I was reading Anthony Powell’s At Lady Molly’s as I ate lunch at a neighborhood restaurant the other afternoon. A waitress approached the table and asked, “Hey, whatcha reading?” Long experience has taught me never to answer this question other than noncommittally, so I showed her the spine of the book and said, in a fairly friendly tone of voice, “Oh, just a novel.” She lit up like a sunbeam and replied, “Wow, that’s cool!”
The week before, I’d had a less satisfying encounter with a waitress who took an interest in my bound galley of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Collected Stories: A Friend of Kafka to Passions. She asked what I was reading. “A book of short stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer,” I replied. She looked at me blankly, so I added, “He wrote in Yiddish,” to which she responded, “Yiddish? What’s that?”
In Manhattan, encounters like these are the price you pay for reading in restaurants, and they usually make me squirm. I think the origins of my discomfort must go all the way back to my small-town youth, when I was rarely to be seen without a book in hand. Even as a child, my reading habits were fairly advanced, and I got kidded mercilessly for toting around such triple-decker novels as Moby-Dick and Les Misérables. The teasing of my peers had an aggressive edge (“Hey, man, Teachout reads the encyclopedia!”), whereas my elders were merely puzzled, but the net result was to make me self-conscious whenever anyone asked what I was reading. Nearly four decades later, that question still makes me tighten up a bit, fully expecting to be razzed, and though it rarely happens nowadays, the resulting exchanges nonetheless tend to leave me feeling like a lifetime member of the awkward squad.
From childhood onward, I was acutely aware of the gap that separated me from my classmates. It’s not that I was treated badly, because I wasn’t. Most of the residents of Smalltown, U.S.A., treated me quite nicely, rather like a cute little dog who could extract square roots with his paw. The problem was that they treated me differently, and once it was clear that I was also musically talented, my situation became impossible. By then, everybody in town knew who I was—Bert and Evelyn’s boy, the smart one—and there was no hiding from my citywide reputation as Smalltown’s number-one egghead.
What saved me, paradoxically, was that I was physically clumsy. Even if I’d wanted to be a rebel, there wasn’t a whole lot I could do other than read, write, and play music, a state of affairs that forced me to accept myself as I was. What’s more, I was always sensitive to beauty—first in words, then in music—and so I derived boundless pleasure from my strange appetites. In any case, I was never wholly without friends, and I even managed to find myself a girlfriend midway through high school, a development that made my father breathe easier, he having been deathly afraid that his oldest son would grow up…well, peculiar. (That was never in the cards, but it wasn’t something I could have discussed with him, even reassuringly.)
Once I left Smalltown for the big city, I started to make friends whose interests resembled mine more closely, and in time learned to suppress the self-consciousness of my childhood. Yet it can still be inflamed by a certain kind of kidding, some of which has lately been occasioned by the blogosphere-wide spread of the Teachout Cultural Concurrence Index. You’d be surprised–or not–by how many bloggers have posted comments about the TCCI that basically boil down to “Dude, this thing’s soooo highbrow!” Such talk rarely fails to trigger the same squirmy sensation I experience whenever a well-meaning stranger asks what I’m reading. Even now, there’s a part of me that wishes I knew all about baseball instead of ballet.
I’m sure this is part of why I later fell in love with westerns and film noir, and it probably also has something to do with my youthful decision to concentrate on playing jazz instead of classical music. I don’t mean to denigrate those pop-culture pursuits—far from it—but for me, they were as close as I could come to being a regular guy, and I was distressed to discover that they didn’t do much to narrow the gap. Being a John Wayne fan (which I am) helps a little, maybe even more than a little, but being a Raymond Chandler fan does nothing to disarm those who don’t read any books at all.
If I sound neurotic about my interests, I’m not. I like being a drama critic who collects American prints, hangs out with jazz musicians, and writes books about people like George Balanchine and H.L. Mencken. I wouldn’t have me any other way. But you never get completely over your childhood, and my guess is that I’ll spend the rest of my life being evasive whenever a waitress asks what I’m reading–at least until one glances at my copy of The Locusts Have No King and says, “Cool, but I like A Time to Be Born better.” As the Duke might have said, that’ll be the day.