August 24, 2012
Take it to the mat, and bring some books with you
by Sal Robinson
Can you wrestle and read at the same time? Better still, can you make a wrestler read? As if America’s youth did not have enough challenges facing them, WrestleMania has thrown them a new one. According to the Young Adult Library Services Associations, YALSA (whose wonderful logo looks like it really belongs on the workout bags of the 1978 Yugoslav Olympic weightlifting team), every year World Wrestling Entertainment holds a months-long program through libraries during which kids in grades 5-12 read a certain group of books, design bookmarks, and then compete to answer questions about the books. See this video of kids remembering astonishingly specific details from the books, like the model, color, and make of the car the hero drives. But here’s how it all starts off: “Tweens and teens will write a letter to their favorite WWE Superstar that convinces the Superstar to read the tween/teen’s favorite book…”
This takes literary criticism as persuasion to a whole new level. Sure, Ruth Franklin, you can convince me to read Gombrowicz’s diaries—I’m a sitting duck. But can you get Big Show to read Anne of Green Gables? CM Punk to cozy up with Artemis Fowl? The Rock to get lost in The B.F.G.? That last one somehow seems within striking distance. Students who’ve leapt this and other hurdles in the pursuit of the Big Gold Belt of Close Reading, Book Design, and Reviewing may win tickets to WrestleMania 29 in East Rutherford, NJ, on April 7, 2013. Plus, their libraries get some cash.
Of course, Olympic wrestling is also just about to get started, and now might be a good time to revisit The Iliad, Book 23:
At these words, great Telamonian Ajax got up,
as did Odysseus, the crafty master of deceit.
They strapped on their belts and strode out to the crowd,
then, with their powerful hands gripped each other’s elbows—
locked together like rafters on some lofty house,
fitted by skilled craftsmen to keep out blasts of wind.
Their backs cracked as their strong hands applied the pressure.
Streams of sweat poured down, and red blood welts appeared
across their ribs and shoulders, as both contestants
kept up their struggle to prevail and get the prize,
that well-made tripod. But it was impossible
for Odysseus to trip up Ajax or throw him down,
or for Ajax to do the same thing to Odysseus,
for Odysseus’ strength prevented him from that.
But when well-armed Achaeans started to get bored,
great Telamonian Ajax said to Odysseus:
“Divinely born son of Laertes,
resourceful Odysseus—try lifting me,
or I’ll try lifting you. And we’ll let Zeus
decide the outcome.”
Saying this, Ajax tried a lift.
But Odysseus did not forget his various tricks.
He kicked Ajax behind the knee, taking out his leg.
Ajax toppled backward, with Odysseus falling
on his chest. The spectators got excited then.
Next resilient, godlike Odysseus tried a lift.
He managed to move Ajax off the ground a bit,
but couldn’t lift him. Then Ajax hooked him
with his leg around the knee, so the two men fell
close together on the ground, covered both in dust.
Now they would have jumped up to wrestle a third fall,
but Achilles himself came up and held them back.
“You two need not continue wrestling.
Don’t let the pain exhaust you. For both of you
are winners. You must take equal prizes.”
I think YALSA would approve. And WWE for that matter.
Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.