Confessions of an English Major
I know what I am supposed to get out of a book, but this is what I was really thinking…
I am starting this blog post to open up conversations about books that stray from the traditional literary analysis to play with the odd and sometimes random ideas we take from the books we read. Think of it as catharsis for book group members and solo readers alike. I am your English Major priest, and when you step into the “confessional” you can admit to what you really thought about what you read- not as a forum to tear down someone’s story- please don’t go negative in the comments- but to be able to articulate the weird and unusual messages we can get from a book, and be accepted for wondering about it.
If I had to describe an origin story for this idea, it was probably connected to having read books wildly “out of order” for my age. While I was reading the Trixie Belden mystery series, I was also reading Mill on the Floss. I read Night by Elie Wiesel and Cujo by Stephen King in-between books of Little House on the Prairie, all before I got my braces off. The result is that my mind was filled with strange plants germinated by wonderfully diverse language and experience. Was I always prepared to appreciate it? No. But I developed a comfort level with being sideways on a book. I don’t worry about being “right” or “wrong” because my reaction to a story is only that; my reaction. And I love conversations where I learn about other people’s reactions.
A short story to illustrate my point. My first year at Wesleyan University I was in a program called the Freshman Integrated Program (FRIP) where 23 of us took all three classes (English, History, Philosophy) and had colloquiums designed by our professors together. Because of all of this togetherness, we had come to know each other pretty well. And our connection was formed in the fire of our first semester English class. Our professor was a graduate student from Yale and she had the unenviable task of teaching us the ancient Greek epic poem, The Odyssey, by Homer.
Like another ancient Greek character, Prof. Sisyphus (not her real name)had a lot working against her. First, the class was at 2:50pm and ran for an hour and a half, in a room with a wall of windows that framed the afternoon sun. Anyone who has taught college students knows that late afternoon classes are the worst. I often passed the time in class watching how many of my classmates fell asleep. Record: 4. And not just drowsy, or with their head in the hands. Legitimately asleep. Often snoring. Second, she clearly had a nicotine habit that would start to torture her approximately 45 minutes into the class. Now add to that a group of freshly minted college students used to being over-achieving “A” students confidently sharing their opinions about something you had probably spent years working on for your dissertation. It was brutal. And brutally funny.
One classroom discussion is seared into my brain. It was our last class for the semester. We had finished the book and halfway through the class (sleeping student count: 2) she looked at us all and demanded: “What is the point of The Odyssey?” I remember tipping back in my chair as I waited for someone to answer. There was a moment of silence, and then the student sitting next to her started, “The journey of Odysseus…”
WRONG. She stared at us. We stared back. The sleepers awoke. Someone from the back corner cleared their throat, “Well, but the themes of the Odyssey are the hero’s…” WRONG. All of our chairs were now firmly on the floor. One by one we all tried our best to answer what THE POINT was of a 24 book poem. The value of perseverance? WRONG. The obstacles that prevent us? WRONG. The importance of having a good loom? WRONG. After we had all failed to elicit anything but the word “WRONG” from our enigmatic leader, she looked at us as the bell rang for the end of class and said one word: “Paternity.” Then she packed up her bag and left the class without even looking at us. I still actually laugh out loud when I think about that class. It was the best.
I like to think that after a semester of having to listen to us regurgitate answers we thought we were supposed to be giving, and in her own way trying to make us think more and failing- she was NOT a good teacher- she just decided that the only way she was going to push us up that hill was to destroy our sense of knowing to make us think more creatively about what we were reading. Either that, or she was really cranky because it had been too long since her last cigarette and she was done with us anyway. It doesn’t matter. Because the lesson I took from that class doesn’t actually depend on her intentions.
And that is true of books too. Authors have intentions and we can analyze their works based on those intentions. But we have our own experiences of books, often irrespective of the author’s intentions- and that has its’ own value. Share what you think about books without a concern for what is “right” or “wrong” but be prepared to think about why and how and if someone tells you you are wrong, listen to them. You might be. Think of what a great conversation that would be. Also, for the record, paternity is a really interesting focal point to analyze The Odyssey on. Thanks, Prof. Sisyphus!
Feel free to share your thoughts about The Odyssey in the comments below. And if there is a book you would like me to bring up for discussion, let me know.