Monthly Archives: June 2006

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

I liked this book well enough to read it twice (as I considered doing in this post), one time right after the other. It was well worth the re-read.

The story is about the “Brodie set,” six girls whom Miss Jean Brodie, a schoolteacher, takes under her wing, nurturing them and teaching them her version of culture – and sometimes the regular school lessons too. Spark sums up each of the girls in a few phrases which she repeats throughout the book. There is Monica Douglas, “famous mostly for mathematics which she could do in her brain, and for her anger which, when it was lively enough, drove her to slap out to right and left.” There is Rose Stanley, “famous for sex,” Eunice Gardiner, “small, neat and famous for her spritely gymnastics and glamourous swimming,” Jenny Gray, who will become an actress and is “the prettiest and most graceful girl of the set,” and Mary Macgregor “whose fame rested on her being a silent lump, a nobody whom everybody could blame.” Most importantly, though, there is Sandy Stranger, whom the book will follow most closely. She is famous for her squinty, disconcerting eyes.

Brodie is an unconventional teacher; she spends much class time telling stories, some of which are about her love life, and while she tells stories she sometimes asks students to hold up their books so that if the headmistress walks into the classroom they will look like they are working. She doesn’t balk at instilling her particular eccentric opinions and biases, and while she claims the sciences have their place, she makes it clear that art is what really matters.

Most importantly, she forms her “set,” the girls she cultivates particular relationships with, and who remain loyal to her even once they have passed through her classroom and moved on to higher grades. Her unconventional teaching and the loyalty of this set upset the other teachers and the headmistress, who spend the book scheming to get rid of Miss Brodie. This forms part of the tension of the novel: will she lose her job? Will the girls remain loyal to her? Who is it who finally betrayed her?

The nature of Brodie’s relationship with the girls is what’s really at the center of the novel, and this relationship changes – at first they admire her and follow her almost unthinkingly, and as the novel progresses, the girls grow up, and begin to question her, Sandy especially. And Brodie herself changes, from an idealistic, independent role model, dedicating the “prime of her life” to the girls, to something much more sinister. Sandy must separate herself from Brodie in order to figure out who she is and to become an adult. Sandy struggles with the feeling that she is too-closely identified with Brodie quite early on; in one scene when Sandy is tempted to be nice to Mary, a girl to whom almost no one is nice, she stops when she realizes Brodie is nearby:

The sound of Miss Brodie’s presence, just when it was on the tip of Sandy’s tongue to be nice to Mary Macgregor, arrested the urge. Sandy looked back at her companions, and understood them as a body with Miss Brodie for the head. She perceived herself, the absent Jenny, the ever-blamed Mary, Rose, Eunice and Monica, all in a frightening little moment, in unified compliance to the destiny of Miss Brodie, as if God had willed them to birth for that purpose.

She was even more frightened then, by her temptation to be nice to Mary Macgregor, since by this action she would separate herself, and be lonely, and blameable in a more dreadful way than Mary who, although officially the faulty one, was at least inside Miss Brodie’s category of heroines in the making.

And, ominously, Brodie admires Mussolini and the fascists. The novel is set in the 1930s, and we as readers understand just what it means to admire Mussolini. And here are Sandy’s thoughts, shortly after the passage quoted above:

It occurred to Sandy, there at the end of the Middle Meadow Walk, that the Brodie set was Miss Brodie’s fascisti, not to the naked eye, marching along, but all knit together for her need and in another way, marching alone. That was all right, but it seemed, too, that Miss Brodie’s disapproval of the Girl Guides had jealousy in it, there was an inconsistency, a fault. Perhaps the Guides were too much a rival fascisti, and Miss Brodie could not bear it. Sandy thought she might see about joining the Brownies. Then the group-fright seized her again, and it was necessary to put the idea aside, because she loved Miss Brodie.

