School

Rereading, and an Uncomfortable Bookstore Experience

To Kill a Mockingbird Cover It was almost closing time and I was browsing the “Favorite Bestsellers” rack at Barnes & Noble, wondering whose favorites could have possibly made it onto that shelf, when an older teenaged guy walked up. “Excuse me, ma’am?”

I glanced up from the back cover of The Girl on the Train and squinted at him.

A thick lock of black hair fell in front of his left eye and a thick swirl of improbable, artfully-cut sideburn approached his right. I almost asked him how he could stand to blink with that much fur approaching his line of sight, because that’s about how socially appropriate I’ve felt lately.

“Have you ever, uhm, like, picked up a book, and just couldn’t put it down?”

“Yes, that’s happened to me a time or two.”

He was so earnest and looked truly desperate for something, anything, to keep his mind occupied before Barnes & Noble kicked him out.

“Do you remember any of the titles?”

And then my mind went blank. I had nothing for him. There’s the junk reading I’ve been doing recently, but I couldn’t bring myself to recommend Cassandra Clare to that kid. And my (possibly unreasonable) judgment was that he wouldn’t appreciate any Dickens or To Kill a Mockingbird recommendations. And… what else was there?

Of all the books I’ve devoured and loved, I couldn’t figure out what to tell the kid. I asked him which genres he liked, to which he responded (most unhelpfully) that he liked them all fairly equally. Blah. Either the kid was truly desperate for a page-turner, or he was doing one of those freshman-psych social experiments in which you have to survey random people, and I was the failed experiment. He wasn’t quite awkward enough for that, though.

I need to make a list, I thought frantically. How can I not have an answer to this question? It SHOULDN’T BE THAT HARD. 

The thought made me think I need to revisit some of my favorites and reevaluate them. I did recently break my general practice of NOT rereading books to reread To Kill a Mockingbird. While reading it, it struck me that it’s a different book than I thought it was the first time around.

Many of the times I’ve tried to revisit a childhood book, I’ve been disappointed. Narnia doesn’t have quite the same magic on a second read-through as an adult when you already know what happens. It still has magic, but the magic has changed as much as I have. And it takes a special kind of mood to want to deal with that.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a different book at my ripe old 24 years (hah) than it was at 18. Scout is wiser now, less like an annoying kid. Atticus is nobler. I wanted to cry for Tom Robinson, and I wanted to cry even more for his wife and kids. I wanted to walk through the streets of Maycomb, which suddenly seemed like it must still exist somewhere in Alabama as the book describes, complete with its flying-buttressed mini-jail.

I wanted to rail at Atticus’s ridiculous tolerance of injustice against himself and his proclivity to walk in the shoes all the prejudiced, inexcusably self-serving people of the county–as much I wanted to rail at the challenging fact that he’s terribly, hopelessly right.

In a conversation with his daughter, Scout:

“You aren’t really a nigger-lover, then, are you?”

“I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody… I’m hard put, sometimes—baby, it’s never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is, it doesn’t hurt you.”

My 18-year-old self would have had something virulent to say about the names certain Maycomb citizens called Atticus, as well as his doormat-esque attitude. My 24-year-old self is confronted with the fact that Atticus is terribly, unarguably, biblically right. And realizes that ten years from now, To Kill a Mockingbird will be a different book yet.

So, rereading. Not as much for artistry (though there is that) as for wisdom.

I don’t think I’d gain much by rereading anything Cassandra Clare wrote, which is probably one of the reasons (along with acute literary shame) that I hesitated to recommend The Mortal Instruments to my furry bookstore friend. But I could stand to reread Bleak HouseAnd Vanity Fair, which I’m sure would mean something different now than it did when I was 14 and enamored with Thackeray’s turn of phrase.

So I guess I need to make a list of page-turners worth rereading, and then actually reread them. Later, after I finish Go Set a Watchman

Hello, my name is Steffani and I’m a recovering English student.

English Class BooksCurling up with a book is more discomfortable during Week 28 of pregnancy than it was during Week 27.

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.

Intellectual Sin: Overspecialization

My brother comes to me and says, ‘Are you good at science’? And I’m like, ‘I’m an art major. I mix paint. That’s about as scientific as I get.'”

