August 18, 2013 by Erin
Literature and Courage
This afternoon I opened a brand new Norton Critical Edition of Howard’s End. Though I’ve never read the book before, the familiar typeface and smooth pages that so clearly identify a Norton text brought back a flood of memory. How many hours did I spend studying similar pages? Countless hours, working my way through the canon from “The Wanderer” to Wordsworth, sifting through footnotes that served more to slacken my pace than actually illuminate the work (except in the case of The Canterbury Tales, during which I needed those notes very much). Toward the end of my undergraduate tenure I always read with a pen in my hand, ready to underline or add marginalia as need arose.
That felt blasphemous at first—defacing a book, adding my own thought to an author’s words. But eventually I learned to interact with literature, conversing with the text instead of just listening to it. Of course my contribution to the conversation was primarily a series of unanswered questions or ponderous “mmhmm”s, but still, I’d come a long way. I even wrote a few papers I was proud of. I didn’t talk much in classes, but I usually sat on the front row fairly enraptured, which, as it turns out, will make people think you’re smart. I loved it, and I did well; so despite feeling like I had nothing at all to add to the lengthy discussion called literary criticism, I figured I had not at least chosen the wrong major.
It’s been four years since my last literature course. I’ve not read nearly as much as I said I would in that time, but I haven’t been able to convince myself into being anything other than an English major. Paralegal—no. Airline Associate—no. Seminarian—no. Administrative Assistant—no. Communications Coordinator—closer. It’s been a good four years, of course, but I just haven’t shaken the idea that what I really want is to be part of that great literary conversation, though I have no idea what on earth I can say.
So Tuesday morning I’ll walk back onto my old college campus with my copy of Howard’s End and my trusty Pentel RSVP. I’m auditing a class in the hopes that engaging with literature intelligently is like riding the proverbial bike. Several months ago I began the process of researching and applying to grad schools, and I’ve discovered I’ll need all the help I can get. This class, I’m praying, will help blow the dust out of the corners of my mind.
The truth is, I’m scared stiff. I’ve never wanted anything that felt so far out of my reach, that felt so risky. Almost every day I tell myself I’m crazy. Me with my almost-good-enough GPA and my cliche love of the written word. What makes me think I can get a Ph.D.? A good writer perhaps, and a decently well-read person, but a scholar? Sometimes it seems ridiculous. Yet here I am, talking as if that’s where I’m headed. I’ve even had to confess my intention to numerous people, all of whom will know if I fail.
I’m painfully aware of my own inadequacies, and I live with the knowledge that, despite many encouraging reassurances, I really may not be accepted anywhere. I may indeed fail. I’ve had to accept it as a stinging reality. All this time and money and hope spent may, in the end, amount to nothing. But, today at least, it doesn’t seem to matter. If you will give me the liberty to sound like a hackneyed teen rom-com for a moment, I’ll explain why.
In fifty years, I don’t want to wonder “What if?” And I don’t want to spend my life pursuing things I know I can do safely. I kind of love being in a situation that’s demanding more of me than I have to give. I don’t know if I have what it takes, but I’ve come to a point where I want to find out.
The sermon this morning was about courage and risk, and the pastor told a story about his son. He came home from work one day, and his boy was all lit up—he had taken his bike off a jump. “But, Dad, I didn’t land,” he said. “I crashed … it was AWESOME!” I want to live that way. With courage that takes big jumps … to hell with the landing.
So here we go, friends. I’m all in, and you all know about it. Come March we’ll find out if there are more Norton Critical Editions in my future. Until then, I’m trying to enjoy the ride. One thing I know for sure: my life is going to involve a few more risky jumps. Why not be courageous? Even in a nerdy way.