Oh, the Humanities! A Reading List Pertaining to the English Major

In college, I rearranged my majors and minors, all in the humanities, for years. I loved everything. Finally, I majored in English. It was fate—second-grade me was constantly in trouble for sneaking books under her desk. Majoring in English was both the joy and bane of my life. I struggled with a Faulkner-heavy Southern Lit course, even though Faulkner remains beloved. I groused about Shakespeare. I wrote my senior thesis on Michael Chabon. And I transformed my love for editing into a prestigious position on the college newspaper. My Lit Crit class—a notorious gauntlet at my college—introduced me to Derrida’s jeu and the revelation of feminist theory. I spent my time studying and socializing in the English department suite. I TA’d for the head of the department. When I am nostalgic for college, I am nostalgic for the English suite—for the camaraderie among my fellow students and best friends, my professors and mentors, and the dusty books and teacups and flyers.

A confession: today, I whined to my boyfriend about the great gigs my journalist friends have procured. Daily papers! Grad school! Photography internships! New York City! On my worst days, I feel envy and inferiority. On my best days, I go to the library and check on a huge stack of books, remind myself to be grateful for my temp job and come home to write for Longreads. I remember that I did something right. If I remember that, I will continue to do something right, to do something, write.

1. “A Degree in Books” (Kaulie Lewis, July 2014, The Millions)

Some she didn’t finish. Some she read three times—unfortunately. Some she gulped; others, she savored. A recent graduate, Lewis muses upon the books that shaped her experience as an English major.

2. “The Decline and Fall of the English Major” (Verlyn Klinkenborg, The New York Times, June 2013)

This time last year, this essay felt like everyone’s triumph. I didn’t read it then. It scares me a little. It reminds me that I have a lot to live up to. I may not be in college anymore, but I still approach the world with “a rational grace and energy in your conversation.”

3. “The Ideal English Major” (Mark Edmundson, The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 2013)

Published on the proverbial heels of #2, Edmundson’s piece is laudatory, almost to an uncomfortable degree. Nevertheless, there are parts with which I couldn’t help but identify. This bit struck me: “He doesn’t give up his view easily, but it’s nonetheless always up for debate and open for change. He’s an unfinished guy, she’s an unfinished woman. Which can be embarrassing and discomfiting from time to time, when he’s with the knowing ones, the certain ones: those who are, often in all too many ways, finished.” It is a comfort to read these words and know that my restless, even anxious not-knowing, I join a multitude of likeminded lovers of literature. It’s something I’ll reread when I feel “behind” my friends in terms of jobs, marriage, housing, etc.

4. “The Morbid Fascination with the Death of the Humanities” (Benjamin Winterhalter, The Atlantic, June 2013)

Winterhalter dismisses the need to justify the continued existence and funding of the humanities, and in doing so, justifies it just fine. If that doesn’t hook you, he also interviews a student studying the connections between neuroscience and Ezra Pound.

Image: Mona Lisa Smile