We’re coming to the end of commencement season, that time of year when sage advice blooms from graduation podiums across America. Nothing I’ve heard this month, though, sounds any wiser than a speech by Willard Spiegelman to students at his home campus, Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Spiegelman has taught English at SMU for many years, and he also edits The Southwest Review — a small journal, published four times a year, that’s full of good ideas. Spiegelman’s teaching and editing seem like enough to fill a life, but he’s also written about art and culture for The Wall Street Journal.
In 2011, the newspaper sent Spiegelman to Louisiana to write about the Audubon collection at LSU’s Hill Memorial Library. I took him to dinner, not quite knowing what to expect. I’d followed Spiegelman’s work in The Journal and liked it a lot, but writers aren’t always as charming in person as they are in print. The French have a warning about this. As their proverb goes, the difference between reading a writer and meeting a writer can be like eating duck pâté, then meeting the duck.
Spiegelman is, luckily, as warm and engaging in person as he is on the page. Which is why, when I recently stumbled on a video of Spiegelman’s 2014 speech at SMU, I knew I had to watch.
“I can’t tell you how to make the world a better place, and I’m not going to give you any inspirational lessons, and I hope you all hug one another,” he tells students, “but I’m here today to speak on behalf of selfishness, and I’ll tell you why.”
Selfishness? That’s an odd virtue to be promoting among young minds freshly trained with a university education — and now ready, presumably, to give back. But Spiegelman is talking about selfishness of a special sort: the capacity to close out the rest of the world, if only briefly, so that you can truly know yourself.
That kind of reflection requires quiet, a commodity in scarce supply these days. “Always carry earplugs,” Spiegelman tells his young audience. “We live in a world which is so inundated with noise. Do we need CNN in airports? Can you find a restaurant without music? Can you find a restaurant without people screaming? Difficult to do. Always, always carry earplugs.”
Spiegelman offers one other rule for living: “Never go anywhere without a book. Not an iPod, not a Kindle — a book. Because if the power fails, or, if you are trapped by the side of the road waiting for Triple A to come get you, you can read a book.”
Why read? For Spiegelman, the answer is simple: “Books can change a life. They will not change the world, but they might change you.”
There you have it. Always carry earplugs in case the world gets too noisy. And try to keep a book handy to continue your education. If there’s better advice for this year’s graduates, I haven’t found it.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.