To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Advice on reading books at Brandeis University

I’m an English major at the end of his rope. After years of reading books and writing essays, the startling prospect of having to actually make something of myself beyond the loving sphere of the university glimmers out of the darkness ahead. A part of me already writhes in terror. Perhaps there will be no place for me in that already bloated literary world beyond. Publishing houses, magazines, journals—all are beautiful and impossible wagons ripe and ready to leave me behind! And that’s the worst thought of them all, the thought of being forgotten. The thought of losing all connection to this implied world of thoughtful academics, readers, book lovers—the dream of writing only an impression in the brain from years gone by—is almost too painful to bear. If you study the humanities, I suspect you share these feelings to an extent. The fear germinates in the hypothalamus shortly after telling mom and dad that you want to go to college to study novels.

Own it. Don’t dawdle as I did for years between four different secondary majors. Don’t tell your relatives that you are an English and computer science major or an English major and journalism minor, emphasis on the one that isn’t English. Despite what the STEM cultists have poured in all of our ears for decades, the humanities aren’t a cake walk. Reading a 350-page novel and all the supplementary essays takes hours. Condensing this information, annotating it and finally organizing it into an essay that doesn’t read like it was compiled at 3 a.m. the day before takes even more time. Multiply that workload across three other classes plus club obligations plus the ever-looming internship search, and you’ve got one busy student on your hands. As it should be; you are, afterall, paying hundreds of thousands of dollars, either now or later, to try and attain some mastery of the English language. Take this charge seriously because your wallet certainly is.

Read the books. Really, try your goddamned hardest to read them all. As stated, that is literally what you are paying this school to do. If getting off your ass and actually picking up that boring 18th century brick of a proto-novel requires hiring a therapist and ordering yourself a pizza every Friday, then so be it. Do what you have to do to close yourself off from the world for a few hours and just read. Successful publishers, famous writers, they all do the same thing: They devour books like air. Foster that old love of reading that you had when Percy Jackson and Harry Potter were still new. Place the act of reading on the same level of importance in your mind as your bio friends’ lab work or that big Cosi exam. Because if you don’t, the sense of worthlessness, the regret, the awkward silence of the discussion hall will crush you and transform you into a phantom student. Please, don’t forget why you are doing this. You love books. You love writing. You see the inherent value of analysing culture and fostering an understanding of language. Don’t lose sight of the big goal among the glamour of parties and apathy.

Of course, it’s more than OK, necessary even, to acknowledge the absurdity of the college humanities in 2021. We aren’t fooled; private universities like Brandeis are bloated beyond all fathoming. Seventy thousand dollars and more is just too much to pay to read and discuss books. As the modern college is transformed into a kind of academic trade school, the less immediately practical majors continue to be pushed out. I was able to justify the decision to study English back in 2016, but I don’t know if I could do it again in 2021. The world is in a bad place, and indebting ourselves to an institution that pays its lame duck president a million bucks so he can give his graduating seniors keychains and M&Ms seems in bad taste. Love the education, not the bureaucrats. We beat on because we know that to give up and allow the world to be inherited solely by the business majors, marketing nuts and Elon cultists would be a cruel fate for all of us. That said, why do we humanities majors have to pay as much if our departments aren’t even getting the same funding?

Being an English major is often a wellspring of absurdities. It’s certainly not in vogue, though it used to be. I spoke to a Brandeis alumnus from the 70s at a wedding a few years back. I asked him if folks looked at the humanities with such scorn in his time, and he said no. Pure math majors, literature people and lovers of the impractical sciences were received well in days gone by. It was a pleasure and an honor to be attending the university at all. A utilitarian mania has overwhelmed our culture today, and I suppose we’ve just got to grin and bear it. A few minutes in Flesch’s Shakespeare class or anything in the presence of Thomas King will make it worth it. And somebody’s got to read all these books. They’ll be forgotten otherwise.

Finally, don’t isolate yourself. So much of being a successful reader and writer is dependent on forging connections and immersing oneself in the greater community. It’s shockingly easy to sit in your comfortable dorm all day talking to your small circle of friends and letting the time slip by. Don’t let roots take in that cheap wooden rocking chair. Join a club that forces you to write every week if you can. I’m sure your resume will appreciate that. Might I recommend The Brandeis Hoot?

Joining the newspaper was arguably the greatest decision I made at Brandeis. The Hoot gave me a platform, dedicated eyes on my writing and a slew of amazing people I can gratefully call friends. There is nothing like seeing your writing in print every week, baby. As an editor, a role I never expected to assume, I have had the divine opportunity to witness the work of a diverse swathe of our campus’s writing community. Nothing trains your efficiency and email writing skills quite like recruiting writers and revising five or so writing submissions every week. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with myself once the job is done. Finish my thesis, maybe?

I could complain about Brandeis all day. Here at the end of the ride, however, I must admit that I’m pretty upset it’s ending. It was nice eating food and reading books all day. It was stressful at times, sure, but it was some of the most meaningful stress I’ve ever endured. Now the time has come to see if I can make all those books useful.

P.S. Don’t write a thesis.

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