So Sandy’s struggle with Brodie – her love for her, her admiration for her, her suspicion of her, and eventually her feeling of suffocation because of her – becomes a way of thinking about the larger cultural lure of and struggle with fascism.

The girls’ curiosity about sex is a part of the story too; they try to imagine Brodie with her lovers and figure out the mechanics of sex, and then they observe in fascination as she begins an affair with one instructor, Mr. Lowther, and falls in love with another, Mr. Lloyd. They are both thrilled and horrified. But Brodie crosses a line when she starts scheming to turn the now late-adolescent Rose into Mr. Lloyd’s lover, as a proxy for herself. Sandy is fully aware of what is going on, and reacts in her own, completely unexpected way. Near the end of the novel, she tries to come to terms with what is happening:

She thought of Miss Brodie eight years ago sitting under the elm tree telling her first simple love story and wondered to what extent it was Miss Brodie who had developed complications throughout the years, and to what extent it was her own conception of Miss Brodie that had changed.

It is when Sandy realizes that Brodie “thinks she is Providence … she thinks she is the God of Calvin, she sees the beginning and the end” that she is able to separate herself fully. Sandy is a mysterious character; I’m intrigued by her decision to become a nun, and I’m not sure I fully understand it, except that she has a longing for order, inspired in part by Brodie:

All the time they were under her influence she and her actions were outside the context of right and wrong. It was twenty-five years before Sandy had so far recovered from a creeping vision of disorder that she could look back and recognize that Miss Brodie’s defective sense of self-criticism had not been without its beneficent and enlarging effects …

Sandy seems to shuttle back and forth between longing for order and feeling stifled by an order too powerfully imposed on her. It takes her a long time, and perhaps it also takes the experience of being a nun, to learn to value a fruitful disorder. But this is something that as an adolescent she is not prepared to deal with.

The writing style is spare and economical, and Spark uses repetition – of the girls’ defining characteristics, of the phrase “the prime of life,” – which creates a sense of an incantation, as though she can conjure up a sense of her characters, not through the accretion of detail, but by dwelling on the most telling details over and over again. And she moves around in time, skipping back and forth while the story slowly reveals itself. It’s as though she’s circling around the main point, approaching it from many angles, giving us the story in a disjointed way that over time begins to come together.

I found Sandy’s artistic interests intriguing; here Spark dwells on the way the artist seeks out patterns and creates patterns out of life. Sandy realizes after a while that Brodie embellishes her stories and changes them to suit her moods. In this example, the girls are thinking about Brodie’s retelling of the story of her love affair with Hugh, an event that predates the novel:

This was the first time the girls had heard of Hugh’s artistic leanings. Sandy puzzled over this and took counsel with Jenny, and it came to them both that Miss Brodie was making her new story fit the old. Thereafter the two girls listened with double ears, and the rest of the class with single.

Sandy is fascinated by this method of making patterns with facts, and is divided between her admiration for the technique and the pressing need to prove Miss Brodie guilty of misconduct.

This is the same conflict we saw in Sandy’s response to Brodie’s “group-think,” the lure of Brodie’s cult of personality and the fear of chaos she evokes. Sandy is attracted and repelled by Brodie’s disorder, the willingness to play with facts if this makes a better story, the impulse to shape the world to meet the demands of art.

Spark’s own shaping of the raw materials of life is obvious in the novel; she draws attention through the repetition and the shifts in time to the fact that the novel is a constructed, made thing. She is not straightforwardly “realistic.” Her characters have life and interest, but she is more concerned with locating the patterns of their lives and interactions than with accumulating detail about them, in the way most novels do. Spark does brilliant things with her short form; using just a few details, she creates the sense of real, complete human beings, but her economy of detail also allows the underlying lines and patterns to shine through.

For my thoughts on another Spark novel, Aiding and Abetting, see this post.

