The Downside to Studying Literature

Actually I didn’t want my English degree. I wanted to study French and Philosophy. Once my mother had finished laughing, she told me I was being ridiculous. If I wanted to be a writer in English, I should study English literature. I guess she was right. I went off to do a BA in English and French and apart from the year my grandmother died when I briefly considered medical school so I could become an oncologist, I stuck with it. Even if I did occasionally gaze longingly up at the Philosophy Department.

But there was a slight downside to the English degree. It cost me something very important. Something it took me almost four years to get back.

Do you know the best way to get a child to hate reading?

Get them to write a book report.

Seriously, of all the pointless activities that school can dream up, book reports are some of the worst. Nothing kills your joy of reading more than knowing you have to churn out a couple of pages about it afterwards. There has to be a better way to get children to read and then think about what they’ve read.

When I got my first reading list I was incredibly excited by that long list of titles I would have to procure. None of the books I read that first year became favourites, and the only one I remember from the second year is Madame Bovary. Every so often, when I catch myself acting a little too much like Emma, I make myself re-read it. You know what I mean, sometimes it’s easy to imagine how much more exciting a dull life would be if you could only have a different hair colour, a different address, a different style.

jennifer jones madame bovary

The third year I spent in France and the less said about that the better.

I read so many books during those few years that I had absolutely no interest in and now have no memory of. Great writers who were part of the curriculum because great writers should be. Reading for pleasure quickly became non-existent. Our radical French lecturer was very much against the idea of any kind of literary canon. We studied prison narratives, Foucault and Albertine Sarrazin who wrote, ‘En taule, le bic c’est mon flingue.’ Which means all writers have to love the French because they even have a slang term for a pen. Actually it means, ‘On the inside, the pen is my piece.’ From there I dove into Derrida and was enthralled by the idea of meaning being both different and deferred.

But in the final year of my English degree I landed one exciting module. It was entitled Black Women Writers of the USA. Then I read, and not just for the coursework, but for pleasure. I adored the beautifully crafted pages of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston. Almost four years after my degree began, I learned to love reading again.

Toni Morrison Alice Walker Maya Angelou

I’ve started to get the feeling I’m rambling a little but I do have a point.

When you love something, focus on the doing the thing you love, not the peripheral things that are like it but still not quite it. Otherwise they will kill your passion faster than you can say Complete Works of Shakespeare. My radical French professor would have quit her job in minutes if they had made her teach Molière and Voltaire. Don’t read books because you feel you have to, read them because you want to. If you want to bake cakes, don’t spend months learning how to sauté potatoes.

And if you do wind up doing a degree in literature, savour some time to read the books you love. Don’t let reading books steal away your love for them.

Since this is Black History Month in the US, I thought it was the perfect time to re-read some old favourites from the only module I enjoyed during my English degree.

I’ll just make myself tea and get the chocolate Hob Nobs from their secret hiding place.

Author: Eva O'Reilly

Writer, avid reader, large dog lover, cake baker and Francophile. Living in hope of finding either a literary agent or a large audience on Amazon.

20 thoughts on “The Downside to Studying Literature

  1. I would completely agree with the book report being pointless and a sure way to get someone to hate reading. I used to really like reading as a kid until 6th grade when our teacher forced us to read 40 book during the school year and then write summarizing reports after each one. Granted they were not extremely difficult books, but at the time it made me hate reading and I haven’t really enjoyed it since. I enjoyed your post, thanks for sharing!

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  2. I can relate to this a lot! I found it really hard to read for pleasure when I did my English degree and a lot of what I was reading I didn’t enjoy (I also really relate to you enjoying Hurston- that was one of the best books on my American literature course- sadly I didn’t have Morrison on the list, but I’ve since read and loved her work)

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  3. I never read much as a child (the evidence is my writing), at least not for pleasure. Later, through course work, I was able to read quite a bit whether I wanted to or not. When in I was in college I, for reasons I still can’t figure out, I decided Philosophy would make a great minor (it didn’t). But boy did I love that reading. I think I see many books now through the eyes of someone looking for the philosophy behind it all. I don’t like a story if it doesn’t tell a story, if that makes any sense. Later when I became a cop there was little time for reading anything but police reports and investigative cases. Those are just stories stripped down to “just the facts” without regard to anything else. Even when I write now (the real stories, not my blog) I sometimes see the police report writer coming out in me. Someday I will leave that behind. Anyways, great post and I am for reading what you love. Not enough people do that. Great post. -Robert

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks 🙂
      I love reading your posts so you must just have a natural talent for writing, not one nurtured by years spent wading through other people’s books. I definitely think you should do something with that. Maybe a novel drawing on your experiences as a cop?

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      1. I’ve got a few things in the works. Hoping to get something published this year. One is humorous book about stuff my daughter has said over the years “Blonde Moments”, another is collection of stories about homicide cases I have worked, and another is a collection of stories about people (convicts) I have met over the years (and how, sometimes, they are not that different from us). The first 2 I want to self publish. I have had some inquiries from some publishers about the last one. I’ve also getting some of my short stories (about my childhood along the border, that’s a thing now, lol) published in a few University magazines and anthologies this year. So I’m all over it. At least I think I am. I promised my daughter I would have a book for her to hold in her hand (not read, but just hold in her hand) so I am ready to jump in finally after about 5 years of pretending to write. Do you have a book? I would love to read it if you do. I love your writing voice. – Robert

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      2. Wow! Sounds like this is going to be a great year for you. I definitely want to read them all when they come out, I love your writing style.
        I have a book on Amazon, also self-published. I wanted to tell the story I’m writing now but the more I planned the bigger the backstory became and it turned into a prequel 🙂 I’ve got behind on my writing a lot the last few years but I really feel I’m back on track now.

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      3. That’s awesome I will go look for your book. And hey, this discussion gave me the idea to write post about the books I have in progress. I scheduled it to publish at 8 this morning. If you want to check it out you’ll see a few small quotes from some of the books. So far, all my books are non-fiction. Not the most popular of genres, but I still haven’t been bitten by the fiction bug. Too much drama in real life to have to go make any up. lol. Hope you are having a great writing week! – Robert

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  4. I dunno. That’s part of the fun. I like deconstructing, pulling it apart to see what’s inside. But yeah, after my English degree, I didn’t read for years.

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  5. With all due respect to your wonderful mother, if you want to be a writer in a English you need to read. An English degree can help possibly bring you deeper and deeper into the material than you might get to by yourself, but of the countless writers that do or have written in English you will find that only a fraction have studied English. In my field a great many are scientists

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    1. I agree.
      If I were choosing my degree now, I would choose very differently. Actually I might choose to become a pastry chef instead. But the more we read, the more we learn. Looking back on my English degree, it introduced me to some incredible writers but whether it taught me to be a better writer … that I couldn’t say. Which probably means no.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I write science fiction. Many who write that are professional scientists without English degrees. I’ve noted a lot of former journalists, as well. It just goes to show you don’t need an English education to become a writer

        Liked by 1 person

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