Monday, January 19, 2009

Being an English Major Is Getting in the Way of My Reading

I have a confession to make: While I love to read, I do not always like to study literature (pronounced "lit-tra-tuure" by those few pretentious dons who wear pipes and mustaches).

I am jealous of those people who Virginia Woolf and Samuel Johnson call "common reader[s]." He or she, being "worse educated," is not bound by the same "literary prejudices" that have been taught to me over and over again for the past four years at university.

For instance, there are times when I read a particular part of a novel, verse, or story and I cannot wait to explore the beauty of it in class. However, upon arriving to class, I am informed that the professor is only interested in discussing theory and its applications to the work. I am horrified when faced with the perversity of this practice. Before my very eyes, as if with an iron pole, a passage, line or word is sufficiently beaten and rendered near-death. Unable to wriggle away or defend itself, I want to scream on its behalf, but I am unable to because I am drowning in theory terms- supplement, deconstruction and ideology.

For the sake of my own sanity, it helps to acquiesce to the common reader still stubbornly holding on within me. I often entertain the idea of cheating on my school books (sometimes with three or four books at a time). During class, I am prone to anticipate the last day of the term when I can look forward to a holiday of reading. Mostly though, I dream about when I will get another opportunity to visit those marvelous places "to humble to be called libraries" and simply pick a book on a whim. I long for the freedom to be, as Woolf describes, "hasty, inaccurate and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture, without caring where he finds it..."


  1. Hmm. I think that school just doesn't really allow one to truly appreciate all the material it shoves on you. There aren't enough moments to just ponder over and digest pieces of literature or any subject you find interesting. Deadlines get in the way! :(

  2. I agree!! Whenever I go into a bookstore with the un-scholarly intention of picking up a piece of pleasure-reading, I find that I sort of sneak around the shelves of popular fiction as if I wore a sweater embroidered with the words "ENGLISH MAJOR" in bright red. Should I ever overcome the "literary prejudices" and decide to buy a work meant to entertain "the common reader," I always feel a little bit judged by the cashier. While I should be reading Tolstoy, I opted instead to busy myself with a Phillipa Gregory novel while laying on the beach. And poor Phillipa. Her entertaining narrative of Tudor England then undergoes the same scrutiny as would *Ana Karenina.*
    Reading at the scholarly level can feel very bothersome. I can never close a book and say "Oh well, that was interesting! Now what?" It's a constant revisiting of familiar texts, synthesizing new ideas and deconstructing our old ones.

  3. This is the exact reason why I'm not majoring in English (I think...I might still be sucked in yet): I love reading more than I do analyzing literature. While a proper and thorough analysis can be extremely illuminating and fascinating on works, I rarely enjoy "reading at the scholarly level". And I suppose that's partially because I dislike getting caught up in the details and speculation and losing sight of what struck me about the piece in the first place. I mean, if I went back and read One Hundred Years of Solitude through an English major's glasses, I feel like I would be too caught up in analyzing the symbolism and I would forget what it felt like to just be immersed in the story.

    You write "Before my very eyes, as if with an iron pole, a passage, line or word is sufficiently beaten and rendered near-death" and that is exactly why I come close to strangling people in English classes and why I refuse (until now) to take classes on any book/author that I truly love--because it feels like they're going to be slaughtered and butchered and served with garnish in class and I can't stomach that.

    I too "acquiesce to the common reader still stubbornly holding on within me"--probably more often than I should!

    So I just realized my comment is ridiculously long, but you've written a great post that I COMPLETELY relate to. :)

  4. I agree as well. Sometimes, when an entire class is dedicated to one novel, (I took a Lolita class last summer), our over analyzing can feel a bit in vain, unnessesary. Still, when the right amount of time is dedicated to really trying to figure out what you read, it can be so fufilling.

  5. I'm an English major as well and I find that in most English classes our idea of what we read isn't as important as the point the author was trying to make.

  6. I really agree with this post, in particular for a course about Virginia Woolf, an author I really admire. I took it to become exposed to more of Woolf's writing, as well as to learn about the influence she had on those after her.