Tuesday, August 08, 2006

In Which the Author Becomes a Bit Snooty

Tomorrow proves to be an even busier day than today, thanks to my husband's iffy car dying a slow and painful death (complete with a push home!). I'm on driving duty, that pesky dissertation is staring me in the face, and I need to clean the house, you know.

So, right, then. Off we go.

Part III: Books
My parents decided, long before I was born, that their child would be A Great Reader (tm). My father once told me, "if you know how to read, and read well, you can teach yourself anything." Sage advice, especially since so many people know how to read, but so few know how to read well. So I was introduced to books before I could walk. Before I could talk. And long, long before I could read.
My mother read to me while I was still an infant. She made me follow along with her when I could sit up and pay attention. And I was reading as soon as possible.
Books amazed me. Entire worlds existed on white paper, trapped in black ink. Books upon books upon books, waiting to be discovered. Millions of books in the world, hundreds of millions of books, and I could read them *all*, if I wanted.
According to parental lore, I used to fall asleep with a book on my face, and would wake up, and start reading again. I worked through most of my grammar school library, my public library, but that wasn't enough. My obsession demanded that I *own* books, because if I possessed them, they were, in part, mine. Right?
Bless my parents, they bought into this, hook, line, and sinker. Sure, I had Barbies, and GI Joes, and my Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls, but when my mother punished me for what I'm sure was something trivial and inconsequential *ahem*, she took away all of my books and made me stay in my room. That's how important they were to me. Punishment means nothing if a child doesn't learn, right? And I learned. Boy, did I ever. If I sassed off, or did something incredibly stupid, my books were taken away.
At grammar school, there were other bookish kids like me. I was never chastised for being "a bookworm," although I was forbidden, by my parents, my grandmother, other family members, my teachers, from reading books at meals. It wasn't until I started living on my own that I was able to indulge in that delicious little piece of selfishness. Food *and* books? Could life be better than this?
When I started college, I was an International Relations major and a Russian minor. I wanted to go into international law, primarily dealing with the former Soviet Union. I had visited Russia at 15, mere months after the coup, and it had a lasting impression on me. And I had always thought I wanted to be a lawyer.
Then I took Russian.
Then I interned at a law firm.
And I switched my major to English.
I was what I call a "typical English major." Writing and reading came naturally to me, but I was a procrastinator. I always said "I do my best work at the last minute" which means, as I tell my students, "no, you *only* do your work at the last minute." But in the same way I breezed through English honors and AP in high school, I breezed through English in undergrad. I loved my classes, I loved to read, and I loved to write about books. What I lacked in sophistication I made up for in enthusiasm, and my professors, bless their hearts, rewarded me for it.
My master's was a completely different ballgame. I had to break my bad habits and learn new, better ones. My professors, the same ones I worked with as an undergrad, pushed me, and pushed me hard. What I lacked in sophistication, I made up for in potential, they said.
It was the first time in my life that I wasn't great at English. I suddenly "had potential."
Potential. What a rotten little word that is for someone who has snobbish ideas of her own intelligence. It knocked me down, several notches, and I began to experience what grad students refer to as "imposter syndrome." What if I wasn't smart? What if I had fooled everyone my entire life, and now, surrounded by truly smart people, they weeded me out? And who the hell were "they" anyways?
God, did I need that knock down. I fell off the literary pedestal I had placed myself on and sat in the mud, rubbing my eyes with my fists and crying out to the world that I *was* smart. That I had more than potential, dammit. And I set out to prove it to them.
I changed my work habits. I dusted off my work ethic, pounded into me by my work ethic-y parents, and considered what it really meant to be *good* at something. I revised, and revised, and reread and reread until I wrote a master's thesis that wasn't half bad.

When I started the Ph.D. program, I realized that I was being offered a very special, precious gift. Someone was going to pay me to read books and to write about them. I was going to spend the rest of my life with *books*. *I* got to pick the books I read. *I* got to decide what to teach, what not to teach. *I* got to reward myself with stolen moments of "fluff" books (i.e. non-academic, non-classic, purely fun), over a grilled cheese and some chocolate milk, and it felt really, really good.

It's so rare these days that someone actually gets to do what she wants to do in her career. And I got that.

It's stressful, it's crazy, and sometimes? very expensive. But my love affair with books, one that began with The Pokey Little Puppy and traveled through Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown and Stephen King and Emily Bronte and Connie Willis to end up at Elizabeth Gaskell, William Thackeray, and George Eliot, has evolved into something quite lasting indeed.

Now about that pesky little dissertation....


At 11:38 AM, Blogger Sarah said...

Nice post. I enjoyed it. And my mother also took my books away as punishment. I would then lie on my bed and "talk to the ceiling" as my mother says.

At 12:20 PM, Blogger Dana and Nick said...

My parents apparently weren't clever enough to punish me in that way. They would send me to my room, and I would happily spend the afternoon alone reading--with no interruptions! Hooray :) My mom still complains about how hard it was to punish me...

At 6:06 PM, Blogger M said...

Luckily my parents weren't as clever as yours either--I think they would have beat me before they took books away from me. Ours has always been the house where there the other parents and kids stared at our books in awe. Other kids' parents would often say to mine, so that is why your children do so well in school. If only more parents realized what ours seem to. . .


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