A Letter from the Chair

mossman_books“On Being Lost”
Mark Mossman

I love getting lost.

I love getting lost when I am traveling somewhere, when I am talking with a friend, when I am telling a story to my daughters, when I am puzzling my way through a recipe for a great dish, when I am writing.

Like many of us, more than anything, I love getting lost in a novel, a poem, an essay, even a departmental report—anything that requires imagination or big imaginative work.

There is a special value to this particular academic, intellectual, overtly booky kind of “getting lost.” Being lost in a book is defined by complication. In terms of the imagination, it means the exact opposite of what we think of when we say we are lost: being imaginatively lost in a book means that you are being extremely focused mentally—you are enthralled, and you know exactly where you are going on some deep, barely accessible level.

It must be like what a migrating monarch butterfly feels in September, or perhaps what a honey bee knows as it is buzzing and tumbling towards its hive that is miles and miles away—you’re lost, but you kind of know where you’re going, really. There is a sensed unity, an organic coherence, and you know that.

You know that there is something waiting for you as you move through it, the journey through the meadow for the butterfly or the bee, the brimming, tumbling, stacks and stacks of intense images in the Keats or Shelley poem for us.

Also, on some level you want to become the person who can read the book, the incomprehensible poem, and you have some idea that such a person is worth becoming, and in this way, whether you believe it or not, being lost is very much connected to ambition.

And that is significant.

Thus I love getting lost in a book because it means I’m getting way beyond my limits, discovering something about the world and my own self that is truly new, and I know it is new because I cannot recognize where I am—I have gotten lost, and that is, again, very, very good.

With all of this in mind, I have to conclude that good readers are readers who get lost, on a regular basis and on principle. Perhaps this is also why really good readers so much love really difficult books. There is a basic recognition by us that there may not be a destination or a clear meaning at the end of the journey through the difficult text, and that is okay: no tension is really resolved, no answer is really delivered, there is nothing other than something sort of like,

  “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Something like that.

Regardless, my message here to students, faculty, and alums is this: get lost this summer when you’re traveling somewhere; get lost this summer when you’re talking with your friends; get lost this summer when you’re telling a story; and get lost this summer when you’re reading at least one really hard book.

As a bonus, and as a conclusion, I thought I would provide a list of five really hard books I plan to revisit and get lost in this summer:

  1. Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace
  2. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria
  3. Dylan Thomas, Selected Poems
  4. William Shakespeare, Hamlet
  5. Dante, The Inferno.