How To Talk About Talking About Books

My college days are behind me. A year behind me, to be precise, though sometimes I still trip on campus’s uneven stone pavement and I remember the lecture hall chairs’ stiff backs and my professors’ stiff upper lips and I wonder, what’s a year, anyway? Some years are fuller than others. My four years of college filled me up, and I’ll be running on that mileage for ages.

Luckily for me, many of my friends are little walking universities, in the sense that they don’t let my mind fall asleep. Otherwise, who knows: I might turn on Bravo one day and never turn it off. We all wrestle with temptation.

Today, a friend texted me out of the blue asking whether I could send her a critical essay I wrote in college. The specifications were broad. She just wanted any essay in which I responded to a work of literature with precise language. I sent her a short paper on Virginia Woolf’s The Waves.

My friend, C., is many wonderful things, but perhaps my favorite thing about her is that she is a Capital R Reader. The first time I spoke to her about books, we were on a beach in Greece. We began playing “What Have You Read?” ping-pong, my favorite mental sparring game. I found we had the same taste. I also found myself desperately out of my league. C’s one of those readers who makes me want to be a better (and more voracious) reader.

Both now out of college, C. and I love reading — and yet we have no outlet with which we can intellectually analyze books. I frequently recommend books to people, or gush about them. I say things like, “I missed my train stop, this book was so good!” Or, “I couldn’t get out of bed because I was devastated when it ended!”

But what about the part of my brain which could X-Ray into the book’s machinations and the author’s manipulations? Read for craft, as well as general effect? What about the endless exercises in close-reading and poring through the part to understand the whole?

When reading literature in college, I often fought against the tyranny of close-reading. As an intuitive, emotional person, I would always trust my first instinct first. I was more interested in the general impression of the book. Whether I was moved. Whether I liked it. Now, out of college, I find myself pulled to the opposite camp. It’s not enough to know that I liked it. I want to know why, and speak to the book until it speaks back.

In college, I was reading books that I didn’t always want to be reading. I was relieved when I found a book that I liked at all, so I savored it. Now, I read a lot of books that I enjoy because the syllabus is of my own choosing. I pop books like candy. Sure, it’s better than TV, but how much depth am I plumbing from each book? Is it a hearty mental exercise if I’m skimming sentences?

My goal is to begin writing pieces for each book I read. More than reviews, really, but something between a reaction and an analysis. Something voice-driven, but also data-driven. A mash-up between my conflicting desires when reading books: To understand the language, and to feel the narrative.

I’m sure C. and I will be alright, so long as we continue to read, converse, and keep an aura of undergraduate naivety about us.

Appreciating the Core Curriculum

My undergraduate college insisted that all of its students, whether math majors, start up gurus to be, or English nerds, would graduate having the ability to understand and appreciate the “greats” of “Western” literature, philosophy, music and art. I put those in quotations because those terms are so contested and cause a huge fuss on campus. What constitutes “great” is constantly in flux; so, the curriculum is constantly changing. For example, the book Beloved by Toni Morrison was just included in the Literature Humanities syllabus, marking the third book by a woman students read over the course of the year, and the first black woman. I’m all for updating and adapting the Core to make it less of a Dead White Man club. Because really, what the Core’s about is a road map for interpretation, something that helps with all the OTHER texts a person encounters in his or her life. It’s not about the books so much as it’s about the tools you get having read the books, or having analyzed the art.

But this post isn’t about politics. It’s about appreciation.

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I’ve found myself in the “real world,” which is also in quotations, because to be honest I have less of an idea of what the real world is than what constitutes the greats of Western art and literature. But I’ll find myself wandering cold city streets of reality and thinking how lovely it is that I have this treasury of great texts behind me. Because the Iliad, the Odyssey, Jane Austen, Dostoevsky–we’re not just talking about authors! We’re talking about the spine of all other literature!

My life has been so tremendously enriched by having read these books and having learned how to understand a work of art. My mind’s in dialogue with centuries of minds before me. Even if modern books are a reaction against the stiff classics, it’s important to have an idea of what the stiff old classics are. It was more than four years of coursework, but a way of going through the world with eyes wide open, and drinking in culture because I was taught how.

So here’s the kicker. I spent four years in an environment where the goal of my life was to discuss things that matter. Now, I’m in a world where other things (ie money and employment) take precedence. But these books are still in me like hard jewels, information congealed into diamond with heat and pressure and thought. I remember the things that matter, and just because there are other concerns now that might be ahead in line of the books I’m reading, I can still safely say: the books matter more.