As you know if you’ve kept track of the changes to my “About Me” page, (which, I admit, is something probably none of you do because there's no real point) I recently left the physics major to study English, a choice that, on the whole, has made me much happier. However, that isn’t to say that everything about my new major is wonderful. I’ve encountered my fair share of pretentious English majors, overly complicated jargon, and sleepless nights spent poring over papers. Most recently, though, I had an odd experience in class, which I think elucidated my one real problem with the English Major, despite how much I love it.
One of the classes I’m taking this semester is called “The Nonhuman in Literature Since 1800.” Every week we read one major book and a few articles, and one of the students presents their thoughts on the book to guide discussion at the beginning of class. This past week we read Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing, about which the person presenting said “I found this book… useful” and the proceeded to dissect the text. Something about this bothered me from the moment he said it, but for the longest time I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. It wasn’t until the weekend after that I really figured out what frustrated me about that moment.
What bothered me so much about referring to The Crossing, a book with a huge amount of emotional power, as “useful” was that it felt so empty. How can you read a book that crosses you over the US-Mexico border in protection of a wolf, makes you watch that wolf die, brings you back to america only to kill off the main character's family, end with him crying against a sunset backdrop, and only leave thinking that the experience was useful? Books are meant to engage us emotionally, and the best books, the ones that show up in english programs all over the world, are the best in part because they make us feel something undeniable within their pages. The scariest thing by far I've found in the English major is that some people have forgotten that, and have started to view books the same way a scientist might an uninteresting lab sample, worth attention but not deep emotional engagement.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still in love with the English major, and I think that when done right the study of English actually makes it much harder to fall into the trap of emotionless study of a novel. However, when we study books we do run the risk of treating them simply as an object of study, instead of the powerful emotional force they are. In doing so, we forget what it was that made us fall in love with books in the first place, the way they can make us laugh and yell and cry as we follow the characters we love. This is something everyone who studies English has to be wary of, and must fight. Books are worth our love because of how they can make us feel, and we cannot forget this just because they are the subject of our work.
With excitement and optimism,