The value of English

Will
Standard

I could be here all day mulling over this, dislodging the essays that need writing and notes that need transcribing.

But I seek affirmation often, since beginning my semester delving into the classics from Homer to Shakespeare. Language and the written word are among the first of many personal loves, and these days, studying them in-depth is no chore at all. It is in fact deeply satisfying and thrilling, in the same way that digging into forbidden cake (chocolate and warm from the oven) is. While Harold Bloom, the Yale professor and greatest critic alive, has called the study of English a “difficult pleasure”, it is worth every single minute. Like eating cake and not having to share it with anyone, the act of close reading is also a very private indulgence.

I get a variety of responses when I tell friends of the turn my life has taken. Most nod politely then change the subject; others are simply shocked that someone like me, a writer, even needs to study English. But after years of magazine writing, I found that my writing had lost its voice. And I wanted my writing to make people think. So I decided it was time to start from scratch, and get to know intimately the tools of my trade.

“Don’t take an English degree,” my mother advised me the first time I attempted it, “you’ll spend your life teaching it.” Hence the detour that would take years to correct. I chose journalism and a career describing the world as I saw it.

I know I would have been happy to be an English teacher – make that a teacher of literature – not that my work as a writer wasn’t enjoyable. But now I am seeing that studying English literature is giving me just the tools I need to sharpen my thinking and my writing.

In studying texts from Homer and Sophocles to Dante and Shakespeare, I am listening to the world’s most brilliant minds as they comment on the complexities of the human spirit. In the centuries since they wrote, we are still the same people, struggling with identity and our place in society, and how to make some meaningful contribution to the human race. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath pokes fun at the weakness of men and proposes how best to deal with them, six hundred years before the word “chick lit” was even coined. How is this not relevant in 2011?

But the hidden treasure in the study of English is understanding how the language works, and examining how something means what it does. As a writer, this to me is gold. And in today’s globalized society, I want to excel in the only language I know.

There are billions of English speakers in the world today, and untold millions who wish they could speak it better, just so they can join a bigger conversation. Language is the connective tissue between human relationships. Without it, we’re isolated. The internet without language would just be invisible cables (and what exactly would they even carry?). Without language, we can’t describe how the world looks, or how we feel, whether to the silence in our hearts or in the silence between friends. But with deep language, such as is possible if one is taking it apart and applying it in order to make the reader think (even if it’s just one reader), I can describe how the world seems to work and how best to enjoy the time we have in it. As the poet Rilke has put it (and I paraphrase), when a child asks me what the stars are for, I want to give him an answer that alters how he sees the world, and his place in it.

So go ahead. Dismiss my hours of reading as something I’m doing “for fun”; or to “pass the time”. While I am doing it for fun, it is not a frivolous pursuit, or worse – something I’m doing just to have something smart to say at dinner parties. Chances are I will have something to say, and it will make you think.