Essays

A Degree in Books

By posted at 6:00 am on July 15, 2014 8

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In May, I graduated with my B.A. in English. This feels very strange to write in the past tense, but it’s true.

covercoverIn the course of my studies, I was assigned more than 150 books, from novels to plays to biology textbooks. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that my college experience naturally breaks itself down into books read and unread, loved and hated. I remember reading The Secret History on the campus quad, sitting under a massive oak tree and thinking that this is what college should be like — all shade, dusty books, and lofty conversation, though I certainly didn’t intend to kill any of my new friends. I read selections from my Intro to Philosophy textbook in the basement of my dorm in between loads of laundry, which I had to wring out over a drain in the floor before tossing them in the dryer. I remember rushing through my assigned chapters of Moby-Dick every Sunday night before class, when I would meet with three other students and a professor to discuss symbolism. And I remember my horror when I realized exactly how long “Song of Myself” was at two in the morning. But somehow that horror is gone now, and all that’s left is the quiet joy that came from spending so much time interacting with books I otherwise might never have opened. 

In these first few months after graduation, I can already feel myself pulled toward nostalgia, these stories, stresses, and loves. I am not quite ready to let them go. Although I learned from and appreciate all 150, some stand out as particularly defining. Here, in loose chronological order, are some of the most important. My degree in books, if you will.

coverDon QuixoteMy first college assignment was to read five chapters of Don Quixote. I hurried through the chapters and immediately forgot them — the antiquated language escaping me as I read. At the end of my first week of class, I attended a lecture on Cervantes in which a brilliant professor gave a stirring speech about the value of studying the humanities and of the profound life questions Don Quixote addresses. I left feeling that studying English was a noble calling: something I could feel good about, something that would challenge and grow me. I resolved to read more slowly and carefully in the future, so that I, too, could pick out all the profound life questions present in great works and, if I were careful enough, perhaps even some of the answers. But I never finished Don Quixote. It turned out that good intentions and high callings weren’t nearly enough to get me through tangles of plot and language. I later felt grateful that I learned this early—that my first formal reading experience was a failure—because it was only by letting go of some of my grandiose expectations that I was eventually able to force myself through the grunt work of reading difficult books.   

covercoverJazzIn my second semester humanities course, I was assigned Jazz by Toni Morrison. I read it, slowly at first and then more and more quickly, until I was sitting in a tiny coffee shop on campus for three hours rushing through the last third of the novel. Jazz has a very particular kind of energy and assumes an agency of its own, and it was this agency that I felt myself responding to and trying to mimic. The narration of the novel seems to be coming from the book itself, a sense that culminates in the stirring final lines: “If I were able I’d say it. Say make me, remake me. You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now.” They address the reader directly and invite him or her to play with narration, structure, and meaning—to make and remake again and again. Reading Jazz left me feeling hollow and yet full, seeing or imagining that I saw connections between everything, past, present, and future all at once. Jazz is the first book that I truly fell in love with in college, and yet I never reread it, worried that doing so would ruin my connection with the novel and shatter the illusion of perfect storytelling. My classmates thought that I was crazy; none of them liked the novel very much at all, and several didn’t bother to finish it. Asked to identify those last few lines of the book on an exam, one friend misattributed them to The Waste Land. I teased him about this for years. 

Looking back, I see that this fast-and-furious method wasn’t a very good way to read, for pleasure or for study. I swallowed all of Jazz in a gulp, rushed through with some growing sense of awe, and then put it down for good. I don’t remember it very well now, just the intense reaction it inspired. Is that enough? 

coverI don’t think so. I wish I had quickly gone back through it, read more closely while that first emotion still lingered, and tried to better understand how the novel was working. I could have learned so much. Funny enough, I feel the same way about that first year of college. I wish I had tried better to understand what was happening, whom I was getting to know, and who I was becoming. I can’t remember what my friends and I discussed until dawn when we were first getting to know one another, or why we drew bad portraits of each other or where they went. I don’t know who lived down the hall from me or remember the name of my history professor. What did we talk about in class when we talked about Jazz? And how was it that, when I went back to Texas, life with my family felt foreign, distant from reality? Now all I have are bits of emotion with little context or cause, which is all I have left of Jazz, too.  