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Writers and friends

Stefanie has a post on writers who are her friends, in the sense that while she may not have met the authors – in fact the authors may be dead – she feels a kinship with them because of her impassioned reading of their books. And Litlove has a post on books as friends and lovers – the seductions of reading, what she calls “literature as mental kissing.”

And how can a reader not like these analogies? When we read a book we make friends with it, or we make friends with the author, or we are seduced by the author or by the author’s words, even if the books are disreputable and the seduction slightly scandalous.

As I’m sure many readers do, I occasionally think about what would happen if I could actually meet an author in the flesh, even one who is dead, not just encounter his or her books. And I sometimes conclude that those authors who feel like my friends when I’m reading their books probably wouldn’t have a whole lot to do with me if I met them in real life. I don’t say this to be self-deprecating; it’s just the way it is.

In Stefanie’s sense, Virginia Woolf is one of my best friends. She’s brilliant, period, but she’s especially brilliant when it comes to understanding and writing about people. She has that kind of intelligence that can capture just what it feels like to be stuck inside one’s brain. I value all kinds of intelligence, but to me, somehow, emotional intelligence, people intelligence, is the most interesting, most important kind, and Woolf has this in abundance. Mrs. Ramsay at the dinner table is a revelation for me. And her writing voice is exquisite – her essays are so companionable, so everyday in their language, but so filled with beauty and insight I’m astonished. Check out, for example, this quotation, posted on Kate’s Book Blog.

But if we were to meet at a party? She’d probably ignore me.

I suspect the same is true with another one of my reading friends, Mary McCarthy. I admire her sharp satirical wit. She, like Woolf, has a courageous, clear, confessional-but-self-confident voice in her essays that I find irresistible. I love her reputation for being devastatingly, brilliantly mean. Now that I think about it, if I met McCarthy, I might consider myself lucky to be ignored. She’s a great hypothetical companion, a strictly reading friend, but in real life … maybe not.

Probably I feel this way because I idolize these writers so much I just assume they are too wonderful for the likes of me. And time gives authors an aura of untouchability because … well, because they’re dead and untouchable. We generally don’t feel quite the same way about authors who are still alive and can still do stupid things and write bad books. And there’s no reason for me to change my impression of the dead authors because I’ll never meet them to find out otherwise.

And then there’s Jane Austen, who must be my best reading friend ever. She’s a true comfort read for me, someone I’d turn to if I wanted something known and familiar and soothing. I’m not sure if we’d get along if we actually met, but I think my chances are better with her than with the others. She does have the satirical wit I like in McCarthy; you can see it in the way she cuts those mean, miserly, small-spirited minor characters to shreds in her novels. Perhaps this is something I could share with her, however, instead of being overwhelmed by it and a little bit frightened, as I’m afraid I would with McCarthy.

I told a friend of mine one time that I sometimes see glimpses of myself in those minor characters Austen satirizes. I wasn’t saying I’m like them, just that Austen captures their flaws so exactly that it’s possible to see how they might exist in people I know and in me. And this friend reacted all wrong – he looked a little bit worried and muttered something that implied, “wow, that’s a big admission to make.” I thought, no, you’ve got it wrong. I’m not saying I’m a terrible person; I’m just saying I have flaws and I’m capable of recognizing flaws I share with people who are probably even more flawed than I am. Perhaps what I was saying is that I am a sympathetic reader to a rather ridiculous degree.

I also think that Austen is exaggerating the meanness of people a little bit, as part of her satire and in order to have a little fun, and that even though she has fun making up ridiculously mean people, she also is quite capable of seeing how the good and the bad are all mixed up in normal, everyday people – like me. Which is why we have a chance of being friends I think.

But even if Jane Austen and I didn’t hit it off, even if Woolf ignored me like I’m guessing she would, or if I spent my time with McCarthy trying to keep her from noticing me, they probably would care at least a little bit if I liked their books. And this is my power as a reader – I can make friends with them whether they like it or not.

