Ella Kelley recently sent me a great article by a U.Va. professor about why every college student should be an English major. Check it out here: http://chronicle.com/article/The-Ideal-English-Major/140553/
When I was in college, it felt that the three logical concentrations for me were English, journalism and philosophy. I thought journalism was too much of a “trade school” and I thought the English majors were generally smarter than the journalism majors. (I was kind of right about that.) I also knew I was nowhere near smart enough for the philosophy classes. So I landed in English classes with lots of books to read, few of which would ever be finished. I was a poor excuse for an English major. I’m a slow, lousy reader. I don’t understand poems and I’m not smart enough to enjoy or even read literary writing. There were things I loved in my English classes, but too much was over my head. No book ever changed my life. I don’t have a treasured memory of some childhood book I’ll never forget. (Our son Jason was an English major. He actually wanted to be a Theater Tech major, but Yale didn’t offer that at an undergraduate level, so he figured English would at least give him a good grounding in plays. He was a better reader at 10 years old than I ever was in my life.)
I regret now how stupid I was about some of these things. For some reason I felt books should give the same kind of easy enjoyment you get from movies or tv. The books I loved most did that: they were the contemporary best sellers. You didn’t have to work to get anything out of them. I loved studying Shakespeare because I liked the way he brought language, psychology, philosophy and human behavior together in the creation of interesting, complicated characters. But I didn’t particularly like reading Shakespeare or watching the plays; the language was too much of a stumbling block. To this day I think Aaron Sorkin, Vince Gilligan, David Chase or David Simon should translate the tragedies and histories into modern English. (That’s done sometimes, of course, but usually not very well. I bet these guys could do it well: aren’t Tony Soprano, Walter White and Jimmy McNulty Shakespearean in their complexity?)
I hate it that I was years past my college days before I developed a deep curiosity about life. I shouldn’t have majored in anything. I ended up in a career that didn’t require any specific undergraduate study. (Today it’s harder to get into advertising without a master’s degree.) I should have been inspired by and given a basis for thinking about a wide range of subjects—English, yes, but also science, history, philosophy, business, governance, religion, journalism, civil rights and many more. At the end of four years, let’s not pretend I was an expert in anything. It would have been far more exciting to be a beginner in everything.
People should “major” (in school or in life) in the topics they love intellectually–the things that pique their curiosity and encourage self-examined lives. That could be most anything. In his essay on “The Ideal English Major,” Professor Mark Edmundson makes an awfully good case that literature classes can put you on a path to being a better human being. While I’m not sure most of us could accomplish that in a four-year program, it’s exactly what we should be doing with our lives.
I confess that I haven’t read any of the literary greats he names in the essay since my collegiate years. (One exception: I do read and recommend John Jeremiah Sullivan, but he’s mentioned in a different context.)
As I said in my “Book report” post a couple of weeks ago, I mainly read newspapers and magazines. I think the best writing in the world right now is in long-form tv (Breaking Bad!) and The New Yorker.
It can be a little balky at times, but I love the Next Issue magazine app. My favorite N.I. titles are New York, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, Time, Vanity Fair and Wired. I can usually find something to love in Bloomberg Businessweek, Esquire, Fast Company, GQ and Newsweek. I can sometimes find great things in Popular Science or Sports Illustrated. I’ve gone to Entertainment Weekly for the back-of-book reviews since the magazine was launched, but lately I’m more likely to go to Rotten Tomatoes first. (I probably shouldn’t admit this, but Next Issue makes it easy to skip the ads in magazine. Which I do a lot.)
The Atlantic, The Economist, The New York Times Sunday Magazine and Harper’s aren’t available through Next Issue so I read those the old fashioned way. The New York Review of Books is fabulous; it’s just hard to add another newspaper/magazine to my list.
Of course, there’s no way I read everything in the magazines. I skip the fashion and celebrity stuff (unless the celebrity is one of the senior citizens I like—Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Dylan, etc.) And I’m pretty random about the real life horror stories of violence, rape, murder, torture and war: I do get a steady diet of those things, but I get frustrated that I can’t keep them straight. (This week it’s Syria, right? Chemical weapons and absolutely no solutions? Now where is Syria, exactly? Asia? Europe? Africa? I thought it was inexcusable that the world did nothing while a million Rwandans lost their lives to genocide. Is that what we’re doing now in Syria? What does “doing something” mean? Does it mean more people will die?)
I try to read things that challenge my basic liberal beliefs, but it’s hard. It feels like all the good guys—and certainly all the smart guys—believe in science and facts. Can’t we tell the journalists who are trying to get it right? Aren’t they the ones writing for the magazines I love?