–Random student at the university Snack Shop

She had a point (though it might not have been a great one). A student specializing in art should not be expected to be proficient at biology, physics, or languages. Right? Right.

At some point, making lemonade out of the lemons we’ve been given stopped somewhere short of the grey matter above our shoulders.

In some circles, challenging and stretching one’s mind seems more like an activity for the exceedingly motivated, “driven,” or “smart” folks. If, as an Engineering major, you took a Greek class “just for fun,” you must be fantastically gifted, motivated, or… suicidal. Who would do that to themselves?

Apparently it’s possible to get all the benefits of a liberal arts education without… actually… engaging your mind in liberal arts (convincing Harvard article on the subject here). 

Even among those “driven” enough to go to college, people tend to assume ignorance of any subject outside their area of specialization. At least at my university, the assumption that you only know your specialization underlies many academic discussions.

And it goes for professors as well as students. Though I attend a liberal arts university, I’ve sat in the classes of English faculty members I’ve come to greatly respect and heard them indicate (facetiously) that they can’t really expect us to do basic addition. We’re English majors, after all. Leave the quiz-grading to the accountants.

There’s also an underlying assumption among the college-educated about those who haven’t gone on to pursue a higher education. What about those students with a high-school diploma and nothing else to show for it? Such a waste, they sigh, shaking their heads. They could have gone on to such great things.

We pass grants and bills that make it easier for the underprivileged to go into more debt than they’ll ever be able to repay so they, too, can take advantage of the riches of academia. 

Often, the un-college-educated skilled tradesmen (and women) are far better equipped to deal with the important stuff of everyday life than those of us who have spent several sleep-deprived years with our noses in textbooks. 

With an infrastructure that’s falling apart and  a startling lack of up-and-coming tradespeople, we’re looking at an American future full of indebted individuals who have college degrees but don’t know how to deal with their own stopped-up toilets.

There’s something to be said for generalization–both inside academia and outside of it. The Lord gave us brains capable of far more than analyzing literature (English majors) or painting canvases (as much as I appreciate the value of an MFA).

Here’s to polymaths everywhere. I salute you.

Now go make lemonade, people!

Dear Stephen Jones:

I’m writing to request that a treehouse be constructed in a centrally-located corner of the Bob Jones University campus. The payback period for such a structure is estimated at 2.5 weeks, though costs might be curtailed by the 2014 Bible Conference offering.

While I realize a 2.5 week payback period is a stretch for the university’s current economic policies, the increase in student morale would more than merit the investment of materials and staff work hours.

A survey of a diverse segment of the student population yielded suprising results. 26.4 out of 28 students agree: a treehouse on campus would make their stay at BJU a more optimistic experience.

One prospective student stated that such a feature “would make  all the difference in my decision to start my academic career at The Opportunity Place.”

A treehouse would contribute to the university’s mission by encouraging student fellowship in an ideal atmosphere for relaxation and enjoyment.

Because well-established, thriving trees consistently symbolize the healthy, deeply-rooted Christian life, the Bob Jones University Tree of Growth (appropriately decorated with aphorisms by Dr. Bob Jones II) would remind all its visitors of the importance of strong, stable roots.

Transporting a tree from back campus to the Glory Garden, near the “rivers of water,” would incur additional costs but has the added benefit of contributing to the atmosphere and symbolism of the Tree of Growth, carrying the Psalm 1 symbolism to its fruition.

Because God’s creation is meant to be appreciated even more than fine arts and drama, an unnamed faculty member has suggested that every student complete a mandatory 2 hours per semester enjoying the leafy recesses of the Tree of Growth.

Demerits issued for non-compliance would encourage students to fully appreciate the beauty of the university campus–a campus they are working assiduously to be able to afford to attend.

Classic, conservative treehouse designs feature split-level accommodations, boards nailed up the tree’s trunk, and a rope swing for quick descent. Because this would be impractical in a skirt, I recommend allowing female students to wear appropriately loose-fitting pants or jeans for their Tree of Growth time.

An accompanying lemonade stand with both traditional and raspberry options would be a welcome addition. Income would defray the costs of the treehouse’s construction.

