Tuesday, January 19, 2010

If you've ever wondered about the title of this blog...

Here is a short essay (compared the the 10+ pagers I'll be writing for most of my other classes this semester) I wrote for my honors seminar.

What’s in a book?

Polonius: “What do you read, my Lord?”
Hamlet: “Words, words, words.”
Hamlet (II.ii.193-194)

My 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Haines, called my mother. I was surprised when I found out. I racked my brain for any shenanigans I had been involved with in the last week.

“No, you’re not in trouble,” said my mother with a smirk. I peered up at her.

“Then what is it?” I asked, skeptic.

“Julie, I’m going to write something and I want you to read it.”

I sighed. I hated these games. She wrote. I read. Only, I couldn’t really. It was fuzzy. That’s why Mrs. Haines had called. I needed glasses at the tender age of ten. Blame it on reading under the covers, but if my parents had allowed me to read with the lights on as long as I wanted, I would not have had to resort to flashlights and, ergo, I would not have needed glasses. Now, fully looking the part of a bookworm, I read more, not less. My parents—both of whom wear glasses—began to relent. The light started to stay on later.

The mind is a terrible thing to surrender. Once captured, it is hard to regain, the grooves of constant wear difficult to embed again. James V. Schall, S.J., in his book The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking, implores his readers to read intelligently. When I was younger, I would not have understood what that meant. Reading was my favorite thing to do as a child. I played with my siblings, usually soccer or House, but reading was the best. I read the Anne of Green Gables series, Nancy Drew Mysteries, all ten Little House on the Prairie books, The Chronicles of Narnia, fairy tales and anything else I found around the house: 'Cricket,' a youth literary magazine; my parents’ eclectic collection of medical texts and history books from their undergraduate and graduate days; the lives of the saints and other religious writing; encyclopedias and novels. There is nothing more alluring to a small child than books she thinks she should not read. I strove to read prolifically and not discriminately, to conquer the library. Little did I know, those books were the beginning of my education.

Books have always been a constant in my life, much like eating popsicles in the summer, making lopsided snowmen in the winter, Mass every Sunday, and my loud family. It helped that my parents encourage reading and pushed for a higher intellectual capacity normally expected of children. I couldn’t tell you the first book I ever read by myself, but I remember the thrill I felt, the goose bumps from anticipation, eagerly turning the pages. My overactive imagination fed on words, as well as exploring the neighborhood; my barefoot feet unafraid of grass or gravel, chasing fireflies, pretending I could fly if I swung high enough. My favorite inside spot was in the front room, where I would draw the curtains, sit on the window ledge and read in solitude, a place where no one thought to look for me. It was my corner spot with a view, seeing a world beyond my own.

As I grew older, I began to consider intellect and what books I was reading very carefully. What did it mean to be an intellectual? Intellect could be genetic; after all, there are naturally smart people. People can also be intellectual sloths, which lead me to believe that the mind has to be pushed into being through a habit of reading well, just as athletes train their bodies to perform and chefs improve upon practice of the culinary arts. Thus I began my consumptions of the classics, with the help of advanced English courses and the local half-priced bookstore. The act of reading still came easy, but not full comprehension of the material. I was missing something; I could sense it. What is the point of the intellectual life, I thought, if I do not even get it? Persevero, said the Ancients. I read on.

Last semester, I met a young man who, upon meeting me, lambasted my decision to go to a college like Hillsdale. “You pay too much,” he said, “to have someone tell you what to read. You can read the classics on your own! Self-education—that is how you improve your soul. You don’t need professors. You just need books.”

In theory, I agree with him—no one needs college, unless pursuing a profession that requires higher education. School usually falls into three sections: primary provides the common academic base for learning; secondary prepares the mind for the entertainment of ideas and analytical thinking, as well as continuing to lay the foundation; and college, consequently, is a testing of the mind’s endurance and liberality, as well as strengthening and reinforcing systems of beliefs. College also provides instruction on the further precision of the intellect, a skill not immediately translatable into a non-academic job, but is rather a breadth of mind that can be continually renewed within a person for their entire life if they so choose.

I know my own education has allowed for great growth, but, more importantly, it has fostered a life-long love of books, a withering virtue in modern society. Too many people leave school and hardly crack a book again, let alone read. Isn’t that a failure of education? Traditionally, emphasis is put on the type of job one acquires as the ultimate end, not on the resulting type of person one has become. I have a friend dating a person not in college, and this bothers her. He is a decent human being, works at a steady job and, moreover, he reads good literature in his free time. Schall would see this person as capux ominum, capable of knowing all things, because he learns for the sake of knowledge, not a grade.

Reading contributes to a betterment of the mind and the soul. While reading, your person is changed, for the better or worse. One of my sisters and I disagree on what constitutes a good book. Her choices entertain her; they bore me. Fine—at least she’s reading, some say. Yes, but if reading really is like praying, as Schall says, then it matters what people read. Cultivation of the mind, like a horticulturist working with soil, is not easy. It takes years and is work; to appreciate, one needs to read and re-read so as to allow for the full effect. My favorite author, for example, is Evelyn Waugh. One never reads Waugh the same way twice. Good writing does not need to only appeal to the upper intellect; it should be understood on a base level, but have the ability to transcend regular observation. Each time read, I find a new play on words or understand a deeper meaning I missed on previous readings. Books without depth are like chewing gum for the brain: you read, you take out the flavor, and then you spit it out. No lasting effects, except perhaps a lingering taste.

Schall says he can know who a person is by the type of books they read. The preference to read the easy book can override inclinations to indulge in the Great Books, because that type of reading forces readers step back and face their own lives. If reading good literature does not make the reader contemplate himself, is it truly good? The end of a book is never an actual end, if you’ve really read the book. The profound affect a book has on a person shapes them, even if it was only a line or two out of the entire novel. The connection between the reader and the act of being: that is the point of the intellectual life. The author touches the reader and, in return, the reader touches others. It is not enough to think big, intellectual thoughts if one does not act accordingly on them, and reading is one step closer to that.

The prompt was a reflection on one of the chapters in the book aforementioned. I chose Chapter 2, "Books and the Intellectual Life." I almost feel like I copped out by writing an essay on my love of books, but the paper was due today and I started the book last night. I talked to Stacy (my roommate's big) briefly on gchat, and she provided insight into my work habits [edited for clarity]:

Stacy: haha, yea. I would love to chat more, but I'm at work right now, and should probably do work. But I will definitely talk to you later!
me: totally fine--I'm writing a paper due in a few hours anyways
Stacy: hahaha [...] true to heather and julie style, love it

In other news, today is the birthday of J.R.R. Tolkien!

Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.” -The Return of the King

and a nice little ditty poem by Bilbo Baggins:
"The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

Finally, if you ever need a reason to mobilize, I love this quote, said by Gimli: "Certainty of death, small chance of success. What are we waiting for?"

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