June 22, 2015

Eating Books, Stealing Clocks, and All the Stories

This May, I accomplished something I began nine years earlier--graduate school. I walked across a stage wearing a rather silly ensemble and a man I had never met shook my hand and handed me an envelope containing a piece of paper. That paper cost an incalculable amount of physical, mental, and emotional resources to obtain. My family said they were proud and we took some pictures. I had earned my master's, finally completed my doctorate, and finished what I set out to do. It was wonderful beyond words. (Don't I look like the Swedish Chef?)

One of my life's passions is for stories, stories in any form. I love hearing stories, reading them, writing them, and experiencing them in a myriad of forms. You can find stories anywhere, in a book, a lab, a field, an object, or a person. Stories are in art, music, film, theater, culture, and the world all around us. Perhaps selfishly, I figured that the best place to hear more stories would be within college, where I could dabble in many things all at once.

I had to declare a major in my application process, but I spent the first two years of school bouncing from one major to another. Sometimes I did this publicly--paperwork completed, intentions declared--and other times my mind changed from day to day. I seriously considered dozens of fields. I went through my university's coursebook and list of majors at least three times circling everything that sounded interesting and striking out areas that I believed weren't a match; there were always more circles than strikes. I took courses that counted for nothing beyond my own personal interest. It was great.

After some distress about the final career contenders, I realized that if I chose literature I would get to tap into the rest of the fields as well. In a sense, I could cheat the system. I felt could investigate more in this field than in any other. It worked. On paper, I specialized in nineteenth-century British literature, women's studies, children's literature, interdisciplinary studies, and the coming-of-age novel. Along the way, however, I was able to learn about hundreds of things: mass burials in New Orleans, French prostitution, Canadian immigration, German and French theories of love and romance, mental disorders, twentieth-century architecture, cholera, slavery, women's suffrage, child labor laws, Queen Victoria's daughters, poverty, Gustave Dore's illustrations, female blues singers, Harlem Renaissance literature, the history of menstruation, and so much more. I am not smarter than anyone else--I'm a terrible test taker and often forgetful--but I'm always learning. Always. I thrive on it.

Now that my formal schooling is complete, my learning and love of stories has not stopped; if anything, it feverishly continues. While I continue to write, research, and teach, without the demands of coursework, comprehensive exams, and dissertation requirements, I now have more freedom to read whatever I would like whenever I would like. Reading for pleasure was time I used to have to surreptitiously plunder in snatches, like a pirate who only steals clocks. I read more than I could ever imagine while in graduate school in English--at times tens of thousands of pages all within the course of a semester (often with body-crumpling migraines)--books that I'd always wanted to read and ones that I'd never heard but was excited to explore, but I did it all under the strictures of the program requirements. The gift of being able to pick up, put down, skip, reread, or set aside books at will after nine years in graduate school is like getting to drink an endless amount of cool water after a very, very long race. A marathon. No, ten marathons. No, an Ironman, followed by a tap dance routine with Fred Astaire, and then a Broadway run in Riverdance. Graduate school is 110% intellectually stimulating, empowering, and exhausting all at the same time, non-stop, for a very long period. Now I can read for pleasure to my heart's content. I'm like the Cookie Monster but I eat books.

Part of my vision for this website was to create a forum for sharing one of the great joys of my life; I am not entirely sure how this will play out. I first began blogging about the same time I started graduate school, but this is a new venture. I'll likely share what I read and the stories I discover, but I want to share others' stories too. The idea of a blog entirely about myself sounds horrendous. Perhaps inevitably, yes, I'll be your top-hat-wearing, online circus master of ceremonies, but I hope this is a space for more than just brandishing a cane as I yell out the next performer while you eat popcorn, because stories...aye, there's the rub.

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