I finally made it to Smalltown, U.S.A., where I found in my e-mailbox this communication from a woman who works in the permissions department of W.W. Norton:
I am writing in regards to a permission granted by you for use of your material in The Norton Reader, 12th Edition. The book has recently been published and I am attempting to pay permissions fees. Before our accounting department can issue a check, they require that we have a W-9 tax form on file for your organization. I have attached the form to this letter. If you would be so kind as to fill the form out and then either fax, email, or mail it to my attention, I will be able to mail your check.
Not only had I forgotten that one of my pieces was picked for the new edition of The Norton Reader, but I couldn’t remember which one it was, and I spent ten minutes rooting around on the Web before I finally found a list of the book’s contents. (It comes out in December.) It seems that I’m to be in fast company: The Beatles Now, an essay I published in Commentary last year, will appear alongside Aaron Copland’s “How We Listen,” William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Paul Fussell’s “Thank God for the Atom Bomb,” Zora Neale Hurston’s “How it Feels to Be Colored Me,” Vladimir Nabokov’s “Good Readers and Good Writers,” John Henry Newman’s “Knowledge and Virtue,” George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” James Thurber’s “University Days,” Eudora Welty’s “One Writer’s Beginnings,” E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake,” an excerpt from Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, Virginia Woolf’s “In Search of a Room of One’s Own,” and–wait for it–the Gettysburg Address.
This is, as it happens, my first appearance in a textbook, and though I confess to never having heard of The Norton Reader prior to being asked to give my permission to appear in it, the publishers describe the volume in impressive-sounding terms:
Read by millions of students since it was first published in 1965, The Norton Reader is the bestselling collection of its kind. With readings in a wide variety of genres, subjects, and styles, it offers the largest and most thoughtfully chosen collection of essays for composition students today. The Twelfth Edition has been carefully revised, with 25 percent of its readings new.
Alas, a closer look at the contents of the new edition reveals that some of the company I’m keeping isn’t quite as fast as I’d like. Indeed, the more recent selections are so sharply skewed in a philosophical direction far removed from the one to which I incline that I wonder whether I might possibly have been included for purposes of tokenism. That, too, is a new experience, one I can’t say I much care for, any more than I get all warm and fuzzy at the thought of snuggling up next to Garrison Keillor, Molly Ivins, and Alice Walker.
Nor am I altogether pleased to be represented by “The Beatles Now,” Yes, it’s a solid piece of work, and I stand by its contents, but had I been asked to pick an essay of mine for inclusion in a college textbook, it wouldn’t have been that one. Of the various pieces I included in A Terry Teachout Reader, the ones I like best are “The Land of No Context,” “Stephen Sondheim’s Unsettled Scores,” “That Nice Elvis Boy,” “What Randolph Scott Knew,” and (of the more explicitly personal essays) “Close to Home” and “The Importance of Being Less Earnest,” all of which seem to me to be more representative of the way I write and think than “The Beatles Now.”
Be that as it may, I don’t mind admitting that it’s kind of cool to be in a book whose previous editions have been “read by millions of students,” voluntarily or otherwise. I wonder, too, if anybody is actually going to teach me. Needless to say, I’ve assigned pieces of mine in classes that I’ve taught, but so far as I know, no one else has ever done so. I’m trying to imagine what a teacher might say about me–or, better yet, a test question based on my work. Which of the following phrases does Terry Teachout overuse in his writing? (A) “Be that as it may.” (B) “Needless to say.” (C) “As it happens.” (D) All of the above.
So yes, it’s an honor–of sorts–to be in The Norton Reader. The trouble is that it also makes me feel less like a person and more like a personage, the same way I feel when someone goes out of his way to call me “Mister Teachout,” or recognizes me in an elevator from having seen the (awful) picture that accompanies my Saturday columns in the Wall Street Journal. The only thing I find more disorienting is to be written about, however enthusiastically, by a total stranger. Who is this guy? I always ask myself when it happens–and I’m not talking about the person who’s writing about me, either.
I’d like to meet this semi-public figure who looks just like me but (judging by what I read about him on occasion) doesn’t always think what I think. I bet he gets tired of saying “T-E-A-C-H-O-U-T–just like it sounds” to operators, or telling earnest young things not to call him mister, for God’s sake. I’d like to know who wrote his Wikipedia entry, and how he got into the twelfth edition of The Norton Reader. I bet it’s a good story. Or maybe not.
To quote from another of my pieces:
I suppose it’s possible for a playwright to write a good play about a writer, but the temptation to sink into a nice warm bath of self-serving self-indulgence is apparently too great for ordinary mortals to overcome. Harold Ross knew this so well that he turned it into an iron rule for contributors to the New Yorker: “Nobody gives a damn about a writer or his problems except another writer.”
That means you, Mister Teachout.