by Brittney Reed-Saltz
It will probably surprise no one to learn that I was an incorrigible nerd in school. I mean, I went on to become a librarian, and while our experiences vary, a common thread tends to be that we are incorrigible nerds. And as such, when I look back on my education, I feel a great deal of fondness for assigned reading. This was not always the case.
Throughout elementary and high school, I had a sometimes contentious relationship with assigned reading. Bookish I was, but I also had a rebellious streak and interests that often conflicted with curricula. I knew my own tastes and my own reading level, so why (went my childhood and adolescent logic) would I want to waste my time reading what someone else told me to so I could pass a test? (There were notable exceptions, and I could often be enticed to love a book about which I was initially skeptical: The Outsiders, Fahrenheit 451, Night, The Scarlet Letter.)
That attitude changed somewhat when I entered college and had conferred upon me the heady power of choice. Sure, I had a list of prerequisites and major requirements, but within that list was so much freedom. I could flip through my course catalog and read through the listings for upper-division English and order as though from a menu, each course unique in flavor and theme.
My favorite day of the semester was always the first. I like beginnings, I always have, and I place much stock in making sure that they are auspicious. In college I would pick my outfit to set the tone I wanted, pack up my new notebooks and pens that smelled of potential, and head off to the Humanities building eager to get started.
I loved the well-worn format of the first day, each professor going through the syllabus and revealing their personalities in how they chose to communicate their expectations, in tones either nurturing or apocalyptic. And I loved getting my list of assigned reading. I would have already ordered the books, having the lists in advance, but there was the structure of the order of the assignments, and of course, some surprises. The Norton Anthology is huge; there’s no way to cover it all in a semester, so being told which selections to read for the next class was like being handed a map to guide me through a vast, unfamiliar wild.
It didn’t matter that I was, despite being an ambitious A student, an inveterate procrastinator. It didn’t matter that I would invariably dislike some of my assignments or get overwhelmed by the volume of reading that comes with taking 20 credit hours of literature classes. By November I might be staring wanly into my copy of Julius Caesar wondering how I was ever to discuss it in an original and substantial manner for 10 pages and considering escape plans, but on the first day of the semester, all was new. Hope tinged everything with a rose-gold glow that had yet to fade into the harsh, dark reality of essays finished at 2:00 AM (and prayers that the printer works, oh please, please don’t jam, please let me have added enough money to my printing account, please…).
I miss those days now. Because they were frustrating, and there are some assignments that I detested and still do to this day. (Those authors will retain their dignity in anonymity.) But along with the stress there were moments of transcendence, when I discovered authors I had never read before and who left me changed. Back then, every word had meaning and weight, and even the most confusing poem would be unraveled in class to reveal a core of diamond at its center, clear and pure and precious.
We’ve reached the conclusion. If I were older, I might adjust the lapels of my tweed coat and bite my briar pipe thoughtfully and admonish the students trooping reluctantly back to class, reminding them of the passage of time and encouraging them to drink in everything their education has to offer. But I don’t have a pipe, or the years of perspective. So I’ll just say to those students: I envy you.
To be young and unsuspecting and arrogant, not knowing how a book that you don’t even want to read can reach right between your ribs and touch a heart still soft enough to feel things sharp and deep. What a misery and what a joy.
Have a great school year, everyone.