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.
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.
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.