Category Archives: Check-in

A Must-Read Essay

Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at University of Virginia, recently published an essay entitled “The Ideal English Major.”

I strongly urge you to read it, whether you’re an English major or just an avid reader and writer. It is wonderful in many ways, and — without hyperbole — one of the best explanations I’ve ever read of what I do and why I love what I do. You can read the full essay here: http://chronicle.com/article/The-Ideal-English-Major/140553/

Some highlights:

Becoming an English major means pursuing the most important subject of all—being a human being.

***

The English major reads because, as rich as the one life he has may be, one life is not enough. He reads not to see the world through the eyes of other people but effectively to become other people. What is it like to be John Milton, Jane Austen, Chinua Achebe? What is it like to be them at their best, at the top of their games?

***

Real reading is reincarnation. There is no other way to put it. It is being born again into a higher form of consciousness than we ourselves possess. […] Given the ragged magnificence of the world, who would wish to live only once? The English major lives many times through the astounding transportive magic of words and the welcoming power of his receptive imagination. The economics major? In all probability he lives but once. If the English major has enough energy and openness of heart, he lives not once but hundreds of times. Not all books are worth being reincarnated into, to be sure—but those that are win Keats’s sweet phrase: “a joy forever.”

***

The English major at her best isn’t used by language; she uses it. She bends it, inflects it with irony, and lets hyperbole bloom like a firework flower when the time’s right. She knows that language isn’t there merely to represent the world but to interpret it. Language lets her say how she feels. The English major believes in talk and writing and knows that any worthwhile event in life requires commentary and analysis in giant proportion. She believes that the uncommented-on life is not worth living. Then, of course, there is the commentary on the comments. There must be, as Eliot says, a hundred visions and revisions before the taking of the toast and tea—and a few after as well. But I sometimes think that the English major’s most habitual feeling about the linguistic solution in which she swims isn’t practical at all. What she feels about language most of the time is wonder and gratitude. For language is a stupendous gift. It’s been bequeathed to us by all of the foregoing generations.

***

The English major: in love with language and in love with life—or at least hungry for as much life as he can hold. But there’s something else, too. The English major immerses himself in books and revels in language for a purpose. You might even call it a high purpose, if you’re disposed to such talk.

***

What we’re talking about is a path to becoming a human being, or at least a better sort of human being than one was at the start. An English major? To me an English major is someone who has decided, against all kinds of pious, prudent advice and all kinds of fears and resistances, to major, quite simply, in becoming a person.

Edmundson has captured the essence of my love of language, reading, and writing beautifully and simply. Well done!

Happy reading!

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My poor, abandoned book blog…

I have utterly failed in my attempts to keep up with this blog so far this year. Sadly, even this post is not going to rectify that quite yet. The amount of work I have for my graduate program is prohibitive in regards to blogging. For now, I simply want to share what I’ve been reading recently, and a sentence or two about my impressions.

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

A compelling glimpse into life in India under British colonial rule. Well-written, and deeply emotional, the main conflict centers on the trial of an Indian man falsely accused of rape by a British woman. Recommended, but with the caveat that you be ready for 300+ pages of racial tension and anger.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

This novel follows multiple characters over the course of one day in post-WWI London. Woolf deftly deals with a range of topics from shell shock and suicide, to marriage, parties, and family, to faith and possible repressed homosexuality. Brilliantly written, though some readers might need to adjust to the stream-of-consciousness writing that jumps from viewpoint to viewpoint, often without warning. A must-read, in my opinion.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence

This is a novel most people have heard of due to the fact that it was banned for quite some time due to its sexual nature. Lady Chatterley is the wife of a paralyzed war veteran who feels disconnected from life, until she begins an affair with the gamekeeper for the estate. While the sexuality is certainly prevalent, this novel is just as much about industrialization and the human condition post-war as it is about the need for true emotional connections with others.

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

This novel is wonderful, in a darkly satirical way. Waugh, through the story of the family of Tony and Brenda Last, depicts the crumbling of the British aristocracy in the early 20th century. While there are certainly comic moments in this novel, it’s extremely black. The novel is focused on the increasing devaluation of human life, as dinner parties and affairs take precedence over family (even one’s own children) and pick away at traditional values. Worth reading, but took quite a toll emotionally.

Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler

A fascinating little book that defies categorization. Weschler seems to be telling the story of the curious Museum of Jurassic Technology and exploring the history and role of museums in general, but throws a wrench into the seemingly academic purpose with his tongue-in-cheek attitude and wry asides.

The Order of Things by Michel Foucault

A book of structuralist and organizational theory. Deals with notions of knowing, understanding, learning, and education, especially in regards to natural history. Lots of discussion of taxonomies and epistemology. Not to be approached lightly.

Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression by Jacques Derrida

Focuses on theories of the archive and how those theories intersect with theories of psychology and our need as humans to document and organize things into archives. One of the more interesting points explores the reality that archives are not about the past, but rather a outgrowth in our belief in a future that will want or need these things we file away. Certainly an interesting read, but very tough going.

A Sense of Things by Bill Brown

Thing Theory. Brown wrings readers’ minds with questions of what makes a thing a thing, and how “thingness” can be bestowed upon ideas and other non-tangible entities. Thought-provoking, but abstract to the point that it hurts sometimes.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (in progress)

I’m in the midst of Moby-Dick, and I will say this: the novel has gotten an unfairly bad rap. Yes, it’s ponderous and occasionally abstruse, but it’s fun and self-aware too. It’s getting darker — Ahab is going mad — but I’m still on board.

I hope that this compilation of literary quick hits will do something toward redeeming my lack of posts over the past couple of months. My apologies, and I hope to do better in the coming months.

Happy reading!

