Benefits of Not Being an Academic #1: I don’t have to read everything

When I was working on my PhD, the expectation was that I would end up in academia, presumably in a college teaching position. Instead, about six months ago (a year and a half after finishing my degree), I landed a position overseeing a university writing center, which means that although I still work in higher education and still teach one class a year (training writing tutors), I am no longer an “academic,” exactly.

I liked teaching college (sometimes I loved it, and sometimes I loathed it, depending on the class and the students, so I will average it out and say I liked it), and part of me liked being a scholar, and there are certainly benefits to being a college professor. But I love my current job, and there are certain major benefits to not being an academic. Hence, my little series on “Benefits of Not Being an Academic.”

Part 1, as I’m sure you have so adroitly noticed in my title, is “I don’t have to read everything.” Now, I’ve always been a pretty insatiable reader, like most people who would be crazy enough to enter an English literature PhD program in this day and age. And like any insatiable reader, along with my voraciousness comes a distinct feeling of awe, even some anxiety, over the sheer amount of reading material in the world. Not only am I never satisfied, but also I can never possibly read all that’s out there, or even all of the good stuff.

Most people who love to read feel this way, at least a little. But when you’re an academic, it both intensifies and narrows. What I mean is this: I would have the same sense of being overwhelmed by the possibility of all I could read, but at the same time, I would feel more than a desire—an imperative—to at least read everything in my particular field. You may think this would not be so bad, especially if one studies a past time period (that is, if we don’t, you know, get too mired in the idea of what history is, really). It would seem, since the time is past, the reading material is finite. Charles Dickens is dead and therefore no longer producing any more books (that is, if we don’t, you know, get too mired in the idea of what an author is, really, and presume that only Dickens wrote novels by Dickens, and that there is such a thing as an author named Dickens, and so on).

Academics love to climb ivory towers like this one and contemplate the death of the author. It’s a well-known fact that the tower of Pisa leans because all the Jane Austen scholars congregated on one side and the Anne Bronte scholars on the other. Poor Anne. She doesn’t get the love she deserves.

However, the problem for the academic is twofold: first, the reading material is still not really finite, not only because literary critics are forever writing about those past works of literature (really, no matter how hard everyone tries, literary critics just will not stop writing literary criticism), but also because more and more obscure works or forgotten-but-popular-at-the-time works are constantly being “discovered,” and second, it is your job to read everything, which means you have to read it all, even if you’re not interested, or it’s only tangentially related to what you study—and if it is very closely related, you must read it even if you don’t like it or think it’s well-written.

It’s that last one that’s hard for a reader who reads for pleasure, because why on earth would you read something you don’t like or think is well-written? But I digress. The point is… I don’t have to do this anymore!

What does this mean for me? Let’s return to the example of Charles Dickens. Now, I love my pal Chuck. He’s one of my favorite writers of all time, and several of his novels are among my favorite novels of all time. But the man wrote 15 novels, most of which are quite long, and that doesn’t even include A Christmas Carol, which I count as a novella along with his other Christmas books, or his very famous collection of short stories Sketches by Boz. And of course, he also wrote a large number of short stories, journalistic essays, travel memoirs, collaborative works, and at least one play. In short, reading all of Dickens is something of a goal in itself, and if you are a Victorianist, reading all of Dickens is only part of the overall goal, which is to read, you know, all of Victorian literature.

When I still considered myself a scholar, it was indeed my personal goal to read all of Dickens, or at least all of the novels. And I think I did pretty well. Out of his 15 novels, I have finished reading the following 8 (in chronological order of when they were published):

  • Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation [aka Dombey and Son]
  • The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (which he never meant to publish on any account) [aka David Copperfield]
  • Bleak House
  • Hard Times: For These Times
  • A Tale of Two Cities
  • Great Expectations
  • Our Mutual Friend
  • The Mystery of Edwin Drood

(A quick side note: I noticed when making this list that I am much better read in the second half of his work. I have read 8 out of the last 9 novels he wrote.)

dickens

Vintage collection of the complete works of Dickens, purchased by my wonderful husband as a surprise for me. Can I, will I, read it all?

And I have to say, I was doing really well: I absolutely, unabashedly loved all of these novels except one (A Tale of Two Cities, if you must know)—and even that one certainly had its merits.

Then I hit The Old Curiosity Shop.

All I can say for myself is, I got through 234 of its 554 pages. I read the part about the waxworks, which is important. But one day I realized I was purposely avoiding reading it. I just did not care. And wondering about Little Nell’s fate was certainly not a motivation for reading further, since pretty much everybody knows what happens to her. The whole thing felt… flat. Frankly: uninspired, and a little unfocused. Certainly not up to the genius of the author of Bleak House.

