A Comedy & A Tragedy: A Memoir of Learning How to Read and Write
From Travis Hugh Culley and Ballantine Books
As a student of writing and literature, my literacy is one of those things which I constantly utilize within my life, but it is also something that I often take entirely for granted. I began reading before I entered public school, and wound up being placed in a pre-1st classroom after essentially “testing out” of kindergarten. So, as large a role as literacy has played in my life, it’s never been something that I was even all that conscious about. It’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.
This was a huge factor for why the opportunity to review A Comedy & A Tragedy was so appealing to me. Written by Travis Hugh Culley and published by Ballantine Books, A Comedy & A Tragedy: A Memoir of Learning How to Read and Write details Culley’s struggle toward literacy among a seemingly-endless field of obstacles. Emerging from a history of abuse and a toxic family environment, Travis begins to find inventive ways to hide his illiteracy while navigating life as the epitome of the nontraditional learner. His experiences in theater become a fitting gateway to learning to read and write, but the journey is an arduous one.
The idea of an established writer being someone who did not come to literacy until age seventeen lays the groundwork for an incredibly impressive and inspirational tale. Culley’s ideas about what writing means to him are so unique and intelligent, it almost seems as if his “late blooming” ended up being a tremendous advantage in his future as a writer. He seems hyper-aware of the meaning of words, and the spectrum of that meaning; no doubt thanks to his theatrical experience and the idea that the same set of lines in a play can be performed in endless ways with endless nuance of meaning.
Even though my path to literacy was quite different, the traumatic circumstances that Culley encountered were things I found myself relating to on a very deep level. I’ll admit, this is not exactly a lighthearted read. There are moments which are difficult to get through, but they are also incredibly compelling, because they highlight the immense achievement of Culley’s eventual mastery of written language.
I would recommend this book to anyone, though perhaps especially to writers and aspiring creatives. But this is a unique experience for people, because as you read Culley’s words, you become more aware of your own process of reading, of why it is important to you, and the power that words have over our lives and our interactions with others. And, when it comes to writing, Culley beautifully expresses that which every writer from amateur to professional holds dear: that writing has the power to teach you more deeply about yourself and your environment, and it will force you to examine and heal your deepest wounds in the process.
TRAVIS HUGH CULLEY is the author of The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power. Travis has an MFA in writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and was a recipient of the Ox-Box Fellowship in Saugatuck, Michigan.