I never read Animal Farm. I know what it is about. I understand its social significance. I read the Cliff Notes. I am an excellent reader, and I got more out of that summary than other teenagers got out of the real book. Animal Farm, and The Lord of the Flies, and The Catcher in the Rye… all books I failed to read in high school. I spent those four years doing the bare minimum to survive. I gobbled up books by Margret Wise and Tracy Hickman, by David Eddings, Robert Heinlein, Anne McCaffrey and Terry Brooks. Hundreds of pages a day sucked in though my eyes to nourish my imaginative soul. So it wasn’t that I didn’t like to read.
I have a vague memory of an art appreciation class I took once… At one point, my mother decided to decorate the bare walls of my bedroom with a print of a famous painting. I remember it well, I stared at it for hours when I should have studied or slept. It took not even a minute to find it on Google just now, because my memory of it is so strong.
I took piano lessons on and off for ten years. I had a few lessons on the violin. I never learned to read music though. I find classical music very soothing. But I can’t really tell the difference between Bach or Beethoven.
Regardless of these gaps in my education, I am a good conversationalist. I love an interesting discussion with an intelligent person more than any other activity. If I don’t know something, I am not embarrassed to admit it, and a conversation is only enhanced for me if there is an opportunity to learn something new.
Ten years ago, I would have written the above and then pointed out that none of that missing knowledge harmed me in any way. I don’t feel that way anymore. The older I get, the more aware I become of how little I know and the more I feel the lack of that knowledge.
I won’t blame the educational system or my upbringing or any of the usual suspects. It is my lack of interest that lies at the core of this deficiency. I had access to excellent teachers and libraries and parents who would have nurtured any passion of mine that lasted more than a week or two. They bought me all those fantasy novels after all.
And so here I am, a full-fledged adult, aware of this problem and still unwilling to do anything about it. Why?
I guess I still just don’t find any of those things interesting. That painting by Pissarro is just, well, boring.
But here is an idea: I just read an essay by William Hazlitt (a writer from the early 1800’s) called, “On The Pleasure of Painting.” He believed non-artists can’t appreciate art. “No one who has not devoted his life and soul to the pursuit of art can feel the same exultation in its brightest ornaments and loftiest triumphs which an artist does.” In a way, I agree with him. I know that I feel a deeper appreciation for the amount of effort required to compose an essay or a manuscript than non-writers, because, well, to put it crudely, “been there-done that.” I know good writing (and bad writing) when I see it, because I have written it myself.
I have a feeling that the reason I don’t find the painting of a blurry train traveling through a grassy field on the way to a station interesting is that I’ve never painted a picture. I can’t tell the difference between Bach and Beethoven because I’ve never written a concerto.
This is what I imagine my ‘retirement’ will be like. (If such a thing still exists when I’m old) I will learn to do these things that I have never done before. I will learn to paint. I will learn to create music. I will learn to write poetry and to sculpt and sing. So that I can finally fill all those gaps in my head where an appreciation for art should be.
Of course none of that explains why I haven’t read Animal Farm.