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Ever hear of having too much of a good thing?

Why Being a Literature Major Ruins Reading

Overdosing on Books

Ever hear of having too much of a good thing?

By Lauren Diethelm, University of California, Santa Cruz


I tend to finish things once I start them—and not out of any kind of pride or principle or anything, it’s mainly just a compulsive need to have everything in my life wrapped up and done with. (More information about me than you wanted to know, you’re welcome.)

So, because of this, it used to be that when I started reading a book I finished it, even if it was terrible or boring or both. Then I went to college and declared in two majors that are incredibly reading heavy, and I had to come to terms with the fact that it’s okay to not finish every book you start.Why Being a Literature Major Ruins ReadingAny good lit major will tell you not to do all of the assigned readings (I tried, for a while, as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed freshman, but that effort did not last long) and when you read so much for school, why read books for pleasure that suck? See, I’ve grown.

I work in an office on campus that is dead during the summer, and when I say dead, I mean there are stretches of time lasting hours, sometimes, where I don’t even see another living person, and when (if, really) the phone rings there is a moment of panic where I think, “What do I do with that??”

That said, eight hours of literally nothing to do but sit with my thumb up my ass has motivated me to get said ass to the public library, which I live super close to but have never been inside of until this summer. I’ve been avoiding the bookstores, because I like not starving, but I’ve read more books in the past month or so than I probably ever have in a lifetime of bookworm-hood. My aforementioned growth as a person is important here, because when all you do in your entire life, basically, is read, two things happen: you start to hate it, just a little bit, and you become a pretentious asshole who drops books, half-finished and gleefully abandoned, in your wake.

The excitement that usually comes with starting a new book has been greatly diminished, partly because I do it so often and it’s become old news, and also partly because I’ve seen some shit, people, and it’s not pretty. There’s a real fear there. Common refrains include “Who talks like this? Nobody, right? Nobody actually talks like this?” and “Wow, there are just so many letters in this guy’s name that really do not belong there.” (I’ve pretty much given up on high fantasy, I can’t take it seriously.)

I’m blaming my current lackluster approach to reading on the fact that I’ve been reading so much in recent weeks, but if I’m honest, I’ve been building up to this point ever since I signed the paper declaring myself a literature major. Santa Cruz offers some really interesting traditional literature classes, and in an attempt to make their graduates more well rounded, the major also has a creative writing requirement. I’ve filled that requirement several times, because I loved the intro class and the instructor recommended that I keep going in the program, so several classes later, here I am. If I were braver, I would probably be majoring in fiction writing, but instead I’m sneezing from the dust of all the pre-1750 manuscripts I’m reading, praying for a job. C’est la vie.

In taking so many writing classes I’ve learned a lot of “rules” of fiction writing (you know, as one will) which for the most part I feel are meant to be broken, but occasionally they give us good ones. The guidelines for writing dialogue, for example, are pretty standard and pretty inescapably important. I’m continually shocked and also physically pained by the amount of writers who have, apparently, never had a natural human conversation. You write like you would talk, it’s not hard?? It’s possible I would have noticed this eventually on my own, but my annoyance at stilted writing and bad word choice has definitely been exacerbated by reading better writing.

Why Being a Literature Major Ruins ReadingA joyful product of taking a million literature and writing classes is that I’ve been exposed to some really amazing writing from outside the curriculum, which has spoiled me beyond belief. I was introduced to Junot Diaz and Dave Eggers by other students in some of my creative writing classes, and now they’re two of my absolute favorite authors on the planet. Seriously, go read “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” and tell me you aren’t the tiniest bit spoiled after that.

Not all literature classes yield such amazing finds, of course. I read a lot of court-room speeches from ancient Greece and analysis of the inventories of ruined cities and literary theory and “classic” novels, which to be honest I could live without (lookin’ at you, western canon), but in the midst of all of this I’ve also read a lot of things that leave me wondering how on Earth do I carry on now that I’ve finished them.

If all I read ever was Cicero and Shakespeare, any kind of fiction that I could just read and not have to think so hard about would be a welcome diversion, but I’m not just reading Cicero and Shakespeare. I know there are better books in the world than the ones mainstream publishing is churning out by the millions, and those just don’t interest me at all any more. Does this make me sound like an asshole? Yes, definitely. Do I care? No, not so much.

I made my bed when I chose to major in literature and classics, so I’m prepared to lie in it, but I will say that if I have to read one more article about how terribly women were treated in fourth century Athens, I will actually lose my shit. That combined with the fact that I’ve made myself suffer through years of bad young adult novels and forced romantic subplots makes me feel like I’m a just a little bit entitled to my snooty novel selection criteria. Plus, ultimately, as long as I don’t continue to broadcast it to the world, nobody has to know just how much of a snob I actually am, and I can keep reading in peace.

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