Racing Odysseus: A College President Becomes a Freshman Again by Roger H. Martin
Following his successful battle with cancer, against all odds Roger Martin finds himself a man granted a virtual second life. In this fortunate position he has the opportunity to look into his soul, deeply examining what he feels he's missed out on previously. And he decides to go back to college. But not just any college. One dedicated to reading the Great Books.
Why? I think he explains it best in the opening paragraph of Chapter 6: Old Farts:
"When I think of Herodotus, whose History we are reading in seminar, I think of a very old man with a long beard and a wrinkled face. Perhaps this is because I stand in a long line of historians going back to Herodotus, who was arguably the very first historian. Perhaps it's also because right now, as I study and play with the youngsters that surround me, I realize that I must look to them as Herodotus sometimes looks to me – as an old man with a beard and wrinkled face. In any case, Herodotus is my muse. As I write this book, I am, in a sense, writing history. But I am also trying to tell a good story."
Being myself a mid-life graduate student, I can testify how strange it sometimes feels, especially hanging out on campus with undergrads. Walking around, I assume they figure I'm a professor. A librarian, maybe.
Mostly likely, they don't wonder anything about me at all, I'm so far outside their world. Fortunately for me, I'm an online, distance-learning student. I just happened to have chosen a university at which to complete my practicum. Thus, the mingling with the youngsters, young adults barely older than my daughter.
Martin presents his situation in a believable way. His experiences ring true. I give him so much credit for what he did, and hope I'd have that kind of courage when I'm his age. That is, the courage to present myself among young people as a peer, dealing with their occasional stares of incomprehension, their disbelief, and the necessity of explaining myself over and over. Especially when I hate having to do such things to begin with.
What I couldn't appreciate about the book was the prose style. It had a sort of disjointed quality to it, as though the author tried to fit too many details into too small a space. Better to put in less but flesh it out more, rather than repeating the same sorts of situations over and over again. The prose, for lack of a better term, lacked zing. The premise was interesting, and the reason I interlibrary loaned the book right after I found out about it, but the writing itself put me off – enough so I wound up having to skim sections, especially those talking about his rowing adventures.
A shame, really, but I did have one big positive experience. I stated it earlier - that it was heartening and inspiring to know a man who'd been through so much felt sure enough of himself to become an undergraduate all over again. It sounds like the stuff of dreams, really, imagining yourself back in those chairs, listening to lectures, taking tests and doing the homework of an undergrad when you, yourself, are at or over middle age.
I'd recommend the book, but with the caution don't expect prose that sings. If it's inspiration you want there's plenty here. But unfortunately, very little of the poetry of language.
"Alternately amusing and poignant, Martin's personal epic offers a much-needed perspective on cultural dilemmas both ancient and modern."–Booklist
"An engaging memoir."–Library Journal
"An understated, engaging memoir."–Providence Journal
"Racing Odysseus is not your typical college president's memoir."–Change Magazine
Three Dancing Kitties Out of Five