To Read, To Think; Perchance To Grow

Bedside Reading
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Mine was not an extraordinary childhood. It was in many ways idyllic: car trips in the summer to Wisconsin, the Statue of Liberty, Six Flags; weekend visits to small towns; the smell of bran, oats, and barn; pony and bike rides; apples in September and snow on Christmas Eve. It was a childhood I wanted to recreate for my own children; a reality reflected and fashioned by the conventions and happy endings I found in books.

But books have always surrounded me, forming a landscape both topographical and intellectual. They are portable keepsakes, one of few constants in my moves from country to country. One possession that has not lost its way is A Time For Old Magic, a collection of fairy tales compiled by Chicago educator and critic May Hill Arbuthnot. It sits in my father’s house, dusty but safe. Its permanence there is a source of comfort to someone who moves often.

My need to travel and live in different places reflects the explorations and visitations my mind makes when I read. Whenever I tell myself that studying the Great Books is “for fun” I undermine the value of reading – not as a hobby, but as vital to our growth as human beings.

By the end of last week, I had read Hamlet four times. Besides the fact that finals are in five weeks, close reading has revealed themes that go beyond most classroom interpretations. It’s been 400 years since Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. Society still debates over what’s right and wrong; the relative goodness of people; the flaws in even the best intentions, and the moral ambiguities that challenge our governments.

This week I’m rereading Chaucer and the Gawain-Poet. I’d stopped reading fairy tales for a long, long time. I know most of the happy endings by heart. Only now I’m seeing the darker themes beneath the stories of faerie enchantment and knights. I started thinking about compromises driven by gender, institutions like marriage and religion, and how tradition still shapes the thinking of even the most advanced cultures.

So I read and relearn how to think. Perchance to dream, but more importantly to grow.

Rethinking Hamlet

Yorick
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When I first attempted to read Hamlet, before Christmas last year, it was tough as bone. Impossible to crack, secrets withheld. No thanks, I believe now, to the classic screen adaptations that mostly got it wrong. There was something rotten in the state of Hollywood, and it was interfering with my appreciation of the play.

I need to do a paper on Hamlet now, and find support in my claim that he wasn’t crazy or suicidal as the very early critics said he was. Hamlet was a kid that got in the way of his stepfather’s shady dealings, but the Prince of Demark was one step ahead of everyone the whole time.

Once I understood that, the image of Kenneth Branagh‘s face faded from my head. I began to dream up a casting for my own version of Hamlet, and how I might teach it someday. And just like that, the cinematic quality of Shakespeare’s work (that I knew had to be there all the while), and my appreciation of the play, came shining through like “the morn in russet mantle clad”. Here is whom I would cast as my Hamlet, remade Bildungsroman-style.

The value of English

Will
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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.