Wednesday, February 20, 2008

One of the Roads Not Taken

There was a point, in college, when I thought about studying literature in earnest, with an eye toward teaching--or writing--literary criticism. I can't use any stronger terms than 'thought,' because it was never more than that. It wasn't a real consideration, because it wasn't something I could logically and realistically see for myself. Literature isn't a career goal, I thought; it's a noun. How can you do something for a living that isn't even a verb?

But, oh, did I love my lit courses. They weren't just about books--they were about reading books carefully, taking books seriously. And I've always been all about that.

There was a problem, however. I was great at taking books seriously, and at reading them carefully. I was even great about taking the threads of various discussions begun in class, or in the pages of a journal of literary criticism, and weaving them into an argument that was a little tighter, a little more interesting.

What I couldn't do, however--not for the life of me--was to start a discussion, to take raw text and breathe insight into it. (Nor, apparently, am I especially good at drawing analogies, because...breathing insight into it? WTF?) Critically, I cannot start from scratch. And if you're going to be good at the whole lit crit thing, that's kind of an important skill to have.

All of this--this desire, but more relevantly, this knowledge that I'm woefully inadequate for the job--came rushing back to me as I recently (finally) read Yann Martel's Life of Pi. It was a great read (though I can't iMAGine how they're translating it to film...or maybe they're not), and I loved every second of it. But that's not the point. The point is that I first put the book on my bedside table after two of my university coworkers not only raved about the book, but began a discussion--in the middle of a meeting, no less--about its allegorical aspects and its larger and weightier take-home messages. (Yes, I left that university job more than 18 months ago, and yes, this meeting happened way before that, even. You have no IDEA how high my bedside-table book stack is. There are so many more books than there is time.) It sounded so impressive, so important. I just had to check it out for myself.

So, when I finally read it, I had that in the back of my head: Allegory. Larger, weightier message. And I could SEE it. I mean, it was obvious. But what was 'it'? I haven't the faintest idea. Was it a Christ allegory? Buddha? Dr. Doolittle? And also, how exactly was that story supposed to convince me that God indeed exists? What did I miss? Without some clues, without someone to lead me step by step through the discussion, I'm lost. Here I am, a supposedly bright, literate woman, someone who actually thought of pursuing a career in the deconstruction of great literature...and all I can do with a book on the level of Life of Pi is say, "Wow. That was intense. How 'bout that tiger, eh?"

I definitely should not quit that day job. (Anyone read it, by the way? Wanna help me out here?)


kristenspina said...

I haven't read it, yet, but it's been in the back of my mind. I've been curious. So, I'll be curious to pop back here in a couple days and see what kind of comments you get. Maybe I'll add it to my own pile and we can discuss it over coffee sometime in July!!

meeegan said...

The opening statement of "The Life of Pi" raised my hopes SO high -- finally! A book that would put my exhausting agnosticism to rest!

Didn't work. Though I enjoyed the book very much, it did not advance my conviction about the existence of God one bit. Sigh...

Anonymous said...

Nothing I've ever read (and I have an extensive background both in English lit and in religious tomes, including the Bible, Torah, etc.) has ever "convinced" me of the existence of God. Only the actual experience of God did that. That's why arguments based on "logic" make me laugh. For me, literature just acts- sometimes- as a kind of vague explanation of, or pointer toward, that primary experience. The Life of Pi danced around it but I feel like the author pulled his punches in the end.