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On cycling: short and long rides

Well, not a good race for me this week. I only hung on for four laps or so, and then I just couldn’t do it any more. There were a bunch of reasons for this, I think, the main one being that the pack took off much faster than usual. Since I’m usually barely hanging on, if they speed up just a little bit, I’m lost. I heard later that after a while they slowed down, but I couldn’t last that long. I tried to take a break for a couple laps and catch back on (normally this isn’t allowed, I think, but these races are training races and so they encourage it, so riders can get more training), but once I’ve fallen behind, I just don’t have the drive to try once again. Also affecting my performance was my bad eating throughout the day: I’m extremely sensitive about food, so not eating at regular times really messes me up. Plus, it was windy, so if I fell behind from the pack just a bit, I had to work super hard to catch back up, since I was battling the wind.

But I don’t mean to sound like I’m making excuses for myself — I’m simply not in good enough shape. And the truth is, I don’t care that much how I do. I want to be strong, which I am, and I’m not too concerned that there are a whole bunch of people who are stronger than me. Now, if only I could bring that kind of equanimity into the rest of my life, I’d be set. But that’s harder.

So much for the short rides (very short this time around!) — I’m really, really jealous of these people who are doing all kinds of crazy long rides and blogging about them. They are the Ditty Bops, a two-woman band who are touring across the country on their bikes! I mean, touring as in doing shows across the country, and riding from show to show. Doesn’t that sound just great? They are riding about 70-90 miles a day, maybe with some days off thrown in there, I’m not sure.

I’m jealous a little bit of their singing ability (their music is uncategorizable, sort of country, folk, pop, rock … something, and seems good although I haven’t listened to much), but mostly I’m jealous of their cycling trip. I so want to ride my bike across the country. If anyone out there gets a hankering to drive across the country and doesn’t need to do it fast, let me know, because what the Hobgoblin and I need is someone willing to drive along with us to carry our gear while we ride. We could just ride all by ourselves, but carrying a tent and food and clothes on the bike would be very difficult. The best way is to have someone drive and meet us at the stopping spot every night.

I just love thinking about long distance trips like this — on the bike or on foot. I really, really want to hike the whole Appalachian Trail (about 2,100 miles) and the whole Long Trail (much more do-able at 270 miles), and then there’s the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. And on the bike, there’s that cross-country trip, of course, and I want to ride the entire Blue Ridge Parkway through Virginia and North Carolina. And I want to do walking and cycling tours through Europe too.

I’m afraid, though, that the best part about such trips might be the anticipating and planning. I know from the longish backpacking trips I’ve taken (1-2 weeks) that my interest begins to flag after not too long. I’m not sure whether if I stuck with it the pleasure would return or not. I sure would like to give it a try and find out.

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I’ve been thinking about epistolary novels (here and here) — why they are so popular in the 18C and how they work, their narrative possibilities. I came across a passage recently in Patricia Meyer Spacks’s book Privacy on Elizabeth Bennet from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that made me think about it further. She talks about the central plot point where Elizabeth is reading the letter from Darcy explaining his feelings for her.

What’s great about what Austen does here is that she incorporates the epistolary novel into her own work, so that her novel sort of encompasses it and surpasses it. Most of the novel isn’t in the form of letters at all, but at its center Darcy’s letter turns the course of events around completely. This way, Austen can say something about the value of letters while doing her own new thing with the third person narrator and free indirect discourse. This seems so typical of Austen: to take the materials she sees around her, in this case, the epistolary novels of Richardson and Burney and many others, and shape them into brilliant new forms.

It’s a letter that makes Elizabeth realize and recognize her true feelings for Darcy — it’s the letter that seduces her, in a way. And it allows her to “read” Darcy in a way she couldn’t before. With a letter, Darcy can take the time to compose exactly what he wants to say, and Elizabeth can take the time to read it as thoroughly as she wants to. And she has distance from Darcy himself in which to absorb what he’s telling her and to think about it and analyze her response.

