“The Fault in Our Stars”: A Contemplative Review

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Confession #1: I’ve abandoned grad school for almost two years now. You can now count me as one more statistical drop in the ocean of PhD dropouts that the Chronicle of Higher Education periodically laments about.

Confession #2: One of my guilty pleasures these days is reading low-brow popular literature that would have gotten me laughed out of grad school.

When I was still “on the track to tenure track”, I would have balked at the thought of admitting that I read anything less than award-winning, genre-defining, paradigm-shifting Literature-with-a-capital-L. But in defining this sort of self-imposed restriction of what I could read and who I should be, I think I missed the point of why I loved books in the first place.

Sure, people read books to analyze them, to comb them for scraps of historical fact, to glean whispers of their cultural heritage, to build expansive arguments and defend lengthy dissertations on how the production and consumption of literature mirrors Marx’s theories of capitalistic exploitation. That is what English professors and grad students do for a living. For the rest of us (now that I’ve joined your ranks), books are for pleasure, solace, escape, contemplation, inquiry, reflection. We read to learn, to laugh, to feel, to connect with minds beyond space and time. There is no good or bad literature. Only literature that is (or isn’t) useful for understanding and living our lives better.

I could pick at all the literary imperfections of The Fault in Our Stars. Hazel and Augustus sound too much like wannabe English majors, i.e. extensions of the author. Hazel only quotes the kind of canonized poems you’d find in a high school English textbook (“The Red Wheelbarrow,” really?). Augustus has a fetish for playing out metaphors literally, dangling an unlit cigarette in his mouth because it symbolizes his ability to reject the things that could kill him. While the novel features surprisingly complex characters for a young adult romance (being on the edge of death has a way of making you think a lot of existential thoughts), John Green’s downfall is that he gets too enamored with his own tropes and pretty turns of phrases. Great Tumblr quotes to be found throughout, but as a piece of literature, I found The Fault in Our Stars to be a little heavy-handed in its execution overall. 3 out of 5 stars. This would be my opinion as a critic.

And yet, we should still ask the question: Was it useful? Does the novel help people (teens) make sense of their lives any better? Probably so. Even if the questions asked and answered in the book aren’t new or unique at all, even if the message is far from subtle, even if the revelations of the book are not earth-shattering or even particularly profound (to me at least), it must seem deep to the high school freshman or sophomore who is experiencing love or death or both for the first time. “Some infinities are bigger than other infinities” must mean something special to someone somewhere. Just because I’ve grown past the age to appreciate its sentiment and mindset doesn’t mean The Fault in Our Stars isn’t of value.

Perspectives change. You appreciate different things at different ages. I’ve come to believe that looking for potential value – in books, in projects, in people – is more important than analyzing and critiquing for criticism’s sake.

Figs and Hedgehogs

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.  From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.  One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.  I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.  I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

The Bell Jar

Ever since I read The Bell Jar in college, this passage has haunted me. It haunts me because I am greedy and ambitious and picky about what I imagine my life will turn out to be. I used to have a list of alternative careers that I would pursue if I had more one life to live, but in order to keep the figs from wrinkling up at my indecision, I decided to choose just one and pursue it with all my might. I shut all the other options out because I was certain that I wanted to be a hedgehog and not a fox (a la Archilochus). I wanted to be the best at one big thing, rather than know many things. I didn’t want to be a jack-of-all-trades, a master of none.

But I am also greedy. And even as I hold the fruit that is already in my hands, I mourn the loss of all the other possibilities life could have held for me. I could have been a travel photographer. I could have been a screenwriter. I could have been an art gallery curator or a hot-shot editor for The New Yorker. But I was afraid. Afraid of picking the wrong path. Afraid of failing. “I wanted each and every one of them,” but somehow I felt that “choosing one meant losing all the rest.” And I think the indecision comes from the fear of choosing wrong, the fear that you can’t see where this narrative arc will lead you.

