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“I wanted to lose myself. I wanted to read.”

lost in the meritocracy

In The Pleasures of Reading Alan Jacobs introduces us to Walter Kirn’s memoir.” At the end of his memoir Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever, Walter Kirn recalls a time when, as a recent graduate of Princeton, he read a book. All his life he had read only to impress others, primarily his teachers: he had been a kind of cynical Doppelgänger of Richard Rodriguez, seeing reading only as an instrument by which some other kind of good might be achieved.”

Kirn writes:

I relied on my gift for mimicking authority figures and playing back to them their own ideas as though they were conclusions I’d reached myself. …What was learning but a form of borrowing? And what was intelligence but borrowing slyly?

Succeeding at this game however only brought emptiness and near breakdown.

My education was running in reverse as my mind shed its outermost layer of signs and symbols and shrank back to its dumb, preliterate state.

“But it’s at this moment,” Jacobs writes, “with no one ordering him or expecting him to do any such thing, he inexplicably picks up and decides to read The Adventures of Huckeberry Finn. Then he moves on to Great Expectations.

Kirn writes:

And so, belatedly, haltingly, accidentally, and quite implausibly and incredibly, it began at last: my education. I wasn’t sure what it would get me, whose approval it might win, or how long it might take to complete (forever, I had an inkling), but for once those weren’t my first concerns. Alone in my room, congested and exhausted, I forgot my obsession with self-advancement. I wanted to lose myself. I wanted to read. Instead of filling in the blanks, I wanted to be a blank and be filled in.

Kirn concludes, “I wanted to find out what others thought.”

Still curious? Read I Was a Teenage Illiterate.