I was doing a little web development wizardry this afternoon for a customer, effortlessly changing fonts and colors and kerning on a site to many “oohs” and “ahs.” This is the sizzle-without-the-steak side of programming: the difficult and interesting things about the project have unfolded slowly, with many wrong turns and blind alleys, and would be incredibly dull for a non-developer to see. But customers like to see colors, and colors are easy to deliver.
In the course of changing the font of a page from Verdana to Arial (I’ll leave it to the font experts to argue the relative merits of each), I made a simple but perhaps telling typo, calling out “Ariel” (which isn’t a valid font name on most systems) where I meant “Arial.”
“Oh, like ‘The Little Mermaid’,” said my customer.
“No,” I said, “like the fairy. From Shakespeare, in … ”
And there was that horrible feeling of a gap in the brain; I couldn’t for the life of me fill in the title of the play in which Ariel appears. I sputtered out Prospero and Calliban, “Shakespeare’s last play,” “shipwrecked on an island … ” but I just couldn’t dredge it up.
“‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’?” my customer helpfully suggested.
“No, no, that was Oberon … ”
“Not ‘The Tempest’?”
And of course, that was it, ‘The Tempest’, at one time my second-favorite of Shakespeare’s plays (“Lear” has long been my favorite, for the king’s mad soliloquy in the storm). Dejected, I said, “I should be drummed out of the league of English majors for forgetting that.”
“It just shows how far you’ve come,” my customer said, probably referring to my earlier CSS tricks.
This lapse worried me a little when it happened; it had that tip-of-the-tongue pattern of early senility. But I’ve always tended toward forgetfulness, at least about things that aren’t daily concerns, so I’m not too concerned about drifting into oblivion quite yet. What I think it really points to is that the values that a liberal education in general, and literature in particular, espouse are not those that we live by once we’re out of college. Time especially, so easily filled with work, laundry, bills, and supervising children, is divided up into so many little pieces that I can no longer imagine sitting down with ‘The Tempest,’ or ‘Paradise Lost,’ or even ‘The Wasteland,’ and becoming immersed again in words well-constructed.
There ought to be a sort of recertification program for English majors, where we go back to all the required reading of our undergrad years and become familiar again with the things we used to know. Some of the books I read then and didn’t really understand–”The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” “Mr. Polly,” anything by Henry James–might make a lot more sense with a few years and disappointments behind me. And though it might not make me more productive than a class on the latest techniques in jQuery and HTML5 development, a close reading of ‘The Tempest’ might save my soul, or at least my brain.