As the semester, and the Shenandoah Internship, concluded this week, I prepared to return home to Southside Virginia, where I will spend some of the break working at the local library. Yesterday was my first day back at the library, and as I was wandering among the bookcases, trying to force books onto overcrowded shelves, the authors’ names and book titles jumped out at me as I passed, just like they always have. It’s almost like playing a word association game. As soon as I’ve seen an author’s name, certain thoughts spring to mind. Charles Dickens – orphans. David Foster Wallace – footnotes. Dixie Cash – seriously? I realized yesterday that many names and titles I had hardly known before this past semester had taken on different meanings. Umberto Eco now makes me ponder innocence and sincerity in a postmodern age. When the biography Papa Hemingway catches my eye, I remember that the author, A. E. Hotchner, was Hemingway’s friend and is said to have suggested the title of A Moveable Feast.
In the midst of this reflection, my own thoughts begin to sound pretentious to me. Highfalutin, as people around here might be expected to say, although I’ve never heard it said.
In “Two Ways of Seeing a River,” from Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, Twain, now that he has learned to see the river as a steamboat pilot, reflects “No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river.” He suggests a comparison between himself and a doctor who can no longer see the beauty in a woman because he is instead looking for the signs of disease in the color of her cheek. I don’t mean to say that when I became an English major, all the mystery went out of books. But I do think that my humility, my sense of the vastness of literary knowledge and my own inability to begin to understand even a significant portion of it, has been reduced somewhat by the new sense of knowingness that studying English intently has given me.
I don’t mean to say that getting an education is in any way a negative thing, but for writers, I know there is some debate over who is, well, cooler: the academic/career writer or the “real person” with a “real job” who writes based on their “real” experiences. To offer an example of the value of experience, I would put forth the Shenandoah Internship. I personally believe I have learned more than I likely ever would have known otherwise about publishing and literary journals without writing a single academic paper, but instead being occupied with the blog and other tasks–all part of the modern literary journal trade. Yet, all the pretentious thoughts I was thinking at the library I learned in a pretty intense, research-filled English course, and I derive a great deal of satisfaction from having taken it and I know I will write better for it. Both have been equally valuable to me. For writers and readers, is anything lost in becoming immersed academically in literature and writing as opposed to learning about literature through other experiences? Obviously an immeasurable amount of knowledge (and experience) is gained, but is there a hidden cost to becoming an academic (besides tuition)?