This is not to say that academia was a safe choice or a second choice. In fact, of all the figs, I probably picked the most ridiculously difficult one to attain (especially given current trends, i.e. the odds of securing a tenure-track job are at ~8% and dropping nationwide and the academy has begun responding by accepting fewer PhD students each year). And this is also not to say that I regret it or that I feel as if I’ve picked wrong. But to some degree, I feel like, in my fear that indecision and wavering would cause me to freeze up and stagnate, I failed to give myself the space to play around with different options and to explore what was really possible.

I chose the path that I am currently on my senior year in high school. And the truth is, I’ve been afraid to look back and reassess that decision, to open myself up to the entire fig tree again and say, “pick again.” More and more though, I think I see the necessity of facing that uncertainty and diving into new territory. In doing so, I think this will be more of a recalibration than a complete overhaul, an adjustment of sorts. But I want to give myself the option of pursuing other things, smashing unconnected topics and fields together, and seeing what will become of it all.

I want to allow myself to not plan because there’s no way I can possibly know where things will lead. I just want to be passionate about the things that I love and not worry just yet about how it will all fit together. And somehow, I think this will open doors that I didn’t know existed and – hopefully – lead to a happier me in the end. I think it’s time to stop doing what “makes sense” and just do what gets me excited in the morning.

This is all a very convoluted way of saying that the way I do my scholarship is about to change dramatically (starting with my oral exam lists) and I hope you (and my graduate program) will bear with me long enough to see exactly why this is the best move for me.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

- Steve Jobs

Some laughs and an update.

Courtesy of xkcd.

Courtesy of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

Two literature references in a row from my two favorite nerdy web-comics. I think this is a good sign that November is going to be an awesome month.

In other news, you can now sign up for the class I’m teaching in Spring semester. It’s been a crazy busy semester and I haven’t really had a chance to blog about my teaching experiences so far, but I will say that I really love it and it’s honestly the best part of my week. My students are adorable and they warm my heart so very much. It also helps that they’re pretty darn smart. :]

Petrarch, Canzoniere 19

Animals exist on earth of such courageous

sight that they dare to face even the sun;

others, because they’re harmed by such great light,

do not come out until the sun is setting;

and others in their mad desire hoping

for joy in fire, perhaps because it glows,

learn of its other power, that of burning.

Alas, my place is with this latter race!

I am not strong enough to face the light

of this lady; I cannot shield myself

in shadowed places or in evening hours;

and so with eyes of tears and weariness

my destiny directs me to behold her,

and well I know I follow what will burn me.

(translated by Mark Musa)

I wish I could read this in the original Italian (SLI 2.0?). For my Renaissance Poetry class, we’ve been assigned to read the first 263 poems of Petrarch’s Canzoniere this week and the sonnets pretty quickly start to feel monotonous and run into one another. Laura’s eyes, her gaze, Petrarch’s suffering, his unconsummated desire. We get it. Move on. But every now and then, Petrarch jolts you with an image that just sticks and makes you want to hear the language, to imagine the way it would sound to recite this to a lover, to feel the pleasant rhythm of the Italian as it rolls off the tongue.

Cool Beans

So… I keep promising to update more regularly, and then I disappear for a number of months. What’s up with that? It’s probably because I never pinky promised and only pinky promises make for binding contracts. :P In all seriousness though, grad school has me pretty swamped and a lot has changed in my life since I last posted (I’d like to think I’ve grown up a bit). I probably won’t be able to write that much the rest of this semester since paper season is upon us, but I thought this was exciting enough to share: I’m officially signed up to TA a Shakespeare class! That’s right. If you’re an undergrad at UVA, you can now sign up for my discussion section. Awesome possum.

