The Day I Became an Autodidact by Kendall Hailey

It’s going to rain all weekend, so I just returned from the nutso grocery stores and I’m hunkering in to do some January clean outs.   You know, that pile of old tee shirts that I imagine I’ll wear at the gym (if I ever went to the gym) or those stacks of CD’s I never play anymore.

But instead (you knew this was coming) I headed to a seldom used bookshelf in the guest room and searched for books to get rid of.  Books are much more fun to sort through than tee shirts.

I came across this book which, from my notes inside, I read in 1990 – a year after it was published.

Should it stay or should it go?  Let’s see, shall we?

The Day I Became an Autodidact,

and the Advice, Adventures, and Acrimonies That Befell Me Thereafter

by Kendall Hailey

 

 

 

 

First, because I had to look it up:

Autodidact: a person who has learned a subject without the benefit of a teacher or formal education; a self-taught person.

You may remember one of my favorite books  A Woman of Independent Means by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey.  This autobiography, cum journal comes to us from her precocious daughter when she was just a teenager.

At age fifteen, Kendall decided to throw off the shackles of a formal education after receiving her high school summer reading list:

“Being told what to read by someone else is a violation of basic human rights.  Or at least basic literary ones.”

So she graduates high school early, and pursues her own intellectual and artistic interests, at home with her fabulously oddball family – her novelist mother and her father, playwright Oliver Hailey.  This is her account of the journey.

Each entry begins with (capitalization is all hers):

WHAT I HOPE TO DO:  (Get a Head Start on Reading Everything Ever Published); and ends with WHAT I DID (Had a bumpy first date with Dostoevsky).

Kendall tears through Roman history and Greek plays.   Upon reading Aristophanes, she writes:

“Plays about the gods are always fun.  It is so comforting to think such cut-ups are running the universe.”

As I thumb through this book, I find my underlining throughout —  who would not find an eclectic kindred spirit in a teen who reads and raves about Pride and Prejudice, Life With Father, Anna Karenina and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. 

She raves about Will and Ariel Durrant (whom I’ve never attempted) but I agree with her on Henry James:

“Several readers were reported lost for years in a Henry James sentence.”

The Hailey family is no doubt privileged — they jet off to England to purchase a third home and hobnob at Sardi’s after Broadway openings. Throughout it all, Kendall is a typical teenager, but with an old soul.  She has a boyfriend, of sorts:

“We talked for an hour and a half until he had to leave for the orthodontist. It is hard to talk too seriously of love with someone who still has to go to the orthodontist.”

And, has normal teenage angst:

“I have discovered that it does not really matter if I write, read or am nice to people.  All that matters is that I lose weight.”

Kendall’s view on nuclear war, while simplistic, struck a cord with me:

“I think everyone who has the power to start a nuclear war should be made to see Our Town at least once a day — until the last thing they want is the power to destroy life. If they could see how precious one life is, perhaps they would stop seeing nine hundred million lives as an endurable loss.”

At times, she is wise beyond her years:

“The world is much too random a place for any of us ever to end up with exactly what we want, but then very few of us are bright enough to know exactly what we want.”

I remember I found The Day I Became an Autodidact schizophrenic — at times irritating, entitled and narcissistic — but also funny, charming and whip smart – just like any normal teenager.

The book is staying for a re-read – now, back to my pile of tee shirts.

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