The parallel universe in which I hold graduate degrees in English isn’t that far from this one. For some reason, it never occurred to me to not go to graduate school. (I’m not entirely sure why this was, but it’s probably related to the time when somebody called a family reunion asking for Dr. _____________ and it could have been any one of seven people.) The only real question for me was whether I’d do English or music. I’d backed my way into my music major. (Instrumental lesson waivers are a gateway drug.) English seemed like a natural fit. I’d always been good with words. Why didn’t I dance with the one what brung me?
The short answer? I was sick of close reading. It felt less like a particular kind of thinking cap and more like a straitjacket.
I was never quite a traditional English major. My department allowed me to carve out a plan that balanced literature classes and creative writing classes. This allowed me sufficient training in literary theory and good writing that I started hating some of the genre fiction I’d so loved in high school. It never made me fall in love with “literary” writing, though, because so much of the stuff took itself so very, very seriously. It felt pretentious and the way we read it felt even more so. I wanted to read books without having to pick them apart.
I had a student this year who complained bitterly about Jane Eyre. It will be her Tess of the d’Urbervilles—a novel that I read and hated in high school and am still somewhat bitter about. I don’t feel bad about assigning Jane. There are much worse nineteenth-century novels out there in terms of length or difficulty or things to discuss. I also have a responsibility to get students ready for the exam the College Board writes. That exam include plenty of pre-twentieth century works. Jane Eyre had ample pedagogical merit, even if some students hated it.
The student’s seething made me think about that time at the end of my undergrad when I decided that I couldn’t put myself through who knew how many years of picking apart novels. It felt like killing them. Going for an MFA seemed useless, too, because I’d found my creative writing classes almost as bad as the literary ones for pretentiousness. (To be fair, it came mostly from the students. The professors I worked with at Mac, including the fantastic Wang Ping, were great.) I just didn’t want to hate what I read or wrote.
I’ve done a lot of writing since then, and a lot of reading. Some of it I’ve hated even as I was doing it. (Yay! Grad school!) There’s no doubt I’ve done at least my share of pretentious things, probably more. You don’t make a comparative studies omelette without breaking a few common sense eggs, and I still cringe at some of the things I forced into my master’s thesis. (Mikhail Bakhtin and mature Harry Partch go together better in theory than in practice.) I can’t get away from analysis. I tried! I was going to “just” do composition, but I added music history because I missed writing papers.
What I couldn’t understand—couldn’t have understood, really—when I was developing close reading skills as an undergrad (or, as it felt sometimes, having them inflicted upon me) is that it gets better. Getting better at close reading has meant I can pick up important pieces as I go along without having to let the close reading devour the attention that could be aimed at all the other good stuff in the writing.
Small digression: My college roommate was increasingly obsessed with traditional Irish music. He played it in our dorm room as he worked on learning tunes from recordings. At first, I could tell the tunes apart. Then they all started sounding the same to me, because there are a lot of similar patterns across the various jigs and reels. He insisted that when you listened enough, they started sounding different again.
Close reading is kind of like that. When you’re learning it, it can be miserable because every text becomes this series of discrete semiotic fragments—just a bunch of disassembled jigsaw pieces. Combine that with a 170-year-old text, and I’m sympathetic to the student I mentioned earlier literally burning her copy of Jane Eyre when we were done with it. When you have more practice with close reading, you can spot the shapes of the puzzle pieces without losing sight of the image.
…which doesn’t necessarily stop you from having plenty of pretentious things to say about it.
I have a long “want to write” list this summer, and a lot of related chores: reading up on 1848, revisions on existing pieces, blog posts, essays about some of the great novels I’ve read in the last year. Some of those things require my close reading cap. Other things require the “say something clever” cap. Others—most of them, really—require the “shut up and write” cap. The juggling of such hats isn’t easy. It wasn’t something I could do when I was sixteen and busy hating Tess. It wasn’t something I wanted to do when I was picking graduate programs. Now, it’s something I do out of habit as I bounce between the different paths of my wordwork.
Hopefully the monkeys stay away.