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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.

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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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An Evening with David Sedaris

2012-11-15 Sedaris flyerThis is a bit belated, but I had to write about the wonderful “Evening with David Sedaris” that I attended on November 27. To begin with, I am a huge David Sedaris fan. I own all of his books, and listen to him on NPR every time he’s on; it’s not the holidays unless I giggle over “The Santaland Diaries” with a cup of cocoa.

I had the great pleasure of seeing him read several years ago, and afterward had him sign my copies of Naked and Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules. I was dead last in the signing line, and waited for nearly an hour. When it was at long last my turn, Sedaris was gracious and charming, asking me about my life and encouraging me in my literary and authorial pursuits. He gave me a packet of lettuce seeds as a gift. When I got home, I looked in my books and was delighted to see that in one, he had written, “Betsy, it’s so wonderful to finally meet you in person. — David Sedaris” and in the other, “Betsy, I look forward to reading your work someday. — David Sedaris.”

This time, I arrived at the reading early enough to get in line for the limited number of signings he was doing before his show. When I stepped up to him clutching my copy of Me Talk Pretty One Day, Sedaris surveyed my dress and boots and said, “You look lovely! I like your dress. It’s so nice when people dress up for these things.” I almost floated away, because I had in fact put a considerable amount of planning into my outfit. I thanked him, and told him how excited I was to hear him read again. He asked when I saw him last, and I told him about being last in line and getting the packet of lettuce seeds, which I still have tucked away inside the cover of Naked.

As I spoke, he signed my book, then looked up and said, “Well, we have a relationship! We have a tradition now! Let me see what I have to give you.” He rummaged around in a large bag, then pulled out a what looked like a bound pamphlet. “This,” Sedaris said, “is a copy of a short story I read once in Amsterdam, but never published. It went over well, though, so they asked me to print a limited number of them and publish them alone.” I was delighted to be given another story, and he signed it with a flourish. “Enjoy the show. See you again soon!” he said as I thanked him profusely. 2012-11-27 Sedaris signing

I was positively pink with excitement, and I was completely over the moon when I saw what Sedaris had inscribed in my book: “To Betsy — We meet again, enchantress. — David Sedaris.”

I could have happily ended the night at that point, but there was still his reading. As always, Sedaris was both hilarious and heartfelt, turning such such moments as waiting in a coffee shop, getting a colonoscopy, or seeing a plastic bag full of water hung in a doorway into sidesplittingly funny commentary on not just himself and his loved ones, but society in general. I laughed so hard that I was in tears at several points.

I can’t praise David Sedaris enough as an author or as a person. I can’t wait for his next book, and hopefully, his next live reading!

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