"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A peek inside the mind of a literature student (...or maybe it's just me...)

I've now spent a little over a month being a full-time student of 20th century literature. As you might imagine, it involves reading a lot of books, but instead of having raced through an impressive number of volumes during the last weeks, I've actually been reading the same book. Have you guessed it? Yes, I've been reading Ulysses. But in about 24 hours, I will have graduated to person-who-has-read-Ulysses (and if I'm aggrandizing the accomplishment, it's only because I need a reward to get me through the last hundred pages).

It's been an interesting experience, to keep reading a book that I don't fully understand for a month - an experience, I suspect, that only students of literature enjoy. Without the certain knowledge that you will have to get up one morning every week and go sit in a room with five or ten other people for three hours talking about this book, it's harder to push through those next fifty pages before stumbling downstairs to the kitchen for sustenance. Part of me is resentful at my professor for thinking it was a good idea to assign this book as the first reading of my grad school career. But another part of me is grateful because 1) nothing I read for the rest of the year will be this hard and 2) reading Ulysses is like a crash course in how to be a literature student, or as Joyce would put it, a "learning knight" (don't quote me on that, because it might not be exact, but there's no way I'm flipping through 800 pages to find that quote again).

Everybody reads (or almost everybody), so when you think about it, it seems every person who enjoys a good book should have the qualifications to study literature. You could make the same argument for science, for example: everyone lives in their body, so they should be, theoretically, ready to launch into the study of anatomy or biology. But that example reveals the flaw in the idea, because obviously the biologist brings a very different set of skills and curiosities to her job. She doesn't just enjoy the workings of her body, she examines them and finds patterns and probes mysteries and carries out elaborate experiments to test her theories. A literature student is no different. He enjoys books, sure, but he also dissects them, picks them apart, and tries to sort out all the pieces so he can fit them back together again. It's like the difference between a person who listens to the radio and a kid who takes apart a radio to see how it works. Both things are pleasurable, both expand the mind, and both increase the scope of human knowledge, but they're very different.

So basically, I've been discovering what it's like to be the kid who takes apart the radio. (Not that I haven't studied literature before, but I've taken different approaches and haven't done it so intensely before.) And what I've discovered is that literature students should be called literature detectives. This idea came out of reading Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 while still struggling through Ulysses. The former is about a woman, Oedipa Maas, trying to discover a secret behind the estate left behind by her former lover, a process which leads her further and further into a kind of paranoid detective work with no clear solution at the end of the book. She thinks she sees patterns, but she's never sure, and neither are you (the reader), because the intricate skein of connections and reflections Pynchon sets out might actually be all inside Oedipa's head.

Over the course of Pynchon's (miraculously short) 120 pages, I started to see weird patterns myself, but not the way Oedipa does. Instead of seeing mysterious symbols scrawled on bathroom walls and miniaturized on postage stamps, I say mysterious symbols printed out in times new roman between the pages of books. It turns out that reading books like Ulysses and The Crying of Lot 49 (or any book, really, when you're reading it like a literature detective does) is a lot like sifting through a dead man's estate with the suspicion that it hides a centuries-old secret and that if you just spend enough time with it, everything will become clear and it'll all add up. You have the dead guy (the famous dead white man author, and variants thereon, because living women of color can be just as confusing), you have the centuries of other literature to which they make cryptic allusion, and you have the words on the page, the endless pieces of paper that may or may not offer clues to the meaning of the whole.

So this is the state of mind of the literature student. I read a chapter of Ulysses and try to sort out the various symbols and references Joyce is playing with. Then, later that day, or the next, I read another book and look for other symbols, other key words, other connections. And for the rest of the week, I can't turn that part of my brain off. I keep doing the detective work everywhere I go. My mind is swirling with character names, images flitting by, memories that I then realize aren't memories, but rather something I read this morning - James Joyce's memories, most likely.

And the thing is that the real world is actually connected to the books I'm reading. Say I have an experience riding the bus or doing my grocery shopping that reminds me of something in the book I was reading the day before, and suddenly that bit of fiction makes more sense and I understand what it was the author was trying to capture about human experience. Or my mind wanders toward lunch as I'm sitting in class and then I realize that that's exactly what Leopold Bloom would be thinking about too, if he were somehow sitting around discussing the novel in which he is a character. These aren't tangible clues, but they are nevertheless keys to the books. When you're a literature student, it makes no sense to keep work and life segregated like food carefully nestled in different compartments of a microwavable meal. Books are better, I find, when their flavors mix with everyday experience, when you allow them to affect your life and visaversa, when you keep an eye out for clues in all sorts of unlikely places (a sentiment I think Joyce, champion of the everyday, would applaud, or maybe just nod thoughtfully at before he returned to writing a really complicated book).

OK, I'm starting to mix my metaphors and it's obviously time for second breakfast. Sorry for the break in regular posts and for the lengthiness of this one. I hope to be sharing thoughts more regularly this week, because as you can see, reading lots of books is giving me lots of thoughts.


  1. Do you know what? I think this is already making you a better writer. This was extraordinarily creative and coherent for someone who had not yet had their second breakfast ;)

  2. Why thank you! That makes me real happy to hear.