I will contact you again, pending potential designs and detailed estimates on the costs of this project, and I look forward hearing your thoughts on this proposal.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Steffani Russell

Senior University Student

SQUIRREL!

I am slacking.

I’ve become one of those people I used to surreptitiously glare at–those people who surf Facebook in class, write personal letters, and sneak forbidden food into a hallowed classroom. As a freshman, I was painfully fastidious about such things.

This is my fifth year. The pendulum has swung. Suddenly, there’s a shiny ring on my left hand. I have work, community service, various responsibilities, and Greek tragedy on my mind, a Les Mis song stuck in my head, and a coffee buzz that’s making it difficult to sit still.

The bell for my 12 p.m. class rang seven minutes ago, and I’m only half-listening to the professor of a very large lecture class talk about dropped quizzes.

Someone at the end of my row just passed me a handful of M&M’s, and a little later, a tin of Altoids made its way around (sufferers of 12 p.m. classes unite!).

I’ve got my screen dimmed as low as possible to decrease the chances of nosy individuals noticing my class-unrelated activity conserve my battery, and I’m typing 457 words per minute to take lecture notes update my blog.

I feel like a horrible student.

I’ve learned that it’s possible to (a.) take thorough notes while (b.) capitalizing on a speaker’s digressions to (c.) go on a mental vacation.

I feel like Dug from the movie “Up,” shouting out “SQUIRREL!!!” at seemingly random (but meaningful to me!) intervals. Oooh, look, the guy four rows up finally got a haircut. Oooh, I need to mail that letter that I wrote last week…

Oooh. Is there a quiz in the next class period? Oooh… the bell is going to ring in 37 minutes, and I can go get lunch.

I have a countdown app on my phone–64 days until graduation. I think I shall go attempt to be responsible now, and savor this one of my 64 last days in academia.

Procrastinational Paradox

There’s something lonely about education.

We frame it in community. Discussions, lecture classes, instructors, and peers all point to a relational learning approach. But the process of learning is a starkly lonely one.

For all the times I’ve bemoaned a lack of an “easier way” to absorb information, I’ve been reminded that I’m on my own to process the material. For every study group I’ve participated in, I’ve reflected on how much more I’d get done if we were actually studying rather than sipping lattes or discussing the new Hobbit movie.

Automatic-fact-absorption doesn’t usually just happen. Concepts have to click on an individual basis, not a corporate one. When I’m crunched for time and have material to learn, I go somewhere–alone–and wish I was elsewhere, wish there were people to listen to me complain about my plight.

Usually I end up at a busy coffee shop for a few hours with a very heavy backpack and a good pair of  headphones. Alone. And I study, make connections, or memorize facts. By myself.

It’s weird. Though learning is totally dependent on my own curiosity (discipline?), I can’t get the information itself on my own. It comes from everywhere outside of me.

Conclusion: four years of college have taught me that it’s impossible to learn without myself, but it’s rather annoying to learn with myself sometimes.

I should be studying right. now.

Poetry is for sissies (?)

I set a record last semester. For the first time in my college career, I actually came close to failing a class.

It was a graduate-level poetry class. Modern poetry. I’d stay up late and get up early to read something like this:

“I caught this morning morning’s minion, king- / dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding…” (Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Windhover,” in case you care).

…aaaand then I’d try to figure out who died in the poems for the day. Because it’s entirely possible to miss big things–like suicides–even on a close reading of some of this stuff, but you could usually count on someone dying. In between poems, humbled by my lack of understanding, I’d spend a chunk of time complaining to anyone who’d listen that language is supposed to communicate, not obscure meaning.

Psssht, so much for poetry. I’d stick to the real literature that actually carried some weight.

But… in another convicting, perspective-changing class this semester, I took a look at the story and art of the Bible, like I mentioned in my last post.

The Bible is 1/3 poetry. Not fluff or nonsense. What’s more, God inspired poetry in a language in which poetry actually translates into parallel structures and forms that bridge centuries of language change (interesting facts on biblical Hebrew poetry here).

I guess maybe poetry is a little important to an Author who’d design that kind of beauty in words and then use it to tell us about Himself. Maybe I shouldn’t pass it over as a literary lightweight.

But I’m still never taking another poetry class.