Henry Sussman

(The following was originally published on Version.org on May 5, 2009.  Each Version editorial item adheres to the following formal constraint: a maximum of 500 words, 5 images, or 50 seconds.)

In 1872 Phileas Fogg traveled around the world in 80 days. He wasn’t known as a reader. The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss took 20 years to accomplish the same task with a trunk of books.  Professor Henry Sussman spent 46 years on the trip. It wasn’t geographic space he traveled but, by a conservative estimate, 1,241,664 pages, which, pieced together, form a dominion the size of Alexander’s when he and his horse looked back west from India towards where Henry would appear. His travels are chronicled on his University webpage. He was educated in Waltham and then Baltimore, just a short trip. He spent time reading in the European capitals, the classic sentimental journey. However, no mention is made that he has unruly hair and that he, like Gregor Samsa underwent an insectous transformation. In Henry’s case it wasn’t debilitating. Instead, he became a voracious reader, a solitary wood beetle working inside the library. He’s now been at Buffalo for 30 years, reading and producing books at regular intervals. What is remarkable isn’t a single book’s appearance, even as Henry’s travels turn like a screw into wood, but the network of books encapsulated inside the work. On a single page Henry might arrange 17 different authors into a brightly colored bouquet that threatens to turn the page back into a field of savage wildflowers. Henry has read a floral empire, a prodigious feat; but like his ancestors, his world is waning. The anguish of the tropics has passed to the page, turning writing into another archaic form of tattooing. There is little evidence of this in his house in the suburbs.  There are paintings, a comfortable couch, an out of date computer the size of a compact refrigerator. An IKEA chair and stool lurk at the edges.  Beneath the basement though, is Henry’s library. It measures 212′ x 210′. The roof at one point soars into a cathedral ceiling, uncomfortably close to a neighbor’s swimming pool. The industrial shelves are seldom dusted. The lights flicker. The Victorian wingback chair he used to read Proust still sits in the corner, near a radiator. A large cat often sleeps on the cushion.   Henry still has the vital body of the reader, what Foucault described as an “alert manner characterized by an erect head with strong fingers, slender legs and dry feet.” But the world has changed.  The reader is something that can be given the air of a reader like a perfume. Now it takes the determination and genius of Phileas to travel a single page, much less the distance between his house and his office. It’s here that Henry’s guise as a tenured professor who teaches survey courses with a Buddhist’s dedication and dutifully fulfills his service obligations turns on a pivot point into a historic transformation. Henry is near the end of the idyllic reader. His biography on the University webpage doesn’t acknowledge this; instead it glows on the screen with a luminosity the page can’t reproduce.

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