Thursday, October 12, 2006

What I Learned in College

This year is marking a number of milestones in my life. No, I’m not 50 yet (give me three more years.) But I recently went back to New York to observe the 20th reunion of my journalism school class. Today, I’m heading south to Stanford to celebrate my 25th college reunion.

Yikes! I can’t believe that life has passed by so fast. How can it be that I left college so long ago? How can it be that it feels like just yesterday I started school AND so many decades ago? I think this is what life is like – time flashes and stands still at the same time and you end up 90 (if you’re lucky) feeling inside much like you did at 16.

The reunion has made me reflect on what I learned at college. Two course stand out – one on James Joyce and the other on Virginia Woolf. I was a history major, not an English major, but my love of reading led me to many classes on literature.

I took the Joyce class in my sophomore year with my roommate. The professor was James Chace and my TA was Carol Lashof. (In one of life’s coincidences, she is the now the mother of one of the girls on my daughter’s soccer team.) We started by reading Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man, then moved to Ulysses and then we read a few chapters of Finnegan’s Wake. We also read Richard Ullman’s superb biography of Joyce and a reference book that dissected and analyzed virtually ever sentence in Ulysses. People who study Joyce look for the autobiographical clues in every scene he wrote.

I adored this class for thrusting me into the world of early 20th century Dublin. Even though it took hours to read Ulysses – remember one could dissect virtually every sentence – I loved how the class forced me to focus, to look closely at Joyce’s words and what they revealed about a Europe in transition. I was an ardent feminist at the time and I delighted to finding misogynistic messages through out the book. (Joyce wasn’t very kind to Molly, the wife of the main character, Stephen Bloom.)

The Virginia Woolf class, in contrast, was a survey course on everything Woolf. We plowed through her books – A Room of One’s Own, To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway – and also read portraits of the Bloomsbury crowd. While I loved Woolf’s writing, I remember being more taken with all the intrigue of Woolf’s social set – the clandestine lesbian and gay relationships, Vita Sackville-West’s magnificent garden, Woolf’s suicide and the role her husband Leonard played in her unhappiness. I drew more from her life than her words.

I don’t think I have ever taken the time since college to completely immerse myself in one author. Like most people, I have no grand plan to my reading. I pick up whatever looks interesting, averaging about 40 books a year. There is no overall design, no desire to closely study anything.

As a result, while I have read many good books, they all sort of fade away after a while. When someone asks me if I have read anything good recently, I usually answer in the affirmative and then wrack my brain to remember which book and what it was called. But just describing the Joyce and Woolf classes, I had absolutely no trouble recalling which books I read.

Maybe I should take something else away from my college reunion in addition to the joy at seeing old friends. Maybe I should set up a mini-course for myself and take the time to read two or three books by an author instead of just one. That might make me see an author in a different light – and give me the chance in future decades to remember which books I read.

Let’s see, who should I study? Joyce Carol Oates? Orhan Pamuk, who just won the Nobel Prize for literature? Margaret Atwood? Agatha Christie?

How about doing Joyce over again? Certainly, I can find more in every one of his sentences. And there’s always Finnegan’s Wake.

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