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. :]

“I go alone/ Like to a lonely dragon”

A conversation with the boyfriend –

Me: Did you know that Shakespeare made the word “lonely” popular? Like people didn’t use that word until Shakespeare. But that’s crazy ’cause its so common now.

Boyfriend: Maybe people were just really happy before and then Shakespeare came along and opened Pandora’s box. And everyone was sad. ūüė¶

Well… not quite, although Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human does make a similar (controversial) claim. Whether or not Shakespeare was the first to discover or conceive of individual psychology (and then make that concept popular), he certainly left us with a great set of new vocabulary with which to describe our inner selves. One of the most fundamental things that I believe and love about literature is that language can change the way we think and see the world. Shakespeare was a great inventor of language and he was so good at saying “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed” as Alexander Pope would put it. (Although, to temper my bardolatry, I will also say that he produced some duds like “unfix”.)

A lot of non-English majors I know shrug off Shakespeare like a chore, something they had to read in high school, and they wonder how Hamlet or Much Ado About Nothing will ever be useful. Maybe its because Renaissance drama is my specialization, but I really do feel like Shakespearean studies is important precisely because Shakespearean language has influenced so much of Western culture since the 1600s. Ever use the words “dejected,” “ruminate,” or “pious”? Or even “abstemious” – which is usually the second or third word on any SAT vocab list? You have Shakespeare to thank for that.

Now that I’ve given my “why I love English” speech of the day, it’s time to get back to converting citations for my professor’s article on Shakespearean neologisms. It’s tedious, but also insanely awesome because it’s like I’m reading a top secret unpublished manuscript. I love my new job.

An Unforgiving Art

First entry of the new year! My schedule this quarter is pretty packed – I’m taking three English classes, continuing my work with Aleph, and embarking on an independent research project on early modern authorship. My GRE prep course also starts in less than two weeks so things are going to get hectic in Sophialand.¬†

One of the classes I’m taking is on the history of literary theory and criticism, which has been really interesting so far because it discusses the types of ideas that got me interested in literature in the first place. ¬†I love literary criticism and the debates it has over genre, language, and the nature/purpose of fiction and poetry.¬†

horace

Anyways, I was reading Horace’s Ars Poetica last week and this section really caught my attention:

“In some things, a tolerable mediocrity is properly allowed. A mediocre lawyer or advocate is a long way from the distinction of learned Messalla and doesn’t know as much as Aulus Cascellius, but he has his value. But neither men nor gods nor shop-fronts allow a poet to be mediocre. Just as music out of tune or thick ointment or Sardinian honey with your poppy gives offence at a nice dinner, because the meal could go on without them, so poetry, which was created and discovered for the pleasure of the mind, sinks right to the bottom the moment it declines a little from the top.”¬†

Horace’s opinions of his own profession strongly reflect my own views about studying literature and working in academia. There is no room for mediocrity in my career plans… which I think is just a little scary.

(P.S. Ushered for the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra this past weekend. Simply phenomenal. If you ever get a chance to see the “Cellist Twins” Pei-Jee Ng and Pei-Sian Ng in concert, do it! They’re mindblowingly awesome. :))

A Long December

December has not been very kind to bloggers, or at least not to this particular blogger. With term papers to write and finals to take, I have¬†unwittingly neglected my blogging duties this month. Unfortunately, I’m about to board a plane in T-minus¬†4 hours for southern China where I shall be traveling (namely in Hong Kong, Guilin, Beihai, Sanya, and Shanghai) for the next three weeks, so I probably won’t be able to get any decent blogging in before New Years.

There are still two weeks before Christmas, so I’ve decided to compile a quick list of things to give your fellow bookworm for the holidays:

oxfordrhymingdict1. For the poetically inclinedA rhyming dictionary. A gift that is both practical and entertaining, a rhyming dictionary is a must-have for anyone dabbling in poetry or song writing. You can use it to find that elusive phrase that will complete your couplet or it can be really fun just flipping through it and finding words that you never knew could be used in a rhyme. This is the ideal gift for anyone who loves words (especially phonetics). I would recommend the Penguin Rhyming Dictionary, or if you have a little more money, the Oxford Rhyming Dictionary (warning: some words will only rhyme if you put on a British accent).

2. For the ambitious¬†bookwormWar and Peace, newly translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. First published in hardcover last year, this book just arrived in paperback form on December 2nd, in time for the holidays. I actually haven’t gotten a chance to read this translation yet (sadly, my first experience with Tolstoy was with¬†the inferior¬†Constance Garnett version), but I¬†would vouch for any Pevear/Volokhonsky translation. They have previously translated¬†several works of Dostoevsky (including The Brothers Karamozov and Notes from Underground), Dead Souls by Gogol, a number of short stories by Chekhov, and Anna Karenina. The couple have a knack for maintaining the original linguistic style of the work, a feat difficult in translation because translators often impose their own¬†mannerisms or cultural language onto the original. Translation is never as good as the original, but since not all of us have time to learn Russian, this is probably going to be as close as you can get to a true Tolstoyan experience.

3. For the¬†intelligent dreamer¬†– The Sandman (Vol. 1-10) by Neil Gaiman. I was first introduced to this comic book series in my sophomore year of high school and four years later, I still find myself fascinated by the questions that the series raises. The Sandman, “a comic book for intellectuals” as Norman Mailer¬†has described it,¬†has this wonderful dichotomy of past and present, reality and fantasy that manifests itself in its artwork (which varies stylistically from story to story) as well as in its¬†melding of classical mythology with modern life. Although I would probably criticize certain segments of the series, I found the conclusion extremely powerful and thoughtprovoking. The spinoffs, however,¬†I would not recommend¬†except for Endless Nights, which I think is closest in tone to the original series.

westerncanon4. For the general reader РThe Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages by Harold Bloom. There are many people against the idea of a canon as well as people who simply cannot stand Harold Bloom. However, regardless of how you might feel about his critical theory, his enthusiasm for great literature is always palpable and that love for good books is especially contagious for the general reader. This book acts as a reading list and a guide for some of the greatest works in the Western tradition and will definitely whet your appetite for the likes of Shakespeare, Dante, and Chaucer.

5. For the nontraditional gent or gal – Write a short story featuring the recipient as the main character. If you plan on traveling, do a little literary tourism and explore the haunts of fictional characters (i.e. Sherlock Holmes’s digs in London) or the abodes of famed authors (i.e. Ernest Hemingway’s home in Key West). Invite your friends to a reenactment of a scene in a beloved book (such as the Mad Hatter’s tea party or the Neverfield ball). Buy tickets to an author’s talk or poetry reading or even a play. If you’ve given your literary friend a book year after year, this is the year to change it up and form some lasting memories.

Let me know if any of these literary¬†gift ideas helped! ūüôā

As for my winter break reading, I shall be catching up with my Kafka (short stories only) while I am in the Orient so I shall let you know my thoughts upon my return. Also, I’m contemplating adding a travel category, but I think I’ll probably keep it oriented towards literary tourism or maybe places of historical or artistic value. I shall ruminate upon this some more…

Until the next time I have internet access, adieu. Happy Holidays!

Life in a Cardboard Box

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

bookshelves1

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).

art-of-literary-research

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.

phdcomic050508s

(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¶