Life in a Cardboard Box

“What is research, but a blind date with knowledge?” – Will Henry

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As an English major, one of the questions I hear most often is: “What do you plan to do with your major?” and other variations of “What do you want to do with your life?” These well-meaning skeptics tend to appear in the form of Asians, pre-professional majors, and engineers. At Thanksgiving gatherings with family friends, I get either the sympathetic stares reserved for “Girl-Destined-To-Live-In-A-Cardboard-Box” or eager suggestions for me to go to law school or switch to business. It seems to me that most people look at college as more of a vocational school than a center of knowledge and exploration, intended to advance our understanding of the world we live in and acquaint ourselves with the greatest minds of human history.

Of course practical preparation for the real world is important. There’s no doubt that necessity and therefore money is a powerful motivating force. But I can’t help but think that there’s something more to life than “bread and butter.” Like the ascetics of Buddhism, I tend to believe that materialism and physical needs are paltry compared to our spiritual well-being and somehow, even though I understand the benefits, I can’t bring myself to forsake my intellectual interests for a bigger wallet (not that I’m against money in general – if you happen to love a subject that also brings in the big bucks, more power to you).

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However, despite the inconveniences of always having to defend my major, I do think that it is a valid question. Why literature? Why research? Why academia? There seems to be a strain of anti-intellectualism in America that discourages the life of the mind, the pursuit of the Ivory Tower. The common thought is that spending too much time in scholarly endeavors renders one useless in the actual society, but personally, I think this is an unfair stereotype. I don’t think there is anything more pure and beautiful than the pursuit of knowledge and truth.

A couple weeks ago, I bought a stack of books from an English Department book sale, one of which being The Art of Literary Research by Richard D. Altick (1975). The pages are yellowed and the book has that old library smell, but I like flipping through it whenever I’m having an academia-induced anxiety attack. One quote at the very beginning of the book I think sums up the attraction of studying literature:

“In no other subject is the pupil brought more immediately and continuously into contact with original sources, the actual material of his study. In no other subject is he so able and so bound to make his own selection of the material he wishes to discuss, or able so confidently to check the statements of authorities against the documents on which they are based. No other study involves him so necessarily in ancillary disciplines. Most important of all, no other study touches his own life at so many points and more illuminates the world of his own daily experience” – Helen Gardner, “The Academic Study of English Literature,” Critical Quarterly, I (1959).

These factors led me to the study of literature and they are also what keeps me here. I’ve been given advice to just fulfill my intellectual curiosity in college and then go out and get “a real job,” but I don’t really see how I can do that. You can’t really satisfy a thirst for learning in four meager years, or even in a lifetime. In the final (and my favorite) chapter, Altick describes “The Scholar’s Life” and every time I read it, I’m reminded of why I want to spend my life in academia.

“The scholar really never ceases being a scholar. He may firmly lock his office door at the end of the day, but he never locks or sequesters his intellect. Consciously or subconsciously he continues to mull over the problems his restless curiosity about books and history has set loose in his mind, and sometimes, at the oddest moments – at 3 A.M. or while taking a shower – a bright new idea may come to him from nowhere… The bookish excitement that has led them into the profession permeates their lives.”

“No other profession offers so legitimate an excuse for reading great literature. And though the siren song of research may lead us to spend many hours in realms far removed from art, if we learn our lesson correctly, they may sharpen our understanding and appreciation of the masterpieces to which we are devoted.”

“Though time is always short, we have the lifelong company of books; and what is more, we have good human companionship… Love of books and a consuming interest in the intellectual and esthetic questions they pose make brothers of men with amazingly different backgrounds and tastes. In scholarship there is no prejudice born of national origin, creed, color, or social class; we live in the truest democracy of all, the democracy of the intellect.”

I’m willing to concede that Altick’s portrayal of a career in literary scholarship may be a bit idealized, but I think its a beautiful ideal to aspire to. At its best, research can be infinitely rewarding.

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(Clearly, I have not been disillusioned yet.)

On a final note: Who else is really depressed about Pushing Daisies being cancelled? Let’s mope together with some pie (dosed with homeopathic mood-enhancers), knitting, and pop-up books. ūüė¶

Confessions of a Theatre Usher

Before the Grammar Nazis come after me, I’d like to absolve myself by saying that I like to spell certain words the British way – i.e. theatre, realise, grey, etc.¬†– It’s my thing, deal with it.

Also, I’d like to draw your attention to my new banner :]¬†(I love MS paint!), which I am quite proud of since I usually get someone to do this type of thing for me.¬†See if you can recognize any of the pictures! Finally, given the frequency that I hope to be attending performances/lectures/readings this year, I’ve added a new category “Stage Spy” for my reviews/thoughts on the¬†events that I go to¬†so be sure to check it out sometime if you want to see what’s new on the LA cultural/literary/intellectual scene.

