.”

Throughout this tapestry of essays, there are a few common threads. One of them is that while university teaching is important and college writing programs may have some modest usefulness in shaping a new generation of writers, great teachers are the ones who know how to teach students to teach themselves, or as Bob says in “I Look Out for Ed Wolfe,” a good writer learns “not so much in the classroom as from the other end of the log.” There’s that old Kansas twang again. It surfaces from time-to-time in these pages and keeps both reader and author aware of something that each should esteem highly: literary honesty. For his part, Bob cares for words the way Ed Wolfe cared for his multiple sclerosis stricken wife: with “duty and affection,” the twin towers that dominate the skyline of Bob’s prose. As for the reader (in this case, me), Ed Wolfe reminds a young Bob Day of Saul Bellow’s famous remark that “writers should be readers moved to emulation,” yet another jab at one of Bob’s many nemeses, in this case the “corporate university” with its teacher evaluation forms and tenure track mileposts that all-too-often seem to point in the utterly wrong direction.

There are numerous deities in the pantheon of Bob’s great teachers but perhaps his personal Zeus was Professor Charlton Hitman who taught a seminar (by invitation only) on Shakespeare at Kansas. Despite Hinman’s godly status as a Textual Shakespeare Scholar of the first order, he seems to find in this memoir a kindred spirit in undergraduate Bob who, despite some “bizarre” (and unfootnoted) opinions, wrote “well enough to be amusing.” (Do I discern a glimmer of the “scholarly irreverent” Robert Day we know today?) In “But Yet,” a beautifully constructed hologram of memory built around a ringing telephone and an overheard conversation, Bob simultaneously reveals the mysteries of Professor Hitman’s past while allowing us to peak behind the self-deprecating curtain of his own formation as a writer: “What an amusing idea you have about a textual scholar,” Hinman says as Bob exits the interview. “You must use it in a story sometime.” And so, thankfully, Bob does, all these many years later.

I could go on (and on) but space, even the cyber variety, is dear. Unlike Gaul, Bob’s book is divided into only two parts: Learning and Teaching. In the first part, the final essay “We’ll Always Have McSorley’s” shows off what Bob has learned from all those Kansas teachers. Sitting snug and warm in the old Ale House down in the East Village, Bob reveals what he has gleaned from both ends off the log. From there, he sails off into the second half of the game—teaching, the passing along of the “aesthetic bliss” of creative writing to a new generation (or two) of would-be scribblers.

In this half of the book, Bob, now Professor Day, reminds me of one of those medieval guild masters, a stone mason say, the kind to whom you apprenticed your second-born son so he would have a trade in the world. Here is where you’ll find Professor Day’s roadmap to good learning: the aforementioned essay “The ABCs of Enlightenment,” my own personal introduction to Day’s fine style of writing. (That essay is hardly his best known work. I had not even heard of, let alone read, “The Last Cattle Drive” when I first met Bob.) The ABCs are a literary genuflection (Alphabet to Zeal) on how to wring the most out of those so-called college years, in Kansas or anywhere, either in or out of class. I like each letter in the set, but my favorite is B, as in “Baseball.” (That Bob/Professor Day was himself once a promising major league prospect is admirable; that he became a writer instead of a pitcher is a blessing.)

Professor Day—Teacher Day—goes on to write about letterpresses and levitations, about poets and prizes, about colleges and colleagues: John Barth, Nick Newlin, Mike Bailey, and Al Briggs to name but a few. He also writes about the satisfaction of “teaching well (which is) not unlike the pleasure of learning is the pleasure of learning.” But it is left to Peter Turchi, one of Day’s former students at Washington College, to sum up Professor Day, the teacher. In his Afterword, Turchi recognizes Day as the kind of teacher who summons his students to lifelong learning. He does so with an unremitting passion to his art and craft and despite current trends that raise specialists over generalists and elevate vocational training over liberal education. In other words, all of Bob’s good Kansas learning has infused all of Professor Day’s teaching and readers of this good book are the thankful beneficiaries of both.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. “A Place to Stand,” a book of his photographs, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. He is currently working on a collection of stories called “Musing Right Along.”

The ABCs of Enlightenment; A Memoir of Learning and Teaching is available at local bookstores and at Amazon here

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