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This article is taken from PN Review 143, Volume 28 Number 3, January - February 2002.

The Way We Read Now William Germano

On 11 September, when the world changed, I tried to do the simplest things I knew how to. I counted family and friends as a parent counts a newborn's fingers and toes. Whatever else might happen, these were all here. I went home. There was the television and the endless footage, the radio reports, the cell phone conversations, and later the newspapers. But sitting in the park on that beautiful and horrible afternoon, I wanted something else. I wanted to read a book.

Narratives were out of the question. Bleak House might be right for a summer cottage or a stay in the hospital, but my mind couldn't wrap itself around anything that big, not now, not yet. My hand reached instead for a battered red paperback I'd slogged through before: an introductory Latin grammar. I don't know why, exactly. I was a terrible student of classical languages, but this worn manual offered immersion in another world. Here be complicated rules, the discrete objectives of conjugation, a cast of characters long gone from the stage.

I still read the papers, still followed the news. But for days, the grammar was in my hand, offering me difficult labour in tiny units, and I relished the mental exhaustion. It wasn't exactly like reading - it was more like a focalisation exercise, the kind of thing some people do to shake off migraines. Then, somewhere around the imperfect subjunctive for deponent verbs, my Latin self-study began to fail ...


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