coverWide Sargasso SeaIn the spring semester of my freshman year, I was allowed to register for my first proper English class. As part of the course, I was assigned both Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a postcolonial prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s novel that tells the story of Rochester’s first wife, Antoinette. I had read Jane Eyre before, twice, and wasn’t looking forward to having to go through it again; I wanted to read new books and fresh authors, not the same novels I’d been assigned in high school. But reading Wide Sargasso Sea was a turning point in my English career—a moment that I can point to and say, “There. That’s it. That changed it all.” This book taught me that it was possible to critique the classics; I didn’t have to agree with them or accept their versions of their stories. I realized that every book was leaving something out—that there was almost always some other story to explore, some angle that wasn’t at first obvious—and that looking for these would open books wider than I thought possible. I realized that reading is a political act, as is writing. I talked about the book nonstop. Although I never mentioned Wide Sargasso Sea in any major written assignment and was never graded on my understanding of the novel, its influence underwrote all my studies for the next three years. 

coverAs I Lay DyingI was intimidated by Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying when it was first assigned, and this turned out to be an appropriate response, though I found myself swept up in the story in spite of myself. I loved and was confused by the novel in equal measure. I liked this story of a family who seemed incapable of understanding each other—driven by a common goal but also by individual desires, hopes, and despairs. I flinched when they tried to set a broken leg in concrete, and again when Dewey Dell was scammed by an unscrupulous doctor’s assistant. I squirmed when I read Addie’s dark chapter and her final words: “People to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too.” I thought about how everything was words to me and worried that maybe words weren’t enough—no matter how badly I wanted them to be. I saw the book as a kind of puzzle that surely I could put together into a complete masterpiece if only I read closely enough, paid enough attention, was sensitive to subtleties, but then again, wasn’t it just words, too? How could I get beyond that?  

For all of this thinking and rethinking, my class only spent a total of three hours discussing the novel. I was left with more questions than I knew how to ask and an unsettling sense that I was not even close to understanding what I had read. I asked questions of this text: How was it that Addie could speak? What happened to Dale’s mind? Why was Vardaman’s mother a fish? Why was all of this speaking and thinking and fish-ing happening together? Then, I tried to answer them on my own. I realized that maybe I wouldn’t be able to put all of the pieces and words of the story into perfect alignment ever, and maybe it was better that way. I began to learn how to accept unknowns and how to live with an imperfect knowledge of things, even as I tried to fill in the gaps of my understanding, that space behind the language.  

coverThe Rime of the Ancient MarinerI was confused by this poem as much as I was by As I Lay Dying, though in a different way. Although the density and ambiguity of As I Lay Dying felt essential to the work, the Rime seemed to be almost careless—something that was meant to be understood and yet couldn’t be. It’s not that I couldn’t follow the storyline, but that it was impossible for me to interpret it: to fit the images and events of the poem together into something meaningful and satisfying, into a whole. I was assigned to read a collection of scholarly essays on the poem and hoped that these perspectives, which came with names like “reader response theory” and “new criticism,” would help clarify Coleridge. Maybe I didn’t have to live with ambiguity after all. But the criticism only intensified my confusion, and the jumbled arguments of the scholars added a layer of irritation to my interactions with the poem. They didn’t agree with each other, and when I could follow their arguments, I didn’t agree with them either. I began to wonder exactly what purpose literary criticism served—academics writing articles to argue with other academics while readers like me remained confused and overwhelmed. Then I learned that the poem can be sung to the tune of Gilligan’s Island. This was too much; this made no sense. I could not sing Gilligan’s Island and study psychoanalytic theory at the same time. I gave up, but I was humming the song for days.  

coverMedieval Literature in general – I enrolled in a class called Medieval Romance. I had no idea what this meant, and I wasn’t particularly enthused about having to admit that I was studying “Romances,” but it was the only class open by the time I registered. I read Chrétien de Troyes and wrote a harsh critique of the abusive gender dynamics in Erec and Enide, paying attention, for the first time, to specific word choices and the way patterns in action could reveal underlying obsessions in the text. I discovered a talent for reading Middle English. I was assigned a romance titled Richard Coeur de Lion, in which King Richard eats the heart of a lion. I read a long French poem called “Silence,” in which a woman dresses as a man, struggles with the allegorical figures of Nature and Nurture, and becomes a successful and valued knight until Merlin exposes her. I read the Gest of Robin Hood and wrote a long paper on social inequality and status inversions present in its short fyttes.  