And then I realized… I don’t have to read it. It was like blasphemy at first, and then it became a guilty secret, and then it became a huge relief. Because this means that not only do I not have to read The Old Curiosity Shop, but I also don’t have to read Barnaby Rudge or Martin Chuzzlewit, both of which have such unappealing titles that I’ve always shuddered a little when thinking about them. I mean, really – Chuzzlewit? Who wants to read a book with a name like that in the title?

The other weird feeling related to this is… satiation. I have come to think that reading all of Dickens might be a nigh-impossible task in itself, at least, if you want to read anything else, or unless you really don’t mind making this goal truly last your whole life.* But I do feel like feeling satisfied with the amount of Dickens I have read is within my grasp. I still want to read Oliver Twist, because it’s just embarrassing that I haven’t, and ideally I would like to read Little Dorrit, because it’s one of his late works, coming right after Bleak House and Hard Times, both of which are brilliant. But even if I don’t read Dorrit, I feel (it’s a little hard to say this) pretty proud of and satisfied with the amount I have read.

[*Note: The idea of Death-by-Dickens is somewhat appealing, though, and I am certainly not alone. For one, Victorian author and friend of Dickens Elizabeth Gaskell includes an episode in Cranford in which one character claims that reading Dickens is what killed another character. In a more recent example, on the TV show “Lost,” my favorite character, Desmond Hume, carried around a copy of Our Mutual Friend with him because he wanted it to be the last book he read before he died.

Our mutual friend

Desmond’s copy of Our Mutual Friend is not only a little worse for wear for a book he hasn’t read, but also the cover looks a little pulpy, don’t you think?

I love the sentiment, and it was one of the reasons Desmond quickly became a favorite character, but this idea has always puzzled me greatly. Why did he save Our Mutual Friend? Is it because it is Dickens’s last completed novel (he died in the middle of writing the next one, Edwin Drood)? How could Desmond have not been a Victorian scholar but still claim to have read all of Dickens except for Our Mutual Friend? Did he ever read anything else? More importantly, how can you predict what the last book you will ever read could possibly be? What if you die suddenly? And even if you die slowly, you know, that book is, like, 900 pages long or something—it’s not something you can just dash off in an afternoon on your deathbed. But maybe, just maybe, finishing the book is not the point; perhaps the real point is that the last words you read are incredibly brilliant and beautiful. And that’s greatly appealing as well.]

Here is a partial list of novels I am glad I do not have to read, now that I am no longer officially a literary scholar:

  • Felix Holt, Radical by George Eliot (thank GOD—there is something SO unappealing about the title and plot synopsis of this novel; despite the fact that I deeply love Eliot’s novels, the truth is, she really can be insufferable at times)
  • Anything by Trollope (some people swear by him, but I’ve read two of his novels and remain unimpressed. I will not really be satisfied, though, unless I read The Way We Live Now. I feel like, if I hate that, I just hate this author, right?) Guess what? I read The Way We Live Now! And I liked it! So I might try another!
  • The Dead Secret by Wilkie Collins (oh, Wilkie, otherwise-wonderful Wilkie: what were you thinking by opening your novel with one character telling another character the entire backstory of a third character, in the form of a conversation over tea? Maybe it gets better? But I don’t know, because I put this one down after the second chapter. It was an excruciating decision, since Wilkie wrote at least three of the very best Victorian novels—and among the best British novels of all time.)
  • Trilby by George Du Maurier. (The author was the grandfather of Daphne Du Maurier. The only fin de siècle novel that sold more copies at the time was Dracula. The novel is set in bohemian Paris and involves one character forcing another to do his bidding through the use of hypnotic trances. How is it possible that I could not get through this novel? And yet, I could not.)

Here is a very partial list of 19th and early 20th novels I still want to read, despite no longer being a scholar:

  • New Grub Street by George Gissing (at the top of my list; I loved The Odd Women) ETA: I read this! It was great!
  • Far From the Madding Crowd and Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (for some reason, despite how good Tess of the D’Urbervilles is, I always seem to forget to read more Thomas Hardy)
  • Anna Karenina by Tolstoy (the real question is: why haven’t I already read this?) ETA: I read this one, too! Go, me!
  • Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust (Alison Bechdel says that it’s commonly known that people reach middle age when they realize they will never read Remembrance of Things Past. Thus, I vow to read this… or never, ever take it off my “to read” list.

And finally, just to be fair, here’s a very, very partial list of books I thank academic for bringing to my attention, because I don’t think they would have been on my radar otherwise:

  • Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens
  • The Moonstone and Armadale by Wilkie Collins
  • Villette by Charlotte Bronte
  • The Odd Women by George Gissing
  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
  • The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

(Dear Reader, if you read this entire, extremely long blog post, please leave a little comment, even if it’s just, “I read this.” It’s much appreciated!)

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