What a fine thing that I never studied English literature beyond high school. It was a slog just to get through that, and after tenth grade I refused to take honors English, because there, not only was one told what to read and write and by when, but there was a greater quantity of both!
And so when I went to university, formal English Lit had made very little impression on me. All that lingered was a few Shakespeare soliloquies and the definition (and spelling) of soliloquy. In college I had a few friends who were majoring in English, but I really couldn’t understand why, at the time. It turned out that one became an actor and the other an English teacher. So I really can’t blame them. And I understand now that they were ready and willing at that young age, while it took me another twenty years to want to take college English. I even managed to side-step the college first year “writing requirement” class—usually English—by taking a German class with a once-a-month off-the-top-of-your-head one hour essay on one’s choice of a list of topics. My favorite kind! I’m sure you couldn’t get away with that now.
It’s not that I didn’t like to read or write. On the contrary, I did so voraciously, since my love for the Word survived those few years of formal study intact. I’d go to the college bookstore and pick things out of stacks for courses I wasn’t taking—not being required to read them made them even more attractive. I went to second hand bookstores, book fairs and tables, wandered outside of my major’s zone in the library stacks. I read with attention, to enjoy and learn, not to highlight, memorize, critique or dissect. I sometimes neglected my lab write ups, stayed up too late reading other things, and spend too much on books. On holidays I started to pay more attention to my parents’ library, beyond stringing the titles together to make funny sentences, and asked Dad for recommendations.
It was a happy alternative to the kind of analysis English majors have to do. Seems now to me that most are too young then to have much of the life experience to really see what’s there, what themes one lives and conflicts arise worthy of literary interpretation. They should just be absorbing, offering commentary only when they feel like it.
I still enjoy a sense of wonder, sometimes warming, sometimes joyful, sometimes piercing, in reading. Especially when I rediscover thoughts penned decades (Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan), centuries (George Eliot’s Romola), even millennia (Plato’s Republic) ago that are so timely, fresh, and relevant they could have been written yesterday. When I think of this generation missing that because of much readier and more entrapping entertainments, I want to stand on a high school cafeteria table and exhort everyone to Repent and Return to the Word!
My ignorance has often led me in interesting directions. Other than following up on recommendations that arise from a great conversation or a previous book, one of my favorite methods for finding new material is to randomly peruse the library stack. Bookstores are great, but expensive, and are intent on moving the product, so have to get a bit “in your face” with displays of the newest stuff, the best sellers. I guess there’s some validity to choosing from best seller lists, a bit more than in the realm of grocery shopping or Christmas gifts, but I’ve never been keen on trusting Most People, even Most Readers.
I’m not really against studying English literature–all this is meant to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Somewhat. One ought to do formal studies carefully, especially when young, preserving one’s sense of wonder, one’s right to enjoy and learn from and share independent of course requirements.
It occurs to me that this sounds lie the warning on-fire believers give to seminary students–don’t let the love become merely academic. Also of the envy “believers from birth” feel at the wonder they see in those encountering the Word for the first time.
Maybe there’s hope in that thought—that some day there will be a longing, a Word-shaped vacuum waiting to be filled, in this generation as they grow older and sense a gnawing emptiness in a lifestyle of regurgitation of online content where nothing turns out to be new under the sun. Might they rediscover of how smart writers of old were, how beautiful their language and enjoyable to decipher, and how enriching for the soul, for the mind, for the community to become a self-motivated student of those literary arts once again?