Sunday, August 24, 2008

English major shame


I just got back from a weekend on Cape Cod and my brain is still on the beach. I have a temporary tattoo of an octopus on my arm and a lot of sand in my purse. However, since I start classes at Emerson soon, it's imperative that I get back into an academic mindset. I need to arrive at my first poetry workshop in top form, like the
Usain Bolt of my incoming class. (Note that I did not make the obvious U.S. Olympian reference. He's got 8 gold medals, he doesn't need a shout-out on my blog.)

I want to start grad school off right, with a veritable tabula rasa. So it's time to come clean about some classics that, despite my degree in English from Yale, I somehow avoided reading in my undergraduate years. Some of these tomes I was assigned to read and didn't; others just slipped through the curriculum cracks. I gotta come clean, so this guy doesn't come after me:


1. Ulysses
Shame rating: 10+

Yes, it's true: I never read Ulysses. Which, for an English major, is like admitting that you never learned to read. In two separate courses at Yale, Ulysses was on the reading list, and both times I got about 100 pages in and gave up. However, it turns out that some great minds have struggled with Joyce's modernist masterpiece: Virginia Woolf described it as "an illiterate, underbred book." I couldn't have put it better, Virginia. Still, Ulysses is my white whale. And speaking of white whales....

2. Moby Dick
Shame rating: 6

This I actually do plan to read. Mainly because Christian Slater wanted to use a marked-up copy of it as Shannen Doherty's phony suicide note in "Heathers." A lot of kids read this in high school, though, so if anyone asks, I'll have to say I'm rereading it.

3. The Scarlet Letter
Shame rating: 6

Again, a high school standard that I missed. What the hell were we reading back at Mary Institute St. Louis Country Day School in St. Louis, MO instead? I can't recall. Go Rams!

4. The Brothers Karamazov
Shame rating: 4

I don't feel too guilty about this one, seeing as I have read War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, and Anna Karenina. My Russian lit karma is in good shape.

5. Animal Farm
Shame rating: 8

I know, right? Seriously embarrassing. People are always referencing this book and I have to scratch my earlobe pensively and try to change the subject. I don't like animals, anyway, with the exception of the fat calico one that shares my bed.

6. Harry Potter and the Secret of the Whatever, Books 1 through whatever number they are up to now
Shame rating: 0

I'm fucking proud of this. Anything this massively popular I have no choice but to dislike and regard suspiciously. English majors are supposed to be elitists, remember? I know, J.K. Rowling reinvented children's literature and now our nation's children like to read again, blah blah blah. I have also not read The Da Vinci Code. Or seen the movie. Sorry, Tom.


7. Anything by Charles Dickens
Shame rating: 3

I feel like I get Dickens without having to actually read him. He just seems a bit too quaint and precious for me. I do, however, enjoy describing things as "Dickensian."

8. Middlemarch
Shame rating: 5

For reasons beyond my comprehension, I often get this confused with Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which I also have not read. I have no clue what either book is about, but I think one is about the environment. Bo-ring!

9. Love in the Time of Cholera
Shame rating: 7

I really do plan to read this. Someday. It's been on my shelf for years. I love the title and Javier Bardem is in the movie. I think I could put up with cholera for Javier....

...but I digress.

10. Portrait of a Lady
Shame rating: 9

I am not going to lie, I have my issues with Henry James. His prose is just so dense and wordy and convoluted. I want to smack him upside the head after a few sentences. Just get to the fucking point already, Henry! But some of my best friends swear by this book, so I am going to give it old college (grad school?) try.

I think that about covers it. I feel better now.

Just for fun, I'll end here with something from the Onion that seems very apropos of my upcoming immersion in Emerson's M.F.A. creative writing program. Enjoy!

Creative Writing Teacher Announces Plan To Sit On Edge Of Desk

DAVIS, CA—Dressed in a pair of casual jeans to offset his tie, University of California-Davis creative writing professor Glenn Kohn, 30, announced plans today to begin Monday's class by sitting on the edge of his desk, rolling up the sleeves of his shirt, adjusting his tortoiseshell glasses, clapping once, and saying, "All right, young minds." The unorthodox move is slated to occur sometime after he tosses an empty Starbucks cup over his head into a nearby wastebasket, proving to students that his introductory short story workshop is unlike any class they've ever taken. "For finals week, I may consider purchasing a baseball and tossing it up and down while they read aloud," Kohn said. Students of Kohn's are expected to respond to his free-spirited, nonconformist teaching style by blowing off his weekly one-page writing exercises.

3 comments:

Elle said...

I also have never read Dickens, and my father is ashamed and shocked that the high school system is so lax in their literature standards. After college I went to the public library and checked out "A Tale of Two Cities," "Great Expectations," and "David Copperfield" and promptly read none of them, choosing instead to read a giant paper bag full of Dick Francis novels that my mother dumped on me after cleaning out the garage. You're not alone.

David said...

At last! Someone who put into writing how I feel too. I finally forced myself to read The Scarlet Letter last year after I realized I was 21, had been assigned it 4 times in my life, and still have never read it. Lets be honest also, Ulysses is just.. argh I got 2 pages into that and promptly ended my attempt. Also, Moby Dick is the most popular book that no one has ever actually read, so that's my excuse :) Great list. I agreed with basically all of it.

Jonelle Seitz said...

Hi—I'm a WLP alum who got to your blog from Vernacular. I haven't read anything on your list and plenty more! I have a reading list, but when I have a chance to read for "fun" I usually end up going for David Sedaris or something. Awful, isnt it?