Thursday, February 05, 2009

"That is what I need to learn"

Rather belatedly, a bit that struck me in Laura Secor's New Yorker piece a few weeks ago on the dissident Iranian economist Mohammed Tabibian (not sure about the current situation vis-a-vis reading electronically, but I think the article is available online only to subscribers who have also registered at the site):
One day, on his way to school, Tabibian noticed in a bookstore window a thick new book for sale titled "Economics." It was a word he had never heard before. Tabibian asked his literature teacher what it meant. "He said it meant using your money wisely," Tabibian told me. "I thought the phrase he expressed was more often true by default. Everybody knows how to use their money wisely if they've got some." When he went home that night, Tabibian put the question to his father, who said he wasn't sure but he thought that economics had something to do with the creation of wealth.

The next day, Tabibian went to the bookstore and pulled the book from the shelf. "It was full of graphs, tables, formulas, and lengthy arguments," he said. "I noticed that the subject of creation and distribution of wealth is no simple matter. I thought, That is what I need to learn."

Tabibian later realized that the book was a translation of the 1948 introductory-economics textbook by the American neo-classical economist Paul Samuelson. By then, Tabibian was majoring in the subject at Shiraz University. He went into the field, he told me, "hoping that someday I would help find solutions for the misery and deprivation of many around me."
It is an interesting anecdote in itself, but I am especially intrigued by the clarity and intensity of the thought That is what I need to learn.

(It is like an Augustinian call - take up and read!)

I think it well recalls childhood moments experienced by anybody with a fundamentally analytic or academic orientation towards the world - it is in my experience quite different in kind from the feeling one has when encountering a magically transporting novel, or even a novel that gives indispensable insights into some particularly relevant aspect of human nature.

I would say I had glimpses of this as a quite young child (it was not the way I went eventually in terms of field, but books about mathematics and logic were favorites with me at that stage!), perhaps eleven or twelve, reading Martin Gardner's delightful Aha, Gotcha! - it showed me not so much how to do things as a way in which one might think about things, a way that was uniquely appealing to the point of being almost indispensable!

But certainly the reading experience that quite literally made me think That is what I need happened the summer after I'd graduated from high school. I was sixteen turning seventeen - I had read a huge amount of literature and quite a lot of older literary criticism (I had thoroughly immersed myself in the critical prose of Anthony Burgess and Ezra Pound!), and had been intrigued by the rather ambivalent New York Times-type coverage of work by Derrida and the deconstructionists and so forth - I had yet to encounter it directly, but I already had a very strong suspicion that this was exactly that I wanted to learn about.

I was spending the night at my friend Sara's, at her dad and stepmother's house, and her stepmother had done a master's degree in English - her books were on shelves in Sara's room. As if in a trance, I snagged Roland Barthes's S/Z and was subsequently deaf to the calls of ordinary social interactions...


  1. I wonder if the really interesting aspect of this is how you came to act upon these calls - not your educational and career path as such, but the strength of your inner self. Many people, I suspect, experience similar moments in youth, but just how many remain true to them?

  2. Indeed. But would you agree that though that call may hit the economist or ornithologist may hit the (quality) novelist multiple times? As many times as their novels betray an expertise in something? ...Interesting about the older criticism. I too, read a lot of older criticism (inc. ABC of Reading) that nobody would ever Joseph Campbell on Joyce and Thomas Mann. Quite brilliant, but unassignable.