Reconnecting with literature: reading the books I was supposed to read in college but didn’t

I have my BA in English. What they should call it is a BS. Bedumchhhhh! Just kidding.

Getting a degree in English entails lots of reading, lots of reading, and a bit more reading. Followed by lots of essays, lots of essays, and a few more essays. This work is done  in the hopes that us English majors can earn a position as the manager of a McDonald’s one day. Seriously, what were we thinking?

I wasn’t the archetypal English major. Firstly, because I was sure I already knew everything about everything (which probably made me a typical English major, but not ideal). Secondly, I hated, and still hate, nearly all poetry. Thirdly, I didn’t have my head oriented in studying—it was always chasing after some foreign world with some foreign guy in it which made me grumpy and borderline ready to skip college and frolic in the Mediterranean with my idealized Adonis.

I wasn’t happy at school and I didn’t have the epic collegiate experience that everyone around me was having. What everyone had told me the best part of my life would be was a crushing disappointment. This attitude, experience, whatever, had an impact on my study habits, test taking skills, and general view of literature and writing.

Between hours spent in the library and the hours curled in a hot-ball mess in my bedroom, my manic study habits varied through the semester and even the hour in the day. It is nothing short of a miracle that I not only passed my classes decently but that I managed to do so with a severe nonchalance toward the reading part of my degree—the most essential part of being an English major.

My senior year of college, I had multiple 400-level literature courses to take to fulfil those remaining graduation requirements. Good scheduling on my part (not). This meant many big, thick books to read on a weekly basis.

Rather than read the novels themselves, I took shortcuts. I listened in class, talked to my peers, checked out summaries and analyses online, and then puzzled it all together. It worked for me. I got the gist and manipulated the info into an essay, with a few quintessential shout-out quotes. This gave me steady B’s. Thank goodness my teachers preferred essays to exams. My saving grace is my knack for BS.

It wasn’t until after I graduated that I realized by half-assing it, I didn’t maximize my education and I missed a great opportunity to delve into some seriously great pieces of work. Such is the wisdom that comes with age and failed romances.

The books I was supposed to read during my collegiate career sat patiently on the shelves in my room, waiting to fulfill their destiny to be read. A few years after graduating, I began to open their musty pages and read of my own volition and in my own time.

I feel like a tool for not reading these books when I had the opportunity—to really delve into them with my peers and professors. But in a way, I appreciate them more now than I ever could as a pompous, despondent 21-year-old. Now, I look online for interpretations, discussions, so that I enhance my reading experience—only after I have finished the book. No spoilers!

Here are my most recent reading renaissances:

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100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

If you like incest and feeling a bit down, this is the book for you. It’s beautifully written, dense, and a bit perturbing. Amuck with magical realism; it’s tough to understand if the magic is real or a metaphor (in my opinion). Politcal theming modeled after Columbian and other Latin American history. The character names are reused often, so it gets confusing.

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The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

Who doesn’t like some Hemingway? Probably lots of people, but what do they know? With an attention to detail, each word setting the scene, mastering an unmatched style of narrative, get involved in the lives of the impotent Jake, and the siren, Lady Brett Ashley, and meet the group of friends that Hemingway modeled his own life after as part of the post-WWI ex-patriots who took to Europe to write, live, and consume a lot of alcohol.

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Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut

I read this, but to be honest, not my favorite. Not because it wasn’t well-written and interesting, but because it wasn’t my taste. The story mainly takes place in WWII, written and narrated to speak about survival at the bombing of Dresden, in a very winding road kind of way. Loaded with weird time travelly, flash-backy, flash-forwardy things, it can seem like too much science fiction for the non-lover of the sci-fi genre. Not a happy book; lots of death in this one. So it goes.

Currently Reading…

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East of Eden, John Steinbeck

I just finished chapter 1, so, get back to me…

Over the years I’ve read other pieces of forsaken literature; these reflect the ones I picked up the past months and that I actually physically have in hand. I can’t remember all the required reading I completed since graduating, but I know through this process I discovered new favorite authors in the old, and a new appreciation of a subject I claim to have a degree in. In some ways, I’m more the pretentious English major than I ever was.

I learned in college that books cannot be read via osmosis under your pillow, but they also can’t be read by an unwilling subject. It may be too late to turn my B’s (sometimes C’s) into A’s, but there’s no reason I can’t give my brain some entertainment and mental exercise.

Let’s do this, Steinbeck.

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