The ideal reader must be willing, not only to suspend disbelief, but to embrace a new faith.
Writing about reading is not unusual. Many scholars write about the importance of canonical literature, as if to convince modern readers that there IS value in their old high school reading list. These books are usually only convincing if you already believe in the value of Chaucer and are a pat on the back for being clever enough to appreciate rhyme and meter. A Reader on Reading, though, is shot through with actual joy and personal conviction that the act of reading is the thing that helps us define and create ourselves and the worlds in which we live. That characters in books become real friends and companions. That reading is an utterly essential component of being human. Mostly, though, I’m appreciating the 30-odd short essays that make up this book because they are reinforcing my decision to become a grad-school-bound scholar of literature. I officially accepted an offer of admission last week, and come September will be a penniless student frantically trying to remind my brain how to write an analytic paper while my person no longer smells of coffee. I can’t wait.
There are many reasons it’s taken me so long to get my ass in gear and go back to school. Among the less significant: telling myself that studying something I love will suck all the joy and life from it; the safety of a steady paycheck; the familiarity of a job I am comfortable doing; the (terribly unhelpful and resulting in paralyzing inaction) thought that making a decision in ANY direction is limiting and as long as I stay here, where I’m comfortable if not necessarily ecstatic with life, I COULD do anything; laziness; lots of seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Masterpiece Theaters to watch; Saturn not yet returning. Other things, bigger things, smaller things. I’ve also had a dose of the “real world” and exposure to the practical value of my liberal arts degree. As an undergraduate I never second-guessed my decision to major in English, but I also had a basic assumption that some sort of job or career in a literary field would automatically fall in line. Not so. I don’t mean to say that I’ve found my degree to be worthless, rather, I’ve been exposed to the reality that a kind of future doing what I love will take some serious WORK on my part. If I write a book, get the PhD, review books for NPR or any of the other dream jobs someone has to do, well, there will be some elbow grease involved. And so I had to think a lot about the extent to which I want my elbows to hurt.
I looked at a lot of options, feeling as though I should seek a course of study that would launch me into a great job, better life, actual Career. I checked out a publishing program, library science, some writers’ workshops, a bookbinding school–all hinting at elements of literature without a full immersion. I interviewed for a tea buying position, thought about sommelier certification, and the Specialty Tea Institute. I looked (briefly) for coaching jobs, thought about managing my own store. I kept circling around studying literature in a structured, “official” way because I wasn’t convinced it was wise to accrue more debt and sink more years of my life into books without guarantee of some better payoff down the road. Going to graduate school for literature seemed utterly self-serving (nothing to do but read! yay! right?) and not especially wise.
Gradual shifting occurred. My undergraduate advisor quoted Mark Twain at me, saying it is never a mistake to pursue something you’re passionate about. Other professors seemed to remember me, enthusiastically even, and agreed to write me recommendations. I studied (sort of) for the general GRE, read a lot (really! seriously! four volumes of Norton!) for the subject GRE. I spent a lot of time researching schools, programs, scholars, looking for my niche. Finally I threw some darts at a map and just applied.
It is a tough time to apply to graduate school at the moment–the idea of taking refuge from a terrible economy in academia clearly appealed not only to me. Many of the programs to which I applied took only four or five out of three hundred applicants. I got more rejection letters than I’ve ever gotten for anything, ever. But I also got a few acceptances, and one of them in particular came from a place at the top of my list.
I’m still not sure about what I want to DO with my degree. Getting a decent job I enjoy would be nice, but I have that. What’s the reason I’m taking this new path on right now? I have visions of being the next Mr. Keating illuminating young, impressionable minds, of a desk overlooking an ocean where I write…something, of full bookshelves, of carving a life that requires an amount of mental and artistic challenge. That this can take many forms is both exciting and intimidating. But the pieces are there and I’m beginning to put them together and embrace more fully a faith that has always been the most real faith in my life. I am pursuing what feels like a luxury but is really a necessity: the ability to “give the world coherence” through learning to be a better reader. I am nervous about being a student again, worried about debt, unsure of where I will go when the degree is in my hand. But I will have the best companions along the way:
In the midst of uncertainty and many kinds of fear, threatened by loss, change, and the welling of pain within and without for which one can offer no comfort, readers know that there are, here and there, a few safe places, as real as paper and as bracing as ink, to grant us roof and board in our passage through the dark and nameless wood.