Placing value on journeying to the heart of one's life

May 22, 2001|By Michael Olesker

STEPHANIE Fowler is my newest hope for the future of a culture. She is 22 years old and says she is haunted by language. I am 56 years old and haunted by a fear that no one else in her generation cares about language.

Fowler is the winner of this year's Sophie Kerr Prize at Washington College. Washington College is on Maryland's Eastern Shore. In a moment, we will talk about students and writing at another Maryland college, whose identity will remain secret except to say it is on York Road in the heart of Towson.

Fowler was recognized for her senior thesis, "Crossings: A Journey Into God's Country," 150 pages she wrote about life on the Eastern Shore. Many of today's college professors will tell you they can't get their students to read 150 pages.

A few weeks ago, I spoke to a class of students at this unnamed college on York Road in Towson. They are mass-communications students, which is the modern term for the thing we once called journalism. A long time ago, when I was a journalism student, my classmates and I read everything on which we could lay our ink-stained fingers.

We wanted to see not only what writers were writing but how they were writing it. How did they make the language sing? How could we learn to do that? Thus, when I journeyed to the heart of York Road, I asked these mass communications college students what publications they read for inspiration and enlightenment.

They answered:

Cosmopolitan magazine.

Naturally, these were the young ladies. Among the young male scholars, there was no consensus, as most of them had little inclination to put down their remote controls and pick up reading material of any kind that did not include centerfolds.

We will look for no Stephanie Fowlers in this group of students. After she accepted her Sophie Kerr award -- named for the Denton native who went off to New York and wrote 23 novels, virtually all of them set on the Eastern Shore, and left a cash endowment that has sustained aspiring writers for the last 34 years -- Fowler talked about her love of the Eastern Shore, and the importance of writers being connected to a place, and a people.

"If we know anything," Fowler told The Sun's Chris Guy, "we know where home is."

If the readers of Cosmopolitan know anything, it is the price of jewelry, the look of summer fashion, the trick to surviving life in the singles bar.

This is not exactly an unanticipated response about reading habits. Twenty years ago, when I taught journalism students at this same college in Towson, I opened each semester by asking students for their favorite publications.

Mostly, they listed National Lampoon and Mad -- as well as Cosmo. A handful each semester listed Time or Newsweek. A few listed Baseball Digest, and one named Boys' Life, a magazine aimed at Boy Scouts. They didn't even know how to fake it properly for the teacher.

Even then, the world seemed to move too quickly. Reading involves slowing things down a little. We don't want to do that because we're afraid we'll miss something in the great Out There. What we miss, in fact, is the chance to adjust the world's pace to our own ability to digest, to figure things out a little, to search for nuance in the quiet.

We move to the beat of the remote control today. You don't like what's showing on this TV channel? No problem, there are 75 more awaiting us, and never mind that each is as vacuous as the one you've just left behind.

Stephanie Fowler says she is haunted by language. Such sentiment is denigrated today. This generation of college students reads the stock market reports before it reads anything. The way to the good life is believed to be computed strictly in dollars.

Thus, we leave Stephanie Fowler with the words of another writer, Philip Roth, who was questioned about "wasting a life" doing nothing but putting words onto a page. Roth replied:

"Art is life, too, you know. Solitude is life, meditation is life, pretending is life, supposition is life, contemplation is life, language is life. Is there really less life in turning sentences around than in manufacturing automobiles? Is there less life in reading `To the Lighthouse' than in milking a cow or throwing a hand grenade?

"To my mind, the isolation of a literary vocation -- the isolation that involves far more than sitting alone in a room for most of one's waking existence -- has as much to do with life as accumulating sensations, or multi-national corporations, out in the great hurly-burly.

"It seems to me that it's largely through art that I have a chance of being taken to the heart of at least my own life."

Thanks to Sophie Kerr, Stephanie Fowler will journey to the heart of her own life -- and all those her imagination, and her environment, can bring her.

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