When I was studying for my doctoral exams deep in the bowels of Firestone library, I would sometimes sneak out into the stacks and wander. You understand I’m talking about looking at books that had nothing to do with my PhD program. No generative grammar, no comparative reconstruction, nothing about statistical analysis… I went into the fiction stacks, and picked up book after book without even reading the spine.
Doctoral exams are stressful, and it was the way I coped. I would read a chapter from the middle of a novel and put it back. After doing this three or four times, I snuck back to my study carrell (a tiny space with a rolling door much like a cell) to have another look at the morphology of Gothic. Yes, it is as awful as it sounds. And yes, once upon a time, I could read (and translate) the page you see here.
Now, seventeen years later, I remember very little about my doctoral exams. I found the written portion in my files last year and I was astounded. I have no idea how I answered those questions, because they mean nothing to me anymore. I did answer them, obviously, because I do have a dusty PhD diploma sitting around here someplace. I remember nothing of Early New High German variation patterns in subordinate clauses, but I do remember some of those chapters I read in the dark corners of the library in the deep of the night.
One in particular stays with me, and I have always wondered about it. It was science fiction, and the bits I remember are all very odd. A few people won a lottery and got to pick the planet they wanted to live on (in a universe apparently crowded with inhabited planets, each very distinct); there was a horse/unicorn-like species that was born with full possession of human language, who could tell the future (or maybe not; but it had some kind of power).
I’ve never been able to track down this novel, though I’ve tried. If anybody knows of it, please do tell me. Or maybe there’s a website out there I haven’t found yet where people describe novels they’ve lost and other kind readers with better memories supply the titles. There is one such website for chldren’s books run by Loganberry Books in Ohio, called Stump the Bookseller. It’s a lot of fun.