And Elizabeth’s reading of the letter is analogous to what readers of the novel do. Here is what Spacks says:

Elizabeth has much at stake in interpreting Darcy’s letter, more by far than anyone coming to terms with a work of fiction. Yet she stands as a model for novel readers. She tells us of the urgency of “private” reading, and of its dangers … Elizabeth’s total immersion in the text and its problems, her effort both to use feeling and to prevent it from overpowering thought, her capacity for imaginative participation and imaginative expansion (she entertains herself by fancying — prophetically — how Lady Catherine might respond to the news of her marriage to Darcy) — the way Elizabeth reads the crucial letter exemplifies the best possibility for interpretation.

So Elizabeth becomes a model for careful, imaginative, sympathetic reading. And she reads not only Darcy’s letter, but other people as well, or, rather, she learns how to read other people, because the whole plot hinges on her initial misreading of Darcy, and his misreading of her. As Elizabeth goes through the novel learning lessons in interpretation, so does the reader — we, on a first reading at least, might get things wrong, might form the wrong impression of the characters and have to revise them. The novel is teaching readers to be careful as they form opinions, and that they should be willing to revise their interpretations.

By writing a novel in the third person, Austen can portray the act of reading itself in a way she couldn’t in an epistolary novel. She can draw on the formal innovations of earlier novelists by including letters in her work, but she can also describe Elizabeth out on a walk in the park reading her letter, so that readers can observe her as she reads and, with a narrator who enters the characters’ minds, get a glimpse of her thoughts. Elizabeth reads the letter twice, changing her interpretation of it the second time around; readers get the pleasure of following the twists and turns of her mind as she makes sense of a text, sorting out the false first impressions and the true insights. In this way, Austen can emphasize the act of reading and its importance more than an epistolary novel could.

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One more thing on Evelina

There’s one more thing I’ve been wanting to say about Evelina. I finished the book quite a while ago, so now I want to say my one last thing and put it back on the shelf.

Evelina the character is boring. She’s passive, she’s perfect, she’s dutiful, she’s self-effacing. She doesn’t seem to have a mind of her own. Her story at the end of the novel is entirely predictable. She tells everything there is to tell to her guardian, Villars, which is the way the story gets told, but one wishes for a sense that’s she’s hiding something or has some original thought now and then. But I didn’t find the novel itself boring. The novel’s interest, for me at least, comes from the “bad” characters, the ones Burney satirizes. These people are interesting and funny. They play bad jokes on each other, like dressing up as robbers and pretending to attack other characters, they tell bad jokes, they show ignorance and other characters laugh at them, they are harsh and mean and thoroughly vulgar, as Evelina would say.

But so much of the novel is taken up with descriptions of these characters, that even though the novel’s tone tells me I shouldn’t like them, I’m obviously supposed to enjoy them in some way, or the novel wouldn’t be worth reading and the author wouldn’t have dwelt on them quite so much. Burney satirizes them, and I truly believe we are supposed to laugh at them and determine not to be like them ourselves, but she seems to like them in some way and definitely depends on them for the very existence of the novel.

One character, Mrs. Selwyn, exists somewhere between these poles of good and bad – she is in most ways perfectly respectable, except for her satirical tongue. She loves nothing better than to get into battles of wit, particularly with men who might be tempted to belittle a woman’s sparring ability. Evelina says of her in a letter to her guardian:

You well know, my dear sir, the delight this lady takes in giving way to her satirical humour.

If we are to take Evelina as our guide in figuring out how to judge character, we are to regret Mrs. Selwyn’s sharp tongue as her one “unladylike” characteristic. And yet, if I were to take the quoted sentence above out of context, it would sound exactly like a description of the Frances Burney who wrote the novel. I don’t mean to say that Burney was known in her social circles for being satirical – I don’t know what her reputation was – but if we imagine an author based on the work she produced, we would certainly consider this author to have a sharp satirical wit. Yet the novel seems to be teaching us that women shouldn’t be satirical. Evelina is presented as the model of femininity to aspire to – her only problem is her inexperience in the world and the rest of her trials come from forces outside herself – but the bulk of the novel undermines the value of Evelina’s bland passivity.

