Speech June 2003

Sir Thomas Browne, Jorge Luis Borges, y Yo

A commencement address

Ladies, women, girls, females, males, men, and gentlemen; neuters, transgenders, and teachers; administrators, boyfriends, relatives, and impoverished parents: it is my purpose and honor here today to remind you as graphically and personally as I can just how vital and huge and traditional an ingredient boredom is in Western education. Because it was such a memorable presence in the classrooms, the study halls, and even the dormitory rooms you graduates are leaving behind forever today, it is my ceremonial duty to remind you of its enormous power and stultifying dignity. Boredom is the marble from which great and stately occasions like today's are built. So let us together gather here all the boredom we can. Get into it. Really feel the boredom. Go ahead and twitch. Check your watches. Wish you were elsewhere and worry that this speech will never end and will never get to the point. I know I do.

The late, great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story about a page in a particular strange old book on which the print never reached that final corner signaling that it was time to turn it. A page that never ended. Critics, English departments, and other literary officials seem to think that this story was an effort at fantasy—a clever fable from a surrealist's hand. But I remember encountering many, many pages exactly like that during my education. I remember books in which I looked at every word in order from left to right, eyeballs descending stripe of words by stripe of words all the way down to the bottom of the page—and comprehended nothing. Got nowhere. Despite all that eyeballing, I would find myself no further along with the wisdom offered than if the page had been Borges's endless one. I might as well have been reading snow.

Studying such pages often ends with a bang. You do not even realize you have drifted off into a pleasant slumber until that book in your hands suddenly slams face-down onto the floor. Everybody nearby looks up at you from books and note-taking. You blink and smile and reach down to pick up the fallen book as though the crash was not your fault. An accident. Some passing clumsy force knocked it from your hands—just as you were making some real intellectual breakthroughs. Refreshed by your nap and embarrassed by the rush of sudden attention brought your way, you are now perhaps ready to try studying again, this time with some real resolve.

But eventually on this second attempt you realize that you are once again only going through the motions, performing a sort of karaoke of studying. Look at your watch. Nearly two hours have gone by since you seated yourself in the library and opened Sir Thomas Browne's seventeenth-century prose masterpiece, Urn Burial. And where are you? Well, you are on page 34. But, unfortunately, you just exercised the thirty-three preceding pages with your fingers. Your eyes may have been open, but they were as sightless as buttons. All those information-bearing words in this antique of rare and fine very early English prose passed you by like strangers on a busy street. You must start all over again on this vital and important reading assignment.

And this time you really must, and therefore will, concentrate. Your chances of getting ahead depend on it. A good grade in this class will, of course, automatically make the rest of your life rich and impressive and easy, so fifty pages of attentive reading ought not to be impossible. Wouldn't you like to win the respect of your friends and acquaintances, blow the minds of your enemies, triple your parents' love for you, and instantly make up for all your failures and shortcomings? Unpiling less than a half inch of these pages after reading the words on them is all you must do. So will you please just forget about yourself for a little while and read this book here in your hands? Books are the bricks of the educational structure. This is one. Feel it. Shake it. See? It is not an accessory, not a toy. It is not a Prada handbag or a Frisbee. It is a book, a page sandwich that you must consume or die.

The first sentence is familiar. Remember? You have actually read it, or some of it, twice now, so you are really getting to know it. From that capital letter heading it up with so much pride and pageantry almost clear through to the humble little period finishing it off, this first sentence is getting to be as familiar as a pet. Not even the Old English prose can put you off this time, throw you back into that slough of boredom and inattention that knocked you unconscious a little while ago. Well, no wonder it did. This writing is as crude as a cudgel. As medieval as stones. It is very early English prose. Stonehenge stuff. Lord of the Rings.

English guys' hair seems to cut differently from American guys' hair. The English guys have it long in a different place or something—bowed up in front like a croquet hoop. They are very good with hedges in England too. Maybe cutting their famous topiary gardens taught the English some secret, guild-protected tricks that they employ in their barbershops. But the English are an uncertain people now, always asking your opinion or for your approval. Every sentence they utter ends with a request for a little pat on the back: "Lovely day, don't you think?" "He's a right bastard, isn't he?" It's as if English people need constant reassurance. They must have lost some national confidence when they lost all those colonies. By the way, are you here in the library to think about the living English or to read the ancient wisdom that one of their writers left to civilization? What was his name? You don't even remember it! That's how well you are doing. Better check the cover. Urn Burial, by Sir Thomas Browne. Of course. What a depressing title. But it might make a good name for a band—Urn Burial. Excuse me, please? Will you get back to reading the book?

Presented by

William Hamilton draws cartoons for The New Yorker and The New York Observer. He has written five plays and four novels.

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