By: Kelsey Healey
In her book, The Use and Abuse of Literature, Marjorie Garber discusses some of the joys that come with studying literature. As an English major, I fully recognize these joys, like allusion and memorization, as parts of my school experience. I get excited when I “get” a reference, or can make connections between different works. I have memorized (or, okay, almost memorized) pieces of literature that I love. For example, I’ve been assigned “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” for at least three different classes at different times. I’ve heard it performed aloud (and if there’s anything that can make a poem stick, live performance is it), and now feel as if it is a little bit “mine.”
But of course, it’s not just about the joy that comes with this kind of work. We do this stuff because we love it, yes, but also because we believe that it’s worth doing. That it’s more than just a glorified book club.
Well, probably once a week I find myself having to “defend” my choice of major. I’m confident that my fellow English majors (or anyone else in a liberal arts program) are familiar with this experience. Maybe it’s a family member, maybe it’s a total stranger – a customer at work will ask, “Where do you go to school? What are you studying?” I answer “English,” and they (the nice ones, the ones who don’t laugh!) say, “Oh, so you’re going to be a teacher?” Sigh…
Or, my manager sees me on my break with Marjorie Garber’s book, and asks “Ooh, what are you reading?” How do I explain? “It’s a book about the study of literature.” Confused silence. Never mind, Shirley…
Why do I start avoiding these types of exchanges? Because, on some level, it is secretly unsettling to find it so not-simple to explain what it is that I (more accurately, we) do. It’s not easy to define precisely what our work contains or why it is so important. But it is. We enjoy it, sure, but we also believe that this stuff matters. In real-life ways. For reasons that are not easy to explain in an over-the-counter encounter.
So, I love that Garber has been able to articulate what I, apparently, have not. Studying literature is not just a self-contained, self-serving endeavor. There’s a wonderful link between the joy and the hard work – and they strengthen each other, for sure. Like Garber says, there’s a “continuum between teaching and scholarship, intellectual excitement and painstaking research, pleasure and profit, learnedness and learning” (63). It’s hard to explain because there is so much contained in it. We’re building skills that make us more critical, more aware of the “water” David Foster Wallace talks about. At least, I’d like to think that my chosen path in school has made me a smarter, even a better, person. And I think that that is another “pleasure of the canon” in itself – the knowledge that something you love is also something worthwhile.