After a full day of discussion of English literature, seven hours worth between a course and a seminar, the literature that I attempt to read outside of these classes start to fall into thematic patterns or continually evoke quintessential literary questions. The dark side to being a major is the struggle to leave behind critical analysis and separate the student from the reader. (Even my words now are attempting to take the shape of formal thought.) The study of English is unique in that way.
Reading can often blossom from childhood – many of us began reading for enjoyment and fulfillment. Few other academic disciplines can claim that they hold a similar connection to students before we became students, especially at Swarthmore. But at some point last year, I realised that I had stopped reading novels, my favorite literary form, for pleasure. I easily consume creative news articles and short stories through online magazines, but I had not completed reading many volumes that I picked up outside of my classes during the semester. Most of my pleasure reading is crammed into the spaces between semesters – books were sprawled all around me when I was home in L.A. for winter break.
When I went abroad to London, a niche for reading was carved out for me since I had an hour commute on the Tube every day into university. I owe greatly to my fellow commuters because it was through them that I serendipitously discovered, and fell in love with, Zadie Smith’s hilarious White Teeth, which I then wrote about my for my capstone senior English essay last semester.
When I returned to Swarthmore, I found it difficult to return to the pattern of reading that I had developed. I asked a friend, a 2008 Swat graduate in English, for a recommended reading list and strategies to create such a niche here. The problem with asking him is that reading is an individual process – everyone has a different method. My friend would sneakily read between classes and under the desk during classes. I chose to call upon a classic convention of reading a few pages before bed every night. The book that I am currently reading was from my friend’s list and is called The Baron in the Trees. I gather that it is a story about warring Italian royal families, but I’m only on page 35.
Even as I was reading, I found myself thinking about the relationship between picturesque details and characterization etc [insert pedantic academic questions]. But then this reading was no longer separate from a class assignment since it placed me in the same mindset that I took during my many hours of class. Pleasure became conflated with study.
Can I put aside my critical eye? (Or “I”? – a bad pun)
An idea came to me during my dance class, African 1. The college offers an astonishing variety of courses, including the conventional ones like Ballet and Modern, but also Salsa, Swing, and Tango. We come to these classes to pause the mind. You can’t think when you dance, not after you have learned and memorized the movements. They become recorded in the muscles and the body gains autonomy when it moves. The moment a dancer attempts to analyze the movements with the mind is when it can all break down.
I’m not sure yet how to translate this process from dancing to reading, but I know that I should unharness the words from my brain and read with – what do you call it – spirit? Intuition? The soul? Something deeper than the intellect and as instinctive as the muscle – the apparatus that inspired my love for the literature and turned me into its student.
PS – Swarthmore is not directly at fault for this. McCabe offers a vast collection of literary titles and every student is a walking bibliography. The next book on my list, from a friend who is not an English major, is Mistress of Spices.
-Ramya Gopal, senior English and Economics major, and Managing Editor for The Daily Gazette