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Royce HallToday I ushered for UCLA Live for the first time and it was definitely a great start for the season. I love wearing nice high heels and looking “like a lawyer” (although I will have to wait till next time to get my bow tie). I always find it so much fun to dress up and look formal/professional; it makes me feel all grown-up and smart (I silently grieve the extension of the Casual Friday to all five¬†weekdays¬†on the West Coast).

Anyways, one interesting observation I made through the course of today was how people’s manners seem to change based on who they’re dealing with.

Earlier in the day I did some tabling/flyering for Aleph (the UCLA Undergraduate Research Journal for the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences – GET PUBLISHED! *not so subtle plug*); passing out flyers, by the way, is probably one of the top five most depressing campus activities to engage in. I’d stand by a walkway, looking as friendly and harmless as possible, and yet people would see the flyers in my hands and veer off their original course (i.e. go to the other side of the street) just to avoid talking to me. As you extend your flyer out, most people will just shake their heads and walk on, but I’ve found that people wearing sunglasses are the worst. They hide behind their stunna shades, feeling empowered, fabulous, and anonymous enough to breeze past people like they don’t exist.

Maybe I just got rejected too many times in a one-hour flyering shift, but when I ushered tonight I was struck by how polite the patrons were. Almost every person who walked through the “center left” doors said “Thank you” when I handed them a program and several smiled or asked how I was. Yes, these are basic pleasantries and perhaps the theatre-going crowd is simply better behaved than the typical college student rushing to class, but the stark contrast just seemed so strange to me.

I realise that etiquette is often seen as an artifice, especially in modern times, but I still believe that it serves an important purpose in social interactions. I never understood how people could be so rude to one another (i.e. cutting in line, swearing, road rage), even if they found¬†the other person¬†to be an inconvenience. Shouldn’t a person with true manners treat everyone equally with the respect that they deserve? Or does etiquette inherently contain different rules for different “classes” of people? More importantly,¬†do manners and etiquette even matter in this modern society of Casual Monday-thru-Friday’s, a tell-all tabloid world that blurs (or eliminates) the line between our private and public selves?

Ok, end of long tangent! I’m actually blogging to gloat about the highlight of my week:¬†ushering for¬†meeting John Updike!

John UpdikeI, Sophia Literaria, was in the same room with a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner (I’m actually pretty sure this is the first time this has happened… unless I unknowingly met one during the LA Festival of Books last year).

Sadly, I must confess that I haven’t read any of his novels (although after his talk, I’ve placed The Witches of Eastwick on my list of Books To Read). I know Updike mainly from his vast body of work in The New Yorker, but even without reading his longer pieces of writing, I found myself fascinated by his take on the creative process and the influences of age on his literary perspective. Plus, he was very funny/witty/(dare I say cute?) in¬†that wonderful eccentric grandfather sort of way that always delights me.

I think the thing that struck me the most during the talk was Updike’s rule of publishing a book¬†a year. Updike is an extremely productive writer, who comes out with short stories, reviews, poetry, and novels at an almost insane pace, especially given the length of his career. His body of work is seriously large¬†enough to fill its own bookshelf. Yet I can’t help but wonder if this pace compromises the quality of his writing, if he could be even greater if he had the patience and tranquility to stick to one idea at a time. Updike spoke of great admiration for writers like Saul Bellow who don’t mind “not seeing his name in print” for long periods of time. I almost sense an insecurity in Updike’s admission that he feels antsy when he doesn’t see his work in the public eye for a while.

The Widows of EastwickAnd yet this is not a complete reading of Updike’s motivations for his frenetic pace. I think Updike takes his position as a prominent literary figure seriously and pushes to remain in the public eye in part because he wants to affect change and influence opinion in a world that is increasingly dismissive of writers and literature as a whole. As Updike pointed out, the position of the writer in society has greatly diminished since the times of the Great Depression onward. I feel like most people these days see fiction the same way they see the movies – as a simple form of entertainment. We don’t see our poet laureates as “prophets” or “oracles of truth” anymore. We dismiss the greatest authors of the Western canon as inferior to Rowling and Meyer simply because they are “hard to read”. We¬†dive into¬†racy plotlines instead of¬†immersing ourselves in¬†language that is beautifully wrought; because we’ve abandoned good writing for quick summer reads and trashy paperbacks, good writing has abandoned us.

However, old-fashioned writers like Updike, who still writes the first drafts to his novels by hand, continue to bravely cling to the idea that maybe they can still make a ripple in the social consciousness, despite Harry Potter, fanfiction, and blogs (*pleads guilty*).