But I’ve spent several long nights lately curled up with a book and a cup of tea anyway, squirming to get comfortable and getting lost in stories.
I’m still recovering from the trauma that my English degree inflicted on my reading life. It’s much harder now than it was in high school to sit down and instantly get lost in another world.
Literature classes (and even journalism classes) forced me to read everything critically, on a deadline, and with an eye for analysis.
I still think of books as “texts” more than stories half the time.
I read the full manuscripts of The Iliad and The Odyssey over the course of about 10 days during senior year–along with the rest of my homework and a part-time job. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages of clashing bronze, Greek deities, and dysfunctional families. I read those epics so quickly because they were assigned. I wasn’t lost in the world. I just wanted a good grade.
The experience was traumatic.
Worth it, but traumatic.
I’ll reread some of those stories one day soon, because Homer deserves far more of my time than a week and a half of one rushed semester.
I loved those classes, and I’ll never regret taking them, though they changed the way I read. Lit classes also taught me that the written word is far more than a source of entertainment or information. At risk of sounding all mystic and literary-snobbish–it’s more transcendental than that.
Literature is evidence of a mind that cares to tell stories in a meaningful way. Unlike most (all?) more modern media, it requires the sustained attention and mental participation of its audience (insert Neil Postman quote here. No, seriously).
You get to know the characters. Maybe even you get to know the author. You see their faces even more vividly than if they were on a big screen. No one does the imagining or interpreting for you; you have to do it yourself.
The very best books are written by authors who have a story to tell, not authors out to write the next bestseller.
In any case, it’s been a year and a half since I took my last literature class, and I’m still recovering. But over the past few weeks, I’ve rediscovered some of the wonder of literary fiction–from wizards and elves to Holocaust survivors to gladiators in ancient Rome. And I’m remembering why I love to read.
A few weeks ago, I read a Wall Street Journal article about the value of reading slowly. Like a good human-interest story, it opens with a snapshot of a very human environment–a book club meeting in a coffee shop–and then turns our notions of what a book club normally is into something radically new (or old?) and different.
The idea is that people get together to sip their lattes or earl grey teas, disconnect from everything for an hour, and read. The group was started by Meg Williams, a marketing manager with a degree in English literature. She felt the pull of words and the need to unplug, relax, and simply read in a world that’s learned to skim everything a mile a minute.
If I could talk to Ms. Williams, I’d ask if she was as traumatized by her English degree as I was by mine.