Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Surprise! Studying English Has Nothing to Do With A Love of Reading

Law Textbooks

On the first day of class this semester, as I was making small talk with some of my fellow students, I asked my go to question: "So, read any good books this summer?"

The friend sitting next to me, who, and this is crucial to understand, taught AP High School English for sixteen years before coming back to school to get her master's in literature, replied, "No. I started The Poisonwood Bible and couldn't get past the first page. That was my only attempt at pleasure reading." Cue my mouth dropping open in astonishment.

Everyone else's answers were about the same.

I don't know why I was so surprised. Because that was me back in undergrad: the burned out English major who quit reading for pleasure because there was SO MUCH ASSIGNED READING that I literally got to the point where I never wanted to read again. Ever. A book came near me and my brain just wanted to shut down. Luckily a few years after graduation I was over it and more than ready to get back into my pleasure reading groove.

It's a bit tragic, considering the vast majority of English majors choose that line of study because they honestly, truly enjoy reading more than anything else in the world. They were the book worms growing up, and they get to college and think, what could be better than having classes where your homework is reading books? That's what little ole' naive Freshman me thought.

Here's the thing. Studying English in an academic setting has nearly nothing to do with enjoying reading. Especially if your books of choice tend to be contemporary YA dystopian trilogies. Hate to break it to you, but that is not the kind of reading you will be doing as an English major (okay, unless you take a class on modern YA novels, then you might get to read a dystopian trilogy. But don't bet on it).

Even I, who love classic novels and Victorian literature, discovered that being an English major is not about pleasure reading.

So what is being an English major about? If it's not for the love of reading, why study English?

I've thought a lot about this, and okay, a love of reading is part of it. Obviously lots of reading, and sometimes even enjoyable reading, happens. But the key thing to know is that it is only PART of it.

Mostly what being an English major is about is ideas.

More than anything else, I feel like my study of literature is actually just one big study of the history ideas. It's the history of culture and philosophy and humanity, as written down by people we happen to call authors, or more commonly in history, poets. We talk about everything in my classes, from the sleeping practices of Medieval clerks to the commerce practices of the East India Trading Company to the modern politics of Marx. Why do we talk about these things? Because they all show up in the literature.

The literature of humanity is also a history of humanity. Therefore being an English major is less about reading for pleasure, and more about studying the human condition through our words. It's not always pleasurable (no part of academia is entirely pleasurable, there is drudge work in every field). It's certainly not for everyone. But I happen to find it fascinating, in it's own right, outside of my love of pleasure reading. I honestly get all fired up learning about this history of humanity (okay, mostly the history of the English speaking world, which I will admit hardly covers the vast expanse of humanity) through these ideas that people considered important enough to write and preserve and pass on to us. I find it really exciting.  Good thing too, because I sure am investing a lot of time and money studying it.

However, I also happen to love reading for pleasure. I've just learned that this is a separate hobby, outside of my schoolwork. It's a hobby I have to fight for and work to keep up when I'm so burned out reading academic articles on obscure seventeenth century autobiography pioneers.

I'm pretty sure I don't have any high schoolers reading this blog, but if I did, my advice would be that when you get to college, DON'T BECOME AN ENGLISH MAJOR. At least, not for the reason that you "love to read". If you only really love to read for pleasure, choose a different area of study. Seriously.

But if you love to read, and are interested in the history of ideas and culture and think you have the stomach for spending hours and hours reading really pedantic articles about other people's writing, then maybe you can consider being an English major.

Just remember, you have to fight to keep up pleasure reading as a hobby.

I'm interested to hear what you think about this. Is the English major a good choice for the book worm? If you love to read for pleasure (which I'm assuming most of my readership does), did you choose to study English, or something else?

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