Said and Aforesaid

From the Coroner’s Inquest on Marlowe, 1 June 1593 (following a detailed description of the events leading up to the murder of Christopher Marlowe):

“And thus it befell in that affray that the said Ingram, in defense of his life and with the aforesaid dagger of the value of 12 pence, gave the aforesaid Christopher then and there a mortal wound above his right eye of the depth of two inches and of the breadth of one inch, of which same mortal wound the aforesaid Christopher Morley then and there instantly died. And thus the aforesaid jurors say upon their oath that the aforesaid Ingram killed the aforesaid Christopher Morley the aforesaid thirtieth day of May in the thirty fifth year abovementioned in the aforesaid Detford Strand in the aforesaid county of Kent within the verge in the room aforesaid within the verge in the manner and form aforesaid in defense and for the salvation of his life, against the peace of the said lady the Queen, her present crown and dignity.”

And this is why sentences in early modern English are so very, very, very long. At least it gets rid of any ambiguity… Right???

Growing Up 101

Confession: I am a young’un. It just became legal for me to buy alcohol four months ago. I became a first-time car owner at the beginning of this month (it may take years before I can successfully parallel park). The apartment that I live in is the first real lease I’ve ever signed. I’ve never gotten a real monthly paycheck and I’ve never paid taxes. I have just recently mastered getting gas and buying groceries alone (which isn’t quite the same as walking with your roommates into Westwood to get some bread and milk). This is my first time living completely on my own. And I am so so far away from home. In terms of work and life experience, I am a baby compared to the actual adults in the program, many of whom have taught before and several of whom are married. Oddly enough, I’m not very worried about the school aspect of things. I just don’t feel up-to-speed on how to be a grown-up.

Hopefully I’ll get the hang of things soon enough, but whenever I feel young and intimidated, I plan to remind myself of this quote:

“I began by acting like the person I wanted to be, and eventually I became that person.” — Cary Grant

I may be one of the youngest kids in the incoming class, but I’m going to prove that I can run with the big dogs. :)

Dear Brain,

I know you are probably already pretty tired from moving your life across the country, starting grad school, and having to deal with all the new pressures of adult life. Not much is required of you just yet, but somehow you feel just a little on edge. You wonder if you will like it in this strange new town and try to fathom how the next five years will pan out. You try to stay calm and act as if you are cool, collected, and confident, but the truth is you are kind of maybe just a little sort of scared sh-tless.

So I thought I’d give you a pep talk and remind you to chill out. To quote the great (albeit eccentric) Bear Grylls, “Keeping morale up is the key to survival.” For Bear Grylls, this means making a nice warm fire and catching (and roasting) some poor critter. For you, this might mean drinking in the gorgeous view of the “Harry Potter room” in Alderman library or seeking out super tasty (and cheap!) seafood in downtown Charlottesville. Indeed, sometimes all it takes is a nice hearty meal to clear away the frustrations of a particularly grueling day. Whatever ritual you develop, find the sparkle in each day and just keep trekking onward. Grad school may be daunting, but as long as you stay positive (you and I both know that is when you are most productive), things will go along swimmingly.

Grad school is going to be puddle-wonderful. You’ll see.

Sincerely,

Tummy

Burning the Midnight Oil

“… until the mind can love, and admire, and trust, and hope, and endure, reasoned principles of moral conduct are seeds cast upon the highway of life which the unconscious passenger tramples into dust, although they would bear the harvest of his happiness.”

- Percy Bysshe Shelley, Preface to Prometheus Unbound

I am currently in the middle of writing an essay, but I just had to post this quote. Sometimes, even when you’re busy scrambling to finish a paper or take a test or just get through the reading so you can go to bed, you come across a passage that makes you pause and just go, “Wow.” And then, if you happen to have a blog, you hurry to copy it into a post so that you can preserve that serendipitous feeling of finding some sort of glorious treasure hidden in plain sight. :]

In other news, this time tomorrow, I will be officially free of UCLA library books for the first time in over a year! Super exciting. But perhaps not as exciting as winning this! Let’s hope I get these papers done, do well on my finals, and finally get to the fun business of graduating.