Lately I’ve been following Mark Twain down the river in the book Life on the Mississippi. So far it’s not so much an adventure as a lesson in riverboat piloting, though Twain does introduce some great characters along the way. I am struck by his comment that once a pilot learns every inch of the river – the placement of the bends, the height of the banks, the location of plantations – and how they will change as the course and flow of the river moves, he loses sight of the river’s glories: “All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river!” (95). As a steamboat pilot in training, Twain’s place of dreams had become his office. A note of sadness echoes through his words.
Even so, through his increased knowledge, Twain was able to relate his experience to his readers more fully and in a way that takes us with him on the journey, not merely paints a general image of the beauty he sees. With this knowledge he tells of “the alluvial banks [that] cave and change constantly, whose snags are always hunting up new quarters, whose sand-bars are never at rest” (97). This path from pursuing a dream to learning the usefulness of the associated trade is a path many must take to grow. Remaining at the awe-filled stage of wonder might provide an impetus to follow one’s dream. Who would ever become a doctor if the first thing they experienced was the grind of medical school? However, some of that initial awe must be converted to actual work in the muck before any use can come of it.
Those initial images and passion may draw us to a new story, just as the river drew Twain. And if we’re honest, the reality of what it takes to know that story more deeply does change our original understandings, often removing some of the sparkle as we see the under-workings. But if we look well, we also see new riches. I have often feared that if I know too much about a subject, it will lose its attraction. This was the argument I had for not studying literature in college. Professors would ruin the stories I loved and I wanted to hold onto the feelings of my first readings. Yet, when I finally entered a literature class, theories of reading and interpretation did not destroy my interest, they provided a deeper understanding. Furthermore, I gained a language to talk about what I was reading with others. Yes, some of the joy of just sitting down with a book without constantly thinking about it from a critical stance was gone. But, I had gained a larger community.
So, in the spirit of Mark Twain, I would encourage you to go into piloting. Learn the course of the river you are on and share it with others.
Twain, Mark. Life on the Mississippi. New York: Penguin Classics, 1986.