Through all of this reading, I gradually realized that these medieval writers were asking many of the same questions and struggling with many of the same social issues that I was encountering in my 21st century university. They wondered about the role of government and what made a good leader. They were curious about gender and identity, social structures, and economic inequality. And I, too, wondered about all of these things: how my world was broken and how it could be fixed. I felt more connected with history and recognized myself as part of a large and continuing stream of humanity and culture, but I also realized that I was not cut out to be a medievalist. There is no Middle English language setting in Microsoft Word, and I couldn’t stand the rows and rows of red underlining that appeared whenever I tried to type quotes from Chaucer

coverSpring and AllThe last semester of my junior year, I approached my Modern Literature professor about completing an additional research paper for Honors credit. She agreed and asked me what writer from our syllabus I wanted to study. I wrote her a long email requesting permission to write about Wallace Stevens because I loved what work of his I’d read and wanted to expand my formal understanding of poetry. Except that instead of typing Wallace Stevens, I got confused and typed William Carlos Williams. Too embarrassed to admit my mistake, I spent a semester studying imagist poetry and the crazed prose of Spring and All. My professor didn’t like Spring and All and couldn’t understand my supposed obsession with Williams, but she tried to be patient with me. When I cautiously offered my explanations of this text to her, she smiled. “Sometimes,” she said, “it really doesn’t mean anything, but nobody will admit it.” I agreed with her completely; no matter how many times I read it I couldn’t force the apocalyptic, manifesto-style prose and the poems about blooming flowers into any relationship that felt very convincing. This made my twelve pages much harder to write. I swore to always double-check author names before sending any more emails, and I learned about how important it is to sincerely love any work that takes more than week to complete. I also learned how to complete work and learn from research I didn’t love at all. I was told that this was good practice for life post-grad. 

coverGawain and the Green KnightI was assigned to read Gawain and the Green Knight three separate times during college, each time in a slightly different translation. By the third reread, I began to wish that the Green Knight would just behead Gawain at the beginning of the story and let that be that. I wrote an email complaining to the dean about the sameness of the English curriculum that I never sent. My roommates bore the brunt of my wrath instead and could eventually recite the general plot of the poem without ever having picked up a copy. They loved me anyway. I decided that Gawain and the Green Knight was a true test of friendship, not chivalry, and at the end of my junior year, I sold all my translations of the poem for a total of $5.   

coverThe Book of Night WomenAt the beginning of my senior year, I took a class in which my professor paired contemporary books with thematically similar works written before 1900. On the first day of class, she apologized for assigning so many troubling readings and warned us that The Book of Night Women by Marlon James, which she had paired with Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and which we weren’t scheduled to begin for another three months, was going to be traumatic. She was right. 

The Book of Night Women tells the story of Lilith, a young slave girl on an 18th century Jamaican plantation, and it is unflinching in its portrayal of violence and suffering, of the incredible variety of possible pains, and of people desperate to escape misery. It is about destruction, redemption, and the horrors that good people are capable of, but on the first read, I could only see the horror. Thirty pages into the first reading, I was shaking and nauseated, so I put the novel down for a few hours, then read another thirty pages, and stopped again. In this way, I finished the book over a long and harrowing week. It was brutal but brilliant, and I found myself admiring what James was doing in this work even as I recoiled from its violence and darkness. I worried about these characters and about my extreme sensitivity to reading their stories. I was tempted to think James was being deliberately alarming, but I knew the novel was more than that. Was James challenging 20-something, middle-class white students like myself to understand our history and the suffering it had caused? Was I too thin-skinned, or was mine exactly the response he hoped for? Or was he just telling a story in as honest a way as possible? I was reminded of Wide Sargasso Sea. Reading is political. Stories have power. When I finished the book, I cried.