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Happy Thanksgiving!

I wanted to give thanks today for the many wonderful things in my life today, as I know I have many things for which to be grateful.

I am grateful for my family, loved ones and friends, and for their continued health and happiness. I am grateful for my dog, who is happier (and chubbier) than I ever could have imagined when I took him home from the pound two years ago.

I am grateful to have been born in a place, time, and family that has given me so many opportunities to pursue my dreams and find my passions. I am grateful for the education I have received and continue to work for.

I am grateful for books and literature, which continue to open up worlds for me, and for the authors who made it their life’s work to set words on paper. I am grateful for libraries, and I hope that they never die out. I am grateful for my own well-stocked bookshelves, and my continued ability to pack new material onto them. I am grateful for reading and writing, and will work to continue spreading those skills and appreciation for them through my teaching.

Before you rush off to the over-the-top sales of Black Friday, take a moment to remember all the wonderful things in your life for which you ought to be thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving! (And of course, happy reading!)

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Olympics and back-to-school prep have taken over my life.

This is not an exciting post, I’m afraid. All I’m going to do is say that I’m reading two books and give general thoughts on them, explain why I haven’t reviewed anything for a couple weeks, and promise to do so soon. Ready? Good.

I’m currently reading The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal. I am also reading The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe. I began The Hare with Amber Eyes first; it’s a nonfiction family history of sorts that centers around a collection of 264 tiny Japanese carvings (called netsuke) passed from family member to family member down through the generations. It’s an interesting read, combining art and cultural history, major world events, and family lineage and stories. I constantly feel like I’m learning new things about people and places, from the humble to the well-known. However, it’s a bit dry. I’m enjoying it, but in the sense that I might also enjoy a trip to the museum or looking through family photos from generations past.

So, I decided to add a purely fun book on the side. I picked up The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane more or less at random at the bookstore’s “Last Chance” sale rack. The back of the book promised a story of a modern girl with ties to the infamous Salem witch trials, with all the obligatory blurbs from positive reviews. It sounded pretty good, and I have always been interested in the history of witchcraft and the cultural responses to it, especially as they shift and change over the centuries. I’m only about 50 pages in, but I’m liking it so far. It’s fast-paced, balancing history with action and relatable characters (especially for a history/literature nerd about to go for a graduate degree herself!). It balances well against the heavier material of The Hare with Amber Eyes.

The reasons I haven’t posted anything recently are simple. You can probably guess, especially given the title of this post. Yep! The Olympics. Pretty much since they started, my productivity has tanked. Then, when I do manage to tear myself away from the sporting events, I have a lot to do to get ready for this upcoming school year, when I’ll be beginning graduate school. So… limited time for reading, even less time for blogging. I’m working on improving the ratio, though.

I will post reviews as soon as humanly possible after I finish each respective book. Promise.

Alright… I do believe that covers everything advertised in the beginning of this modest post. Until next time, happy reading!

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Two reviews coming soon!

I’ve been on vacation for the past two weeks, during which I had extremely limited computer access (mostly by choice — who wants a laptop at the beach?). I did, however, keep my access to books very open, of course.

I’ll be posting reviews of The City & The City as well as The Color of Magic very shortly. Just wanted to let you know! Now I just have to decide which of my mountain of books to read next!

Happy reading!

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This is what it has come to.

Only moments ago, my boyfriend looked at me in slightly bemused exasperation and asked, “Is this what your addiction has come to?” He was referring to the fact that after my last post, in which I pondered whether I should lay off buying books for a while, I went out and bought two books. (In my defense, I had a coupon for 20% off at Barnes and Noble that was going to expire in less than 48 hours.) I then hid these books in my nightstand so he wouldn’t find them and get mad.

Then, last night, I bought three more books. (Again in my defense, I was at Bookmans and I had trade credit and I needed some summer reading material. Not that my other 54 books aren’t summer reading material… I just wanted more. Yes, for those of you keeping count, I’m now up to 57 unread books. My “To Buy” list is down to 48, though!)

It seems that until my budget prohibits it, I’m going to keep buying books faster than I can possibly read them. I’m okay with this. My wallet… not quite so much. Really, though, there are much worse ways I could be spending my money.

Happy reading!

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This is serious.

I just discovered something alarming. I decided to make a Google doc to keep track of my book “To Buy” list (since it seemed more efficient and trustworthy than the dozens of post-it notes plastered all over my desk), and I have 49 books that I want right now. Keep in mind, I add at least one book a week to this list.

Now, couple this with the knowledge that I currently have 52 books in my house that I have yet to read. Fifty-two. That’s just the physical books. I have at least another dozen unread e-books on my Nook. They just keep piling up! This is not for lack of effort, mind you. I admit I have been reading very little over the past few weeks because of finals/grading/end-of-school-ridiculousness, but I’m still trucking along on China Miéville’s The City and The City. (Sidenote: I really like it so far, and it’s definitely making more sense than it did when I began it. I will post a review when I finish, but that’s unlikely to happen before I’m done at work for the school year.)

I did some quick math, and the results are disheartening. I need to read at least one book a week, for a full year, without buying any new ones, in order to break even. Now, over the summer, I’ll probably do better than that pace. Once the new school year starts, though, all bets are off. I’m starting a graduate program in English Literature — which I’m insanely excited for — but which will likely cut into my non-class-related reading time, especially since I’ll be teaching two sections of English 101 on top of my own course load.

So, the dilemma is this: do I try to instill some self-discipline, and cut myself off from buying new books for a solid amount of time, or do I give in and gleefully wallow in my book addiction? Since it’s me, I’m of course leaning toward the latter, but we’ll see what happens when I’m living on the meager salary of a graduate student.

Happy reading!

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