Adena Spingarn ’03 is a graduate student in English literature at Harvard University.
When I was a kid, Pizza Hut sponsored a reading program (apparently still in existence) in which every five books read merited a star sticker, and every five stickers earned a free personal pan pizza. My family ended up spending an inordinate amount of time at Pizza Hut. I was a quick and constant reader, and though I had a vague sense that not all books were created equal, for the most part I didn’t discriminate. I loved almost everything I read, from popular serials like The Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley Twins to traditional and contemporary classics from Frances Hodgson Burnett and Lois Lowry. My idea of earthly paradise was unlimited books and plenty of free time to read them.
That kind of paradise is what I got this past summer, more or less. As a doctoral student in English literature preparing for my qualifying exam, my task for the summer was to read more than 100 books, chosen by Harvard’s powers that be, spanning the course of English literature. Beginning with Beowulf and ending with J.M. Coetzee’s 1999 novel Disgrace, the list included plenty of epic works: Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Melville’s Moby Dick, and Joyce’s Ulysses among them. It all culminated in September with a 75-minute oral exam given by a panel of three tenured professors in which any aspect of a work, factual or analytical, was fair game.
Spending the summer reading great books would have been an electrifying proposition to me as a child, and it was exciting, if daunting, even now. But the more than three months I spent reading at full throttle — seated upright in the frigid library to stay awake, my pencil at the ready, taking notes — had little in common with the blissful way I read as a child.
In his epic autobiographical poem, The Prelude (another work on my reading list), the Romantic poet William Wordsworth describes the intensity of his childhood passion for reading. As an adult with a Cambridge education, he cringes at how terrible some of his once-beloved books actually are. And yet, they retain an almost magical emotional residue that books encountered as an adult cannot equal. There is something lost, he admits, in the educated approach to reading.
In my evolution from Dr. Seuss to a doctoral program, not only have the books I like to read changed, but so have why and how I do. When I was a child, books never lasted as long as I wanted them to. I felt cursed by my speedy reading pace, which often propelled me through two or three young adult novels in a day. I read my books over and over again, to the extent that each became associated with a particular feeling or mood: Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved was right for times when I felt alienated and misunderstood, while the sumptuous descriptions of Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy were like window-shopping on Madison Avenue.
As a child and then as an adolescent, I was less interested in plot than I was in characters and feelings that seemed tied to my own experiences. Many of the books I loved best and read most during my childhood were narrated by dark-haired, overserious young women who struggled with jealous love of their exuberant, golden-haired sisters. (My younger sister’s childhood nickname was Goldilocks.) As an ambivalent Jew trying to conform to the mostly Christian population at my middle and high schools, I binged on novels by conflicted Jewish writers like Chaim Potok and Philip Roth. Toward the end of high school, when the pressure of AP tests and college applications became overwhelming, my parents occasionally would allow me to take a few days off from school (they knew me too well to worry that my grades would slip) — most of which I would spend reading novels in bed.
In high school, if not earlier, most students learn that there is more to be said after reading a book than whether or not one liked it. During my freshman year, I learned to write clunky, five-paragraph essays on heavily symbolic novels like Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Sophomore year, my English teacher, Mrs. Fletcher, taught my class that novels had a literary formula and system that could be unlocked to unearth what the author was really trying to say. Red, for example, symbolized anger. And Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, All Quiet On the Western Front, made a handful of very specific points: that war was hard, for one.
But this didn’t seem right to me. If a novel could be boiled down to a few identifiable messages, why bother going on for so many pages? Realizing that an argument about a literary work could never be true, but only well-argued, I started having fun with my essays: When my junior-year English teacher taught us that Macbeth failed because he was too ambitious, I wrote an essay arguing that he had not been ambitious enough, at least according to Machiavellian precepts. Books were no longer simply emotional experiences, but also opportunities for intellectual play. Both of these aspects of reading were crucial to my becoming an English major at Princeton and, ultimately, a doctoral student in English literature.
Though most students of literature are both intellectual and emotional readers, graduate English programs tend to be more interested in developing one facet of reading than the other. (Guess which.) English departments probably take for granted that future literary critics are book lovers, but in graduate school, there is little time to savor a text. This summer, for example, I had so much to read that I could give Moby Dick and Ulysses each only three days. Zooming through text after text, sometimes I wondered whether the intellectual rigor of graduate school had deadened me to the emotional pleasure of reading. It’s difficult to fall in love while speed-dating.
But love doesn’t always come at first sight. I discovered this at Princeton, where my English professors’ lectures not only brought extra meaning to the books I’d already enjoyed, but also sometimes made me retroactively love works I hadn’t appreciated at first. And so, in the last week before my exam, as I reviewed my notes on all the books that had been marinating in my mind all summer, I began to feel intensely connected to the evolving narrative of English literature, to the threads I had followed, in their twists and turns, through periods and genres. Though I’d loved only a handful of the books on the list while reading them, by the end of the summer, I’d somehow fallen in love with English literature as a whole. And I passed the exam. Even as my relationship with books becomes increasingly complicated, it endures.