Three More Thoughts on Graduation Season: “The Garden of the Forking Paths,” Ann Patchett, and a Little Tolkien

It’s a dangerous thing to pick up a book, to lift the cover, to flip through the front matter, to sit back and surrender to those first words. Who knows what waits? What might happen to you in the course of a few hours of reading? It’s a moment of possibility and hopefulness, and perhaps of a little dread and a little faith—there are so many other things we could be doing right now, and yet we follow the words onto a second page.

In this graduation season, it doesn’t take much to see the plunge into a new book as a not imperfect metaphor for life’s journey. To follow-up on Josh Corman’s recent Book Riot posts on some of the best commencement speeches by writers and recommended gifts for graduates, here are three bookish things to keep in mind as you move on to what comes next in this our annual season of renewal.

1) The Metaphysics of Possibility: Ok, so Jorge Luis Borges’ 1941 story, “The Garden of the Forking Paths,” has nothing to do with graduation, but it is all about choice and possibility and the forging of identity. It’s the old idea that every time we make a choice we set our lives on one path or another or another, and that as we come to the next sequential choice, we move further down one specific path and further away from another. Of course, our subsequent choices down these various forking paths can potentially merge again (or not) as we move on down the road.forking paths

In Borges’ story, this contrast of infinite possibility and the very finite consequences of choice is represented by a novel—The Garden of the Forking Paths—which is peopled by characters who die on one page and reappear on the next and that unfolds in a series of episodes, some of which overlap and some of which have no logical connection. The idea is that—if you accept the philosophy of the forking paths—that the person you are now could be very similar to another version of yourself out there on another path, or equally that the person you are now could not recognize or even be able to conceive of the “you” out there on one of those other paths.

How far you want to go down that rabbit hole is yet another personal choice, but it is a valuable way to think about the meaningfulness of our decisions, of the odds that one way or another we end up walking the path we choose. As for the actual Borges story, it’s a good one—a World War I detective story featuring a German spy (who is also a Chinese expatriate) on the run in the English countryside from a British intelligence officer (who is also an Irishman who grew up under British rule) toward a climactic scene at the rural home of an old colonial Sinologist and antiquities collector who just happens to have an artifact of great importance to the German spy’s Chinese ancestors. These people and their choices . . .

2) Practical Advice: In 2006, novelist Ann Patchett returned to Sarah Lawrence, her alma mater, to deliver the commencement address. Two years later, HarperCollins published an extended version as What Now?, a book clearly targeted at the graduation gift market (thin hardback, big font, and lots of overly symbolic fork-of-the-road images). Packaging aside, the book is a good quick read, especially for young aspiring writers as Patchett builds her speech around the question What now? and its centrality to human life.

What Now

About those forking paths . . . after graduating from Sarah Lawrence, Patchett returned back to her hometown in Tennessee and waited tables until an accident with a steam washer got her fired for her own safety. Patchett then headed off to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop to get an M.F.A. But after a one-year teaching stint, she was back again in Tennessee, this time waiting tables at a T.G.I.Fridays. As she tells her story, Patchett shares several pieces of practical advice, including:

  • Practice mindfulness and continuous learning: “It was for me the start of a lesson that I never stop having to learn: to pay attention to the things I’ll probably never need to know, to listen carefully to the people who look as if they have nothing to teach me, to see school as something that goes on everywhere, all the time, not just in libraries but in parking lots, in airports, in trees.”
  • Listen to others: “Chances are, anyone who claims not to need the input of any other person on the planet is probably crazy.”
  • Be both patient and fully engaged: “If you’re lucky, putting together your life is a process that will last through every single day you’re alive.”

Some of this feels like the usual graduation fodder, but Patchett grounds her advice in the life of her past experiences and memories, and what she says feels true and valuable (more on that below). The book also includes a postscript in which Patchett describes the process of writing and scrapping and rewriting the speech and of the continuing influence and inspiration of two longtime teachers—a reminder that even at the height of her success, Patchett is still open to turning to others for help.

3) Out on the Path (w/the boys of Middle Earth): Ok, I’m about to Tolkien-out a little, but are there any better journey stories than The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings? In the latter, the fate of the entire world rests on the ability of a small group of people to help one another live up to their absolute full potential while facing down all kinds of expected and unexpected obstacles. Here are two quick moments to remember in times of uncertainty and change:

Midway through Two Towers, in a flashback to before the journey began, Aragorn tells Arwen (yes, his elfin princess) of his doubts about what lies ahead. “My path is hidden from me,” Aragorn says. But Arwen is confident. “It is laid before your feet,” she tells him. “You cannot falter now.”

And early in The Hobbit, Bilbo weighs his own uncertain journey, asking Gandalf, “Can you promise that I will come back?” “No,” Gandalf answers. “And if you do, you will not be the same.”

Of course that’s exactly the point: why we open that book, why we set out the door each morning. One way or another, we will not be the same. That’s what Patchett is getting at when she urges her crowd of graduates to “choose a life that will keep expanding.” Of that question—What Now?—Patchett advises that we see it not as a burden, but as something that “represents our excitement and our future, the very vitality of life . . .it is a declaration of possibility, of promise, of chance.” Whatever the obstacles, whatever we cannot change but must face, wherever our path, Patchett frames What Now? as a kind of calling: to engage deeply, to choose our best possible life.