Last week I received the kind of introductory assignment that generally sends me into a cold sweat and nervous fits: ” . . .bring in copies . . . of a passage of prose . . . that you deem highly successful for its technical prowess [italics mine], and the ways in which that prowess enhances theme. You should be prepared to spend 5 minutes or so talking about why you chose this passage and analyzing it in some depth.”
The horror. The horror.
The source of this overwhelming trepidation isn’t that I dislike talking about books or that I’m not equal to the task of analyzing a work of literature. Quite the contrary — obviously, or I wouldn’t be enrolled in an MFA program. In fact, in a casual setting the exact same task would make my nerdy little heart sing arias with joy. I love books that much.
No, the issue at hand isn’t the nature of the assignment at all, but rather the goal: getting to know us via our tastes in reading material. Because you can learn rather a lot about a person based on the type of prose they enjoy. Better than a Rorschach test, honestly. And it is precisely the weight of this judgment (benevolently as it is meant, I have no doubt) that has me quaking in my birkenstocks.
It’s the same anxiety I feel whenever someone asks, “So, what are you reading?” Because in this particular environment, a group of people who all devoutly love books as much as I do, there are a lot of names flying around all the time. And it’s easy to feel like you’ll never be well read enough. (Because, well, you won’t. You can’t be.) There’s always that classic you didn’t get assigned in high school or college, that Russian novel you keep meaning to read. Or worse, the legions of vaguely obscure contemporary writers, each with their own overzealous hipster fan following. “Did you read that one story in McSweeney’s?” We fling around a lot of references, often pretend to have read books when we’ve only browsed the back cover, and nod knowingly when someone mentions that “kind of” familiar Czech poet in class.
It’s not necessarily an affectation, though it might sound like one and sometimes probably is. And it’s not as though my classmates would eviscerate me and leave my remains on a stake if they found out I had never read their very favorite authors. But because we’re here, because books matter to us, it’s very unnerving to regard the vast sea of literature and know that it is humanly impossible to partake of all of it. To know that there are books we’ll never read, texts we’ll never analyze. It’s humbling. And no one, especially graduate students, likes to look or feel less than intelligent. And the reality is you might be judged as much for what you have read as what you haven’t. “Of all the books you could be reading, you’re reading ___?!? Yech.”
I think it’s the same impulse that encourages that “BBC 100” meme that circles the internet’s drain every few years. We want to feel intelligent and well read and have our stylistic tastes reaffirmed as much as possible, even though 100 books is barely skimming the surface of what could be called great writing. Honestly, any list, any curriculum is completely subjective and mostly arbitrary. The appreciation of literature is personal and mercurial as hell, but we would love for some order to be applied to it. We want our favorite books to be on those lists, for our professors and classmates to nod knowingly when we bring them to class. Because by extension, our value and insight is also being acknowledged and reinforced.
So I’m going to spend the next few days rummaging through my personal library and finding something I’ll enjoy talking about — without thinking too hard about what response it’ll get — because all we can ultimately do is push the books we really do love and hope for the best.
Happy anecdote: Lest you think that we’re all a bunch of plaid-wearing, Arcade Fire-blasting, PBR-guzzling elitists, there was one memorable moment at the bar last year when a number of us made the happy discovery that we all loved the same book. Someone may have even exclaimed: “Eeeee!” (I swear it wasn’t me.) The text in question? Moby Dick.
Okay, that might not help the hipster charge all that much, but it was genuine and heartening to a degree I can’t quite express. Sometimes writers can agree!
Oh and for the curious, I’m currently rereading American Gods by Neil Gaiman and the Complete Works of Borges. Judge away.