I’ve discovered an unfortunate theme within higher education: academics don’t have time to read. What’s that all about? Graduate students don’t seem to have the time for leisure reading, the type that just makes us feel good, the type accompanied by a cozy mug of tea and a pretty blanket. I can remember “sneaking” in reading when I was earning my Master’s in English, usually popular fiction, which wasn’t at all well-written, a startling and often shameful departure from writers like Henry David Thoreau or Chinua Achebe. I often read works I’m not “serious” about on my Nook, which is interesting, because it’s almost as if I’m flirting with a piece of literature, but never ready to commit or even formally announce our relationship to anyone. In the short year that I’ve been teaching college courses, I’ve also noticed that I have no time to read; I can’t imagine my friends and mentors who have 4/4 course loads, plus spouses, plus babies…when is there time to breathe much less read a book for fun? When I briefly dipped my toes in a Secondary Education program, a friend observed that doing such copious amounts of reading, finishing one text to hurry on to the next, destroys the original goal of studying literature at all. Years later, I agree even more so with her.
It sounds very cliche, but reading is who I am; that’s not to say that I define myself by what I read or how I think about what I read, but the consumption of literature, especially when it includes a diverse selection of authors, such as books by women and pieces constructed around non-white cultures, truly can change lives.
Why do we read? It’s taken me many years to offer a satisfying response to this question, and it seems so simple. Because we want to learn about ourselves. To remember that we’re not alone. To discover that those who are different from us are actually not that different after all.
In eighth grade, the children’s novel The Giver by Lois Lowry changed me; this book was a bolt of lightning that electrified me, moved me, and transformed the way I thought about reading and myself forever. I can actually remember the moment I “got it,” that religious moment of revelation when I knew that this is what I’d spend my life doing: chasing the written word and applying it everywhere, anywhere, and it feels amazing. I love thinking, meditating on novels, drama, short stories–I’m fairly certain I could find symbolism or poetry in a grocery list if I tried.
For these reasons, I’ve been reading voraciously lately. My Fundamentals of Speech course just ended, and I’ve realized how difficult it is to score a literature course as an adjunct professor. It’s beyond depressing to encounter so many college students who have an aversion to reading, learning, and most shocking…school! However, I’ve had a small handful of wonderful students who have been a joy to teach and interact with, so I suppose I’m not a total ogre. My point is that I’ve been celebrating my newfound free time by reading all the books I left unfinished in 2013. One that I can’t resist mentioning is The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea by English writer Philip Hoare. I’m completely enamored by this guy’s writing, his keen observations of the natural world and what is probably my favorite animal–the man is a poet. I’m also becoming a fan of British punctuation, which many of my students have unknowingly used.
Here’s an example from The Whale:
Elsewhere, Ishmael describes a whale of ‘an Ethiopian hue’, hunted until its heart burst; while the whiteness of Moby Dick itself seemed a reflection on America’s preoccupation with colour.
I do enjoy how the punctuation falls outside of where it typically belongs…makes you realize it sort of has no business there to begin with.
I’m planning to order Hoare’s brand new book (April, 2014) The Sea Inside (yes, a tangible copy with pages because I’m not fucking around!), which I plan on beginning once I get through The Secret Life of Lobsters: How Fishermen and Scientists Are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favorite Crustacean (there’s always a subtitle, no?) (Trevor Corson, 2005). Dream big!
I also decided to revisit The Giver in the hopes that it would spark some memories. I almost decided against rereading the novel since part of me wants its memory to remain pristine and untouched in my mind.
The people we find in this dystopian society are all about honor, and as a feminist scholar, one of the initial concepts that caught my attention is that the title of “Birthmother” is not one of honor. Women who take on this assignment undergo three birthing cycles, when they are “pampered” and focus on rest and relaxation. They then become Laborers for the remainder of their lives, until they enter the House of the Old. Huh. These women never raise the children they conceive–they are only used as vessels to produce new people to be introduced into the community. Why is it that this job or “assignment” is not worthy of honor? And why are these women deemed fit only for physical labor after they have given birth to three children, who are then handed off to nuclear families? When Jonas’s little sister Lily expresses interest in becoming a Birthmother, her mother is quick to scold her and explain that she can become a “Nurturer” like her father, which would allow her to care for infants, but not to produce them.
I’m also curious how these women even become pregnant, since the community medicates its young people as soon as they experience “stirrings,” a euphemism for sexual desire. It seems that this community is content to be colorblind, asexual, and complacent in their roles.
A large part of Jonas’s job as the new “Receiver” is to endure the pain and burden of the world’s memories; however, this backward society ignores the necessary feminine pain of pregnancy, labor, and delivery. During pregnancy, we literally give our bodies up temporarily so that another being can use it for shelter, nourishment, and growth. This is the epitome of selfless sharing and unconditional love. Is this not the same breed of spiritual suffering that is necessary for evolution? Mothers endure the pain of childbirth because they must, just as Jonas has no choice in the matter–he is now responsible for the painful burden, which proves to alienate him from his family and friends.
I find that the community’s dismissal of Birthmothers is clearly symptomatic of an unsympathetic culture, which is our own. It’s not as if these individuals would recognize the importance of Jonas’s pain, either; their short-sightedness renders them unable to fit any new knowledge or experiences into their minds. How often is motherhood treated with disdain? What about literacy, intellectual pursuits, or reacting emotionally rather than logically to something? It seems that the “keepers of pain,” along with those who identify with the arts are at a disadvantage in a culture that prizes labor and condemns creativity.
I know it sounds naive, but try to find the time to read…artifacts that contain humanity, not trends, tips, or other miscellaneous trash–that means novels and short stories, not just magazines or anything else that solely reflects popular culture. I’m lucky enough to currently take a break from teaching and placing pressure on myself to publish more work. Right now, I’m spoiling myself by retreating into a cozy place where I can simply read, breathe, and reflect. I only hope that my fellow academics don’t feel that literature has in some way been tainted for them; yes, it’s our passion and our livelihood, but it’s also become our work. I’m glad I found this dusty novel on my bookshelf and that I can still take something away from it long after it was assigned in English class.
The Giver is coming to the big screen this year! The official release date is August 15, so be sure to get a ticket and compare it to the novel!
Please check out my most recent post for Bitch Flicks on Despicable Me 2!
Happy Mother’s Day!