Read the Classics: a New Book by Matthew Doucet (SFGI11)
October 1, 2020 | By Hannah Loomis
There was a time when Matthew Doucet (SFGI11) had his dream job as a sportswriter for the Boston Herald. But a few years in, he realized he couldn’t envision himself talking only to athletes for the next 30 years. Not that Doucet felt athletes weren’t interesting; he just feared he was limiting himself in terms of what the world had to offer.
After taking some time off, driving across the country, and “kind of [kicking] around,” Doucet eventually returned to the Herald as an editor—but only a few years passed before the job started to lose its appeal, and he started thinking about PhD programs and a career as a professor. That’s when he learned about the St. John’s College graduate program. He loved that it was discussion-based and covered mathematics, science, literature, philosophy, history, and political philosophy. Plus, at the time, he believed it to be a perfect gateway to professorship. Doucet applied, was accepted, and moved to Santa Fe to begin the program. “And then I was both lucky and unlucky enough to realize that [being a professor] was not going to be my path,” he explains.
“I was so at sea for so long,” Doucet says, “even though I was doing things that seemed right and looked right to a lot of people.” St. John’s helped Doucet realize he didn’t need to have all the answers before he could start something. He needed to learn how to articulate “what I have and what is before me,” he says. “The job I’m in is not [about] revealing the answers to people but kind of framing things in a way that may allow them to find their own answers.”
These days—as the senior editor and content strategist at Cider Mill Press, an independent publishing house in Kennebunkport, Maine—Doucet balances a variety of editing and writing projects. Since joining the press he has written and published three books: You’ve Never Heard Your Favorite Song—“based on 100 songs that you’ve never heard but should have”—How to Talk Like You Know What You’re Talking About—“how to sound smart at a cocktail party”—and most recently, Read the Classics. The latter is a collection of excerpts from 22 great books, each chosen and introduced by Doucet. They are presented sequentially through time, starting with Homer’s The Iliad and ending with Einstein’s Relativity: The Special & the General Theory. His hope is to inspire young people to find meaning, relevance, and sustenance in the classics.
“I wanted to kind of distill my St. John’s experience, because it was incredibly valuable,” explains Doucet. “I didn’t find what I was looking for, but I think I got what I needed.”
“You know, I’m not supposed to be a professor, but I’m teaching in another way by making books and trying to lead people to develop their own interests,” he adds. “[The book is] a rundown of the things that really jumped out to me in the St. John’s Program. It’s just me trying to frame my experience in a way that hopefully other people can relate to and find something worthwhile in.”
In particular, Doucet wants everyone who picks up the book to discover Melville’s Moby Dick. He studied Moby Dick with tutor Jan Arsenault, which he considers the single most important intellectual experience of his life. “Ms. Arsenault showed us that it was kind of a grand myth, and the more specific [Melville] gets, the more metaphorical he’s actually being,” he says.
“The section I chose to include in my book is called ‘The Line,’” Doucet continues, explaining that the title refers to a harpoon line that gets attached to a whale, then wraps around the boat, in itself becoming a dangerous thing. He suggests Melville equated the harpoon line to our reliance on rationality—a powerful tool that envelops us and threatens to destroy us as the world grows more complex. “And that has turned out to be pretty correct; it’s remarkable that [Melville] saw that. I basically included [the excerpt] so that everyone gives Moby Dick a chance,” Doucet concludes.
Giving things a chance—whether a book, a graduate program, or a career—seems like an approach that has served Doucet well. His path may not have been what he expected, but it’s led to some fascinating places.