During the first class period spent discussing the book, my professor joked that she should find us a group therapist. I felt tempted to press her on this. Every student in the room looked shocked, freshly sensitive, all our nerves exposed and raw. I hoped to someday write something as affecting, if different in every other way. More than this, I hoped to stay thin-skinned.  

Fun HomeDuring my last semester, I didn’t take a single English class but instead spent the spring writing my final thesis on the works of Virginia Woolf and Alison Bechdel, particularly on the ways in which they use houses to discuss both creativity and censorship. I kept (and continue to keep) writing personal essays about houses, and I wanted to see how these masters of essay and memoir handled rooms, hallways, facades, and interiors. 

Studying graphic memoirs like Bechdel’s Fun Home and Are You My Mother? turned out to be surprisingly difficult because I didn’t know how to academically describe or explain the way an image works as part of a text. I read books like The Poetics of Space and Understanding Comics in an attempt to figure this out and ultimately did a passable job, but I realized that there are whole genres, entire fields of literature, writing, and study that my formal English degree hadn’t touched. Even so, I feel confident that I have learned enough to figure the rest out in time. This is cheesy, but I feel good about it anyway, though I can’t quite bring myself to reread my final thesis. 

Now that I am free from the structures of school, class, and assignments, I feel a little directionless and slightly overwhelmed. I’m not sure where to pick up my life in books, what authors or works to begin, or in what order. My current reading list has contemporary poetry on it, mostly pulled from friends’ recommendations, and some essay collections I’ve been hoarding for a while, but it also has Middlemarch and The Brothers Karamazov. I’ve never read Alice Munro or Montaigne. A friend lent me Jesus’ Son four years ago, and I’ve never read it either. Those 150 books aren’t nearly as much as I once thought they were. There is so much writing that I am completely ignorant of, and I’m excited to keep reading.  

Image via Life@Naz/Flickr





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8 Responses to “A Degree in Books”

  1. Alex
    at 12:14 pm on July 15, 2014

    As an English Lit major 35 years ahead of you on the reading curve I can tell you that the list of authors and titles still to read grows, never shrinks. Little changes from that idyllic time sitting under the tree although it may get harder to find the lofty conversation when dinner has to get on the table. With the advent of technology however that conversation can now happen in a virtual realm. I can not imagine life without another book.

  2. David Huberman
    at 7:25 am on July 16, 2014

    Reading slowly … this is a problem I can relate to. The more I enjoy a book, the faster I read through it. Same with magazine and newspaper articles and blog posts.

  3. Don
    at 10:45 am on July 17, 2014

    Very nice piece. I liked the honesty and lack of pretension. And the Wallace Stevens – William Carlos Williams story is hilarious.

  4. Judy Krueger
    at 12:59 pm on July 17, 2014

    Wonderful piece! Do all voracious readers love to read about the reading experiences of others? I sure do. I think you have a future in writing about reading. It is a genre and I fall for such books and articles all the time. I especially enjoyed the story of your evolution as a reader. Thank you.

  5. Robert Barrett
    at 10:03 pm on July 17, 2014

    I was shocked that you had received a high school diploma, let alone a degree in English Lit, with the minute quantity of books you have read and your apparent lack of in-depth understanding of, well, just about everything.

  6. Greg
    at 10:45 pm on July 17, 2014

    I remember similar epiphanies, with different books. Good times. Now please please please go read some Louise Labe! You won’t regret it and she embodies your conclusions about Medieval Lit. Everybody on this thread, please go read her!

  7. Mark Wang
    at 1:16 am on July 22, 2014

    You have a few typos but do at least fix the one after “I swore to double-check author names…”.

    Also, it’s “Sir” Gawain and the Green Knight. The first word is even on the book cover shown in this article, for crying out loud.

  8. Casey
    at 1:46 am on July 22, 2014

    You should really read Jazz again. It will NOT disappoint. Brilliant every time. It has become one of my favorite books to teach undergrads, though you really have to prep them for a totally new and different reading experience.

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