A community college professor tries to teach Emily Dickinson to his students at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Florida.
Gainesville is a tangle of strip malls and fast food restaurants. Bowers gets over-entangled with his students but doesn’t seem to realize it, nor does the essay. The reader wishes the reader had ever had such a teacher, although the teacher doesn’t seem himself to think he’s all that much of a teacher. Bowers teaches the poems but quickly defaults to teaching Dickinson’s biography, in hope of stirring up some love for the poems, but his talk of her reclusiveness provokes the language from which the title is drawn: “She sounds like another freak. Seems like all we read in here is freaks.”
That’s the plot summary, which does nothing like describe the electricity of the prose. I read it on the newsstand at the Barnes & Noble in Lakeland, Florida, on my way from a dreary meet-and-greet in Tampa to my home base of Lake Wales, where my job was selling high school students on a third-rate college education. I wanted so badly to be a person who could make another person feel the way William Bowers had just made me feel.
I cyberstalked him all the way to Pitchfork Magazine, where he mostly reviewed indie records, but where he also had started a regular column ostensibly about music which seemed mostly an excuse to rearrange the base syntax of the English language. His return email address conflated fear and hamburgers. He said he would be my teacher, but it took him a long time to return the essays I sent him, most likely because the work was dreary. But he called me on the phone to talk about the line by line, and he said, “Why don’t you read some different books?” and he gave me a list I suspect was half purloined from Padgett Powell, the other half from some blue-skinned alien race. Even though I had read three hundred books that year, that was the month I discovered language.
The gossip columnist Liz Smith wrote about “All We Read is Freaks” on Page Six in the New York Post the next week, and then Bowers sold a book-length workup to either Harcourt or Houghton Mifflin. Even though it wasn’t supposed to be released until 2004 or 2005, I checked the Amazon.com page every day to see if by some miracle my pre-order had shipped. But it never shipped, and it never was published.
The Oxford American went out of business, then came back into business, then went out of business, then came back into business again, but they never bothered to put the article up on any of their latter day websites. I checked out a copy from the Lake Wales Public Library but lost it when my canoe overturned on Lake Pierce and I had to pay for the replacement, which never showed, since the Oxford American was at that time out of business. I bought a copy off Ebay and once I moved to Columbus, Ohio, I pressed it on everyone I saw, which was a mistake, because you can’t trust people who like to read, and they kept trying to steal my one copy, and finally somebody stole it so thoroughly there was no getting it back.
I got two master’s degrees, and my wife birthed two babies. After awhile I published my first book, and my pride in it was tempered by the knowledge that somewhere on the blue Earth, whether written down or not, some book-length book or idea of a book or mythical nine-headed beast titled All We Read Is Freaks was always going to be better than my book or the best book I would ever make, even if I lived to be ninety-two and won whatever might then be left of the Nobel Prize for Literature. I got to thinking that maybe it was better I had lost my copy of “Freaks,” because maybe by dint of age and fatherhood and reading too many books, I had physiologically lost the capacity to feel the thing it made me feel the first time I read it, and that was the kind of knowledge I could not bear without a treasured part of me dying. Bowers kept writing for Pitchfork, and he wrote reviews of theme park rides for an amusement park trade magazine, and for five years he maintained a blog of illegal MP3 downloads of mashups and obscure covers and just generally the kind of stuff you wish was in William Shakespeare or the Bible, but of course it’s not, and then one day I guess somebody from the RIAA or whoever wears the badge these days came along and shut down the blog (Puritan Blister, it was called), and, just like when that book never got published, a little more of what little joy there is in the universe got leeched away, and I don’t think there’s ever getting any of it back.
Please enjoy “All We Read Is Freaks,” by William Bowers, reprinted with permission here at The Rumpus.