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/
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!