THE GAINS AND LOSSES OF STUDYING LITERATURE
In high school I had no idea what I wanted to do after graduation. There was this constant argument in my mind between doing something I would enjoy, and doing something that would make me employable. At the time, I was convinced that art students were either amazing in what they did, or ended up working a exhausting, low-paying job that doesn’t require more than a high school diploma. But I took the “leap”, because I loved reading so much. I loved stories, and I wanted to know everything about them and the people who wrote them, and how can they find the most elaborate and passionate ways to talk about the human condition. I started studying English.
I turned out, studying English literature is not only about those things that I had in mind. Just like the books I loved, it was about a lot more than what it seemed. But, I also found that I didn’t like some aspects of it. Here is my reality
If you, like me, love poetry, chances are that one reason why you like poetry is because sometimes you don’t know what a line means exactly, but it still makes sense. It makes sense in a level that you can’t, or don’t need to, describe it any other way. “Hope is that thing with feathers,” wrote Emily Dickinson, and ask yourself, do you really want to know all the connotations of that sentence? I found that sometimes it’s useful and extremely interesting to pick apart a poem and close-read each verse, but having to do it all the time, and being graded on it often felt like betraying the spirit of poetry.
Of course, on the other hand of “dissecting”, be it poetry or prose, is understanding. You’ll have at your disposal a whole bunch of new theories that aim to understand fiction, some of them you have never heard of before. You will get out of your comfort zone and get thrown into a new kaleidoscopic worldview that considers every aspect of your favorite novel…in detail. You’ll never be able to read another novel without thinking of its feminist, marxist, formalist aspects, or about the death of the author and…wait, what was I talking about?
Reading… A Lot!
This is the thing that took me by surprise the most. Reading started feeling like a chore. You can’t study English literature without reading the canon, the history of what made English literature the thing we know today. But why do I have to read Portrait of An Artist when the new Shadow Hunters tome is out and I can’t wait to find out what happens to all my favourite characters? On the other hand, it widened my horizons so much. I discovered writers that touched the vein of my existence, like Plath, and Updike, Tennyson, and many more. And not only did I get acquainted with them, I got to know their work intimately and talked about them with my fellow students, which is much more rewarding than just reading a book alone. Which brings me to my next point:
The people you will meet and spend every class with will love books as much as you do, which is rarely the case in the normal world, where people follow sports, and other peculiar things like that. You will have at least four friends who worship Harry Potter to incredible length (if you are not already one of them), you will have the friends that only reads huge tomes of high fantasy, but somehow manages to keep up with 17 different universes, the friend who reads only classics and drinks tea like their life depends on it, and maybe a few hipsters who only read self published chapbooks featuring six word stories and haikus about saxophone maintenance. And that is amazing! You will all read the same books and discuss them in class, and that is the essence of university: getting together with a variety of people, exchanging experiences and ideas, learning new things about yourself through their viewpoint. And maybe you’ll start taking a few sax lessons.
I love the choice I made. Beyond what I’ve described, an education in humanities will teach you so much more, that will fulfil you in an abstract way, as well as give you analytical tools that will serve in every aspect of life. Just beware of the romanticized idea of going for a liberal arts education, falling in love with everything and rainbows all around you, and going on to start a literary revolution that will make the Beats seem boring. All of that might happen, but you’re more likely to enjoy the smaller things, like the odd postmodern amateur staging of The Taming of the Shrew.