|Where Do You Stop?
Chapter 9: The Pleasure of Surprise
YOU CAN READ THE FIRST THIRD
YOU CAN BUY THE
BEGAN MY RESEARCH the very next weekend. I’ve always been conscientious
about such things. Give me an assignment and I get right down to
it. I was one of those children who ate the lima beans first and
saved the mashed potatoes for last, as a reward. I postponed work
on the lighthouse until I had at least made a good start toward answering
the question. Raskol was disappointed, but I wasn’t. I was
so eager to please Miss Rheingold that the lighthouse didn’t interest me.
He went on collecting materials and piling them in our garage.
“We’ll keep this stuff in reserve,” he said. “You never can tell when you’ll change your mind.”
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll probably get sick of this general science paper pretty soon,” but I got down to work on my question with the conviction that I would never stop working on it until the paper was finished.
I confess that I expected to find that, beneath its daunting surface, the question would turn out to be no more than the sort of question I had always been asked in school, a question whose precise answer could be located in, and copied directly from, the textbook. I owed most of my early success in school to a knack for inverting questions, turning them into the beginnings of declarative sentences, and finding in the murky paragraphs of my texts the matching conclusions for these beginnings. It wasn’t much more than a game, and not even a very challenging one.
So, I turned expectantly to my bulky new general science book. A slip of paper inside it instructed me in the proper way to open a new book so that the binding wouldn’t crack. I had found a similar slip of paper, with similar instructions, in each of the books I had opened already. Even so, I read this slip carefully, and I followed its instructions to the letter. There was always the chance that they—and they figured prominently and frighteningly in the life of a boy of the age I was then—might have slipped in a step specific and essential to the proper opening of general science textbooks and no other sort of book, just to see whether I was reading and following the directions. They were sure to catch someone; it wasn’t going to be me. I wasn’t going to have to confess to Miss Rheingold on Monday that my general science book had come apart in my hands.
“Yes, Peter? Oh, my goodness! Your copy of Adventures in General Science, it’s—”
“It sort of fell apart.”
“How on earth—”
“I don’t know what happened, I—”
“Didn’t you follow the directions, Peter?” she would ask.
“Well, Miss Rheingold,” I would have no choice but to admit, “I did follow the directions, but I’m afraid that the directions I followed were the wrong directions. You see, I followed the directions for opening the English book.”
I could almost hear her, fighting back a tear, say, “Peter, Peter, this is a shame, such a shame. I’m sorry about this, truly sorry that this has happened.”
“You know what this means, don’t you?”
“You’re going to have to go back to the sixth grade. You’ve failed general science.”
In those days I was convinced that I was surrounded by opportunities for doing the wrong thing, and I knew from experience that I usually didn’t even notice I’d seized one of these opportunities until it was too late. The difference between the right thing and any of a million wrong things often seemed so tiny as to be nearly invisible. Anything might trip you up, and it was more likely to be a pebble than a boulder. I haven’t had much reason to alter this conviction in all the years since then.
The general science book was thick and heavy, packed with small print in two columns. I expected that the knowledge in so forbidding a book must be thick and dense itself—arcane, mystifying, thrilling, troublesome stuff, the very kind of thing Miss Rheingold’s questions demanded—but actually the textbook wasn’t any help at all. For all its bulk and density, what it held seemed to be much the same as what I had learned in just-plain-science year after year: quite a lot about tadpoles and frogs, but nothing at all about the edges of the universe, or me.
I went to the school library. It wasn’t open on the weekend, of course; I slipped in through a window that wasn’t properly secured. After all, since I had devoted a good part of my summer to discovering unauthorized means of entry, it seemed a shame that the opening of school should render so much knowledge worthless, and I welcomed this opportunity to restore its former value. Besides, sneaking in gave my research the thrill of the forbidden, providing almost as good a kick as I would have gotten if the subject of the research itself had been forbidden, providing something like the researcher’s thrill I got when I poked through my parents’ dressers or the stack of letters and bills they kept in a kitchen drawer.