At least it does to this twenty-first century reader. What I’m up against is trying to figure out how much of my response comes from my status as a contemporary reader and how much of it comes from Burney’s own attitudes. And this distinction is always very difficult if not impossible to make. It is easy at times to begin to read eighteenth-century novels subversively – to argue, say, that Burney appears to be praising Evelina for embodying eighteenth-century ideals of docile femininity, while she is really pointing out the pleasure to be had from a satirical mind and tongue. It is Burney’s satirical abilities, after all, that helped her gain success as a novelist.

This makes me wish it were easier to know how readers responded to the books they read, and that I knew more about the evidence that does exist for these responses. Otherwise I’m left guessing how an eighteenth-century reader might have reacted to the novel, and that really is just a guess. On one level the author’s intention doesn’t matter – I am free to take from the novel whatever ideas I want to take – but on another level, it’s interesting to consider what effect Burney might have been after, and what effect she had on her first readers.

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This and that

First of all, for those of you interested in our recent conversation on gender, check out Martha Nussbaum’s review of Harvey Mansfield’s ridiculous book Manliness. Nussbaum’s critique (this is being nice — it’s more like destruction than critique) of Mansfield is awesome. Has anyone read any of Nussbaum’s books? When I think of contemporary philosophy I’d like to read, I think of her. (Thanks to Jenny D. for the link.)

Then, there’s one thing I wanted to say about my current read, Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld, which, by the way, I’m enjoying quite a lot. I’m about one third of the way through and sometimes finding it difficult to put down. But after all the talk about teaching (see my previous post for links) and instilling a love of books in students, I was curious to come across a passage that took up the issue, not about exciting a love of reading in students exactly, but about getting students to write with passion. The main character, Lee Fiora, a high school sophomore, has a brand new 22-year-old English teacher who has the class read Whitman’s Song of Myself and then assigns the class an essay in which they are supposed to write 800 words on something that matters to them. They are supposed to take a stand on something. Lee has no idea what to write. Her roommate makes some suggestions — why not write about the death penalty? Abortion? Welfare?

My English-teacher self cringes at this because these topics are always what students turn to when they have no idea what to write. They are safe and expected; you can take a stand on them and no one will be surprised at what you say. Lee agonizes and finally writes her paper on prayer in schools (another safe and predictable choice), but adds a note to the teacher: “This is not an issue I truly care about, but I believe it fulfills the assignment.” This pisses the teacher off, who betrays her youth and inexperience by letting her anger show in class and attacking Lee afterward:

“There’s nothing you feel strongly about? Here you are, you’re going to this incredible school, being given every advantage, and you can’t think of anything that matters to you. What do you plan to do with yourself?”

This is what Lee thinks in response, although she doesn’t say this to the teacher:

And not feel strongly about things? I felt strongly about everything — not just my interactions with people, their posture or their inflections, but also the physical world, the smell of the wind, the overhead lights in the math wing, the precise volume of the radio in the bathroom if it was playing while I brushed my teeth. Everything in the world I liked or disliked, wanted more or less of, wanted to end or to continue. The fact that I had no opinion on, for instance, relations between the U.S. and China did not mean I didn’t feel things.

Lee is capable of writing a Whitmanesque essay on the things that matter to her, but she can’t figure out how to carry her preoccupation with the everyday details of life into a class assignment. In fact, the possibility of writing on something she knows about personally doesn’t even occur to her. If the assignment is to write on something she cares about, how can she have fulfilled the assignment, as her note claims, if she doesn’t care about the issue? But what she writes for class is supposed to matter, and what matters, in her own opinion, is not her life or her personal experience.

