by Marie Goodwin
My attachment to books is legendary. My grandmother used to relate how I would arrive at her house with a bag full of books and curl up in a corner chair at her house for much of the duration of every visit, absorbed in words. My parents tell similar stories of my love of books, but also recall how I seemingly abandoned my love of all things literary for horses (and then eventually boys). What they did not know was that I brought books with me on my trail rides, and would always find a cool shade tree under which I would read, allowing my horse to roam and graze nearby.
This love of reading was useful in school, where I was encouraged in this pursuit above all other types of learning. It became habitual to seek the answers to all of my questions from books – the internet was not yet invented – and this too was encouraged by both my parents and teachers. It never occurred to me that doing was the best way to learn something. Reading about a problem was sufficient, and provided the two essential pillars of my young life: getting good grades and adult approval. Of course I was learning by doing all the time: how to care for my horses (and a whole host of other animals that I raised at one time or another); how to manage a garden; how to drive a car; how to care for younger siblings; how to work low-paying jobs in the adult world. I did not, however, consider this to be real learning, important learning, profound learning. Neither did the adults around me, seemingly. I was encouraged to think about college as the single most important preparation for adulthood, where more book learning would prepare me for a career, as yet unspecified.
College offered more options for Real Work, but at first I did not take advantage of them. I chose a strictly literary major, ancient Greek. Ancient Greek is a dead language. It can only be read and dissected through learning the nuance of its complicated yet beautiful grammatical structure. Some advanced students learn to write it. I spent much of my college life holed up at my kitchen table translating Plato, Euripides, Aeschylus, or Sappho. People around me went on years abroad to various European cities, held semester or summer internships, learned to play or perfect instruments, went to New York City for art exhibitions. I translated, sure that my pursuit of literature was a true path to knowledge. My friends were merely entertaining themselves with diversions.
The limits of my philological talents were readily apparent to both me and to my advisor, an archaeologist whose passion was fieldwork. He suggested that perhaps my passion for the subject might be best channeled into archaeological pursuits, not literary ones. And then he did something that changed my life, although it did not seem earth shattering at the time. He contacted a colleague of his and had me apply to a program at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, a program usually reserved for graduate students. I suspect his influence was the single factor that convinced them to accept me.
At the end of my junior year, for the first time in my life, I boarded a plane and flew to Europe to experience a place that I had read about and to work in a field that I knew only from books. That summer program at the American School revealed a world to me for which I thought I was prepared, but in actuality I had not expected or understood: the smell of Greece, the landscape; the enormity of the Parthenon coupled with the obscurity of the ruins around Sparta; the grace of ancient temples and houses alike; the sight of paint still adhering to buried tombs of Macedonian kings, their portraits as life-like as any portrait created by Renaissance masters; intricate Hellenistic and Roman mosaics, still in situ, still gracing the floors of time-obliterated houses, evidence for the grace and sophistication of a long dead culture.
We traveled the country for nine weeks, and every day was a new site, a new insight. I was overwhelmed by the experience and returned to the states exhausted. When I resumed my studies that next fall, I found the focus of my work changed. My literary pursuits were now a means to answer questions – a million questions – that I had formed in Greece. All of the reading I did now was informed by this sense of place, of having been there. For the first time in my life, at the age of 21, I realized that doing is the primary way to learn, and that only reading about a place, a thing, has substantial limits.
My senior year was rigorous, in particular because I was taking advanced Greek from a legend. He was eighty years old, walked with a cane, chain-smoked, and could free-translate the most difficult passages of Thucydides with ease. To say this terrified me is an understatement. I was his only student that year, and every week my philological weaknesses were laid bare for both of us to dissect. After a particularly hard session with him, he asked me what I thought of Greece, and when I told him of my intentions to return the next summer, he asked me why I would bother. He, in his almost 65 years of studying the subject, had never been and never wanted to go. He preferred to know Greece from the language. The modern country of Greece would inevitably disappoint him, he argued. I sat and listened to him, stunned silent.
I began studying archaeology more seriously during my senior year and prepared to return the next summer to work in Athens. When my work in Athens began, my “real work” realization the year before was underscored by the vast difference between reading about archaeological theory (imagining it as glamorous and intellectually stimulating at every turn) and the day-to-day reality of archaeological fieldwork. Archaeology is dirty, hot, hard physical labor, rarely glamorous, intellectually stimulating only in short bursts.
This lesson illustrated again how reading can and should inform our interests, but that it is only in doing that we learn a thing completely in all its nuanced complexity. It is in doing that we integrate our mind and our body and allow them to work together, the mind informing the body and the body’s experience informing the mind. The idea of learning by doing is a simple one, and yet it took me twenty-one years to fully recognize its importance in my own intellectual growth. It is, however, one of the foundations of learning that I wish my still very young children to view as vital; that doing is the best way to learn. Books can provide a foundation for learning (and surely books provide rich entertainment), but doing a thing is essential. And fun. And contributes to our communities and to our lives.
Years later, I was told that my crusty, old professor had passed away, alone, in his office – probably reading Greek. I wondered if he ever regretted his decision not to visit Greece, the history of which he had taught for the last fifty years of his life. He was a marvelous teacher, his mastery of the language complete. I had to wonder, however, how he could fully understand the place when he had never known the smell of oregano and thyme growing wild on the hills around Athens, or the sound of the cicadas in full summer, a sound that surely Plato considered a backdrop to his life. Was he able to imagine the sun setting in Athens, the rusty shadows slowly enveloping the enormity of the Parthenon? I could not imagine never knowing Greece in this way…or learning entirely from books ever again. My transformation was complete.
This essay was first published in Open Connections Magazine, April 2008.