The questions racing through my mind then seem still to be dashing about in there, bumping into one another like baffled students changing classes on the first day of seventh grade, just as chaotically mixed, the separations and boundaries between ideas just as hard to describe as the location of last period’s science class after it has dispersed in the corridor: Where do I stop? Where did those dark kids come from? Why hadn’t I ever seen them before? Where do I stop? Where are they now, those dark kids? Is that Miss Rheingold’s perfume I smell? How did it get all the way up here to the second floor and into the library? Where do I stop? Is there some part of Babbington that isn’t on my map, the part where the dark kids live? Where do I stop? What’s my first class Monday morning? Do I have gym on Monday? Where do I stop? When are Raskol and I going to change the combinations of the locks?
My immediate problem, as I now see it, was that I had acquired over the years a number of overly simple ideas, ideas based on a view of the surface of things only, and they had become too firmly rooted in my mind—the solar-system model of the atom, for example, and the sectioned-map view of social boundaries, that sort of thing. Miss Rheingold’s asking where I stopped marked the point in my education when I was first asked to think for myself. My mind was fertile, friable soil. New ideas were quick to root, and I was still at an age when old ones were fairly easy to uproot. Miss Rheingold’s question had begun to tug at the simple old ideas. It hadn’t yanked them out yet, but it had loosened them a bit.
I had a hard time keeping my attention focused on the question, though. I was alone in the library, of course. Need I tell you how distracting it is to be alone in a library? Unwatched, you must struggle continually against satisfying your curiosity about newts, heraldry, the merengue, combination locks—everything but the topic that brought you there.
Most of the books were not yet shelved. They were stacked and heaped here and there, on tables, window sills, chairs, and even on the floor, piles and pillars of new books. The appeal of books in a jumble, encountered at random, not shelved by topic and author, is enormous, far stronger than the appeal of books in ranks and categories. When picture books and gazetteers lie in a hodgepodge with poems, novels, handbooks of upholstery instruction, and photographic collections of examples of taxidermy, they make a rich, intriguing mix, something like gumbo or bouillabaisse, a stimulating concoction, a much richer and more intriguing mix than the array in the categorized sections of the library, where distinctions are made that wouldn’t allow so many diverse and tasty things in the same pot. Those distinctions inhibit the browser, I think, and eliminate some of the potential pleasure of browsing. The gain from categorizing is order, but the loss is surprise.
Whenever I enter a library now I head first for the rack of new books, where some of the pleasure of the jumble still exists, before the books are made to quit the happy mix and dwell with their own kind. Having come in search of the latest biography of Wittgenstein, I’m as likely to leave with a treatise on the tube worms that dwell near thermal vents at the deepest points on the ocean floor.
That, however, is now. At the time I’m recalling, all that jumble and all those questions were more than my ten-year-old’s mind could handle. There were just too many questions to answer, and the questions were radically different from the questions I was used to. Miss Rheingold wanted me to find an answer that wasn’t obvious, that might not even exist. In the past, I had only been asked to find answers that were already highlighted for me. The feeling that there were too many questions and that I had to find answers where there might not even be any was new and unsettling, but it was only a foretaste of a feeling that would return, again and again, as a feature of adult life.
Here are a couple of swell ideas from Eric Kraft's vivacious publicist, Candi Lee Manning:
Tip the author.
Add yourself to our e-mailing list.
Where Do You Stop? is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, dialogues, settings, and businesses portrayed in it are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 1992 by Eric Kraft. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.
Where Do You Stop? was first published in hardcover by Crown Publishers, Inc., 201 East 50th Street, New York, New York 10022. Member of the Crown Publishing Group.
For information about publication rights outside the U. S. A., audio rights, serial rights, screen rights, and so on, e-mail the author’s imaginary agent, Alec “Nick” Rafter.
The illustration at the top of the page is an adaptation of an illustration by Stewart Rouse that first appeared on the cover of the August 1931 issue of Modern Mechanics and Inventions. The boy at the controls of the aerocycle doesn’t particularly resemble Peter Leroy—except, perhaps, for the smile.