This is partly a problem with the teacher, who didn’t communicate to the class what she wanted, and partly a problem with being a high school sophomore — if there’s one thing Sittenfeld describes in great detail, it’s the way high school students will work incredibly hard to avoid taking risks and being vulnerable, especially in an essay for English class — but it’s sad that Lee keeps the rich world of her mind so closed off from everyone around her. It would be a true pedagogical triumph to get Lee to write an essay on something she cares about, on people or conversation or the physical world around her. She would write beautifully.

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Ways of reading

There’s a really interesting conversation on reading and teaching literature going on over at Litlove’s blog: check out this post on Huck Finn and make sure to read the comments, and then check out this and this follow-up post on teaching literature. The Hobgoblin is writing about it too: check out these two posts, and over at Reading Matters they are discussing getting turned off of books in high school: see this and this. There seems to be a lot of interest in the topic; people are considering ways to inspire a love of reading in students instead of destroying the experience for them, as too often happens, and they are writing about academic and non-academic, or general, or “common,” ways of reading and the relationship between the two.

For me, I had a wonderful undergraduate experience of studying literature, and what I remember most is the passionate way some of my professors spoke about what we were reading. In the best classes, there was no divide between emotion and intellect; these professors modeled a way of responding to literature that was smart and academic and intellectual, but was also personal. I remember a friend with whom I shared a class saying that we weren’t taking a class in the Modern European Novel, we were taking a class in Literature and Life. And it felt that way – the professor wasn’t afraid to make connections between what we were reading and his own life and he encouraged us to make our own such connections. The critical theory class I took was a bit less personal, but we still had the feeling that what we were doing was less reading up on critical theory and more trying to gain some wisdom about the world. Now, this department had a pretty traditional, conservative approach to the discipline, one that I learned how to critique in grad school, but I am very grateful for the things I read and the things I learned – even those things, maybe especially those things, my teachers didn’t set out to teach me.

I didn’t see this passionate, emotional approach in grad school all that much. In my undergrad years, I felt that we were encouraged to read and think and write with our whole beings, but in grad school, this attitude was more embarrassing than anything else. My first impulse is to say, well, grad school is the time students get professional about the discipline, and so there’s less room for the emotional stuff. But that’s wrong – what I really think is that the way grad school can squeeze the passion out of some people is a very sad thing. The difficulty comes partly from the theoretical environment of the time – I am very interested in theory, but some kinds of theory make it difficult to talk about emotion and personal responses and the big questions of life and our personal stakes in our reading without feeling naïve. And grad school doesn’t encourage risk-taking or vulnerability; on the contrary, it can be so hard on the ego that students are left not knowing what to think or what they like anymore.

I also think our understanding of what it means to be professional shouldn’t include being emotionless and dry. Becoming a professional shouldn’t involve chopping oneself up into discrete sections – mind here, heart there; academic reading here, fun reading there (to be kept secret); dry critical prose here, personal writing there (also to be kept secret).

And, moving away from the world of academia, I think book blogs are places where people can, if they are interested, combine intellectual and personal approaches to reading. I think of my own blog as a place to explore ideas – maybe even serious, theoretical ideas – and also as a place to talk about how much I love books and how much fun it is to be a reader and how I react to books personally, and also as a place to remind myself that I do more than read and think, that I have a body that needs to go out and ride a bike regularly.

One of the things I love best about blogging is the way it brings together people from such diverse backgrounds, so we can have a conversation about books and reading that includes people with all levels of academic training, from those who stopped studying English after high school or their college Introduction to Literature course to those who have a PhD. Everyone benefits from this. From what I have seen, book conversations in academic departments can too often turn into competition and intellectual posturing and people forget their enthusiasm about books. Academics can benefit from remembering the much broader world of enthusiastic reading and writing that goes on outside the university. And I think there are lots of non-academic readers who are eager to hear about the ideas and theories academics have read and thought up. We too easily forget that we all have something to teach each other.

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