I always jokingly refer to myself as “The World’s Worst English Major.” For one thing I’m terrible at grammar, and couldn’t diagram a sentence even if you put a gun to my head. And there are so many books I’ve never read that English majors are expected to read, and when I come across things like this and fall way short, I feel like I’m a traitor to my major, some sort of impostor that faked their way through matriculation. (If that’s not a pretentious English major word, I don’t know what is.)
I was thinking about this as I walked to the ferry tonight, and I had a revelation. A major one. (Har. Har.) I’m not the world’s worst English major. In fact, I was a great English major. Sure, I faked my way through some books (I couldn’t deal with Tess of the d’Urbervilles or The Mill on the Floss and I got about 4 pages into Hard Times and chucked it under the bed), but I read pretty much everything else we were assigned in those fat Norton anthologies with the tissue paper thin pages. I even slogged my way through Beowulf while sitting in a Denny’s on Sunset Blvd. I loved my American Lit and short story classes so much, and read An American Tragedy for extra credit. I didn’t even take electives — while my friends were taking “fun” classes to broaden their horizons, I was misspelling and mispronouncing Yoknapatawpha County in Faulkner survey classes, and learning about xenophobia thanks to Edith Wharton. I graduated from undergrad with nearly triple the required English credits. (I should have been more well rounded. What if I am actually a talented sculptor, my undiscovered skills lying dormant while I was writing terrible poetry? I will never know.) And then I went on to grad school, where I took just as many English classes as creative writing courses, even creating an independent lit study myself — designing the syllabus and everything — for an extra credit summer course. Yeah, no. I was actually a fantastic English major.
It felt like something dislodged in my brain when I realized this, like the ice splinter falling from Kay’s eye in The Snow Queen and I could see again. (See? TOTAL nerdy English major.) I’ve been selling myself short for so long that to actually think about the reality of what I had accomplished in school — and there were a number of those academic accomplishments — rather than the usual shortfalls and perceived failures, was a little astonishing and liberating and even comforting. I’d had “a day” at work where I just felt like I was messing up and miserable (not to mention beyond sad about my sweet cat), so it felt really, really nice to put good thoughts — and generous thoughts about myself and my capabilities — back into my head.
Still, there are a lot of gaps in my education — I haven’t read a lot of the classics, and I’ve missed some of the major ones, which is the root of my embarrassment and self-deprecation. Though part of me thinks, “ugh, who cares?” a lot of me obviously does care because I’ve been thinking about it for years, and it plagues me randomly as I’m just walking along to catch a ferry. But what is so dumb is that there’s an actual solution to this problem I’ve been letting fester in my head for so long, so I wound up making a New Year’s Resolution after all: in 2019 I’m going to fill the gap (a little) and read at least three classics I missed:
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (I know, can you believe it?)
Moby Dick by Herman Melville (Herman would be 200 this year, so why not celebrate him and Ishmael, right?)
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (I have had this book on my shelf since like 5th grade when I found it in our garage, so it’s time I actually read it)
Just three is do-able. There are so many great books to read (and about 16 in a teetering stack on my nightstand), and who knows, maybe I’ll decide to take more on. But I’m never, ever reading The Mill on the Floss. Or Tess of the d’Ubervilles. Or The Scarlet Pimpernel or f****ing LORD OF THE RINGS. And you know what? I don’t have to. And that, too, is a nice thought.