Famous writers were kids once too

An old friend of mine was in town today for a book reading (she's probably the Most Famous person to have graduated from my high school) -- I hadn't seen her in something like 20 years, so I wasn't sure whether she'd recognize me (because I hope I don't look like that much like I did back then). But in fact, she did, and we had a wonderful time catching up, even with the bookstore staff breathing down her neck as she scrawled her name on extra copies of her book after her line of fans was gone. It was great fun to see her and to reminisce a little bit about junior high. It makes total sense to me that she's a Popular Novelist, since as far back as I can remember she was making up stories. In fourth grade, all the girls would go sit under the tree at recess and she'd tell us an episode in a long serial story she was making up. Not all that different from what she's doing now, only she gets paid and has people who drive for three hours to come and get her to sign a book for them.

There were a number of young people at this reading, kind of nerdy girls in their early teens, who clearly admired my friend and asked her questions about how she became a writer. It was great to see her answering and encouraging them, and to think about how the nerdy girls we used to be turned into the adults we are today. You'd never know just by looking at my friend that we used to spend hours playing with Star Wars action figures (and no, she doesn't write SF) -- but it totally helped shape who we are. Our earliest understanding of plot structures, character development, and the power of fiction to bring new meanings to ordinary life all came from those first two movies (especially Empire). So one of us writes fiction and one of us teaches it. Big surprise.

At a another level too, it was really interesting to be in a little independent bookshop with people who are Serious Fans for her particular subgenre of books, and of her books in particular. These are the readers who actually buy books, lots of books, and who care passionately about them. Some of my students would fall in that category, but not all of them. It's interesting to think about why someone would become an English major who isn't passionate about books. Or maybe their passions are just expressed differently. I mostly don't buy books myself, for instance (I can't afford them and I move too often) but I read widely in serious and nonserious genres, care deeply about books, and always want to encourage people to read more. I don't think it would take someone too long to figure out that I care about ideas, and reading, and writing. I try to assume that some kernel of that passion is in all of my students, even if I can't see it. Maybe it's just not activated by the texts I'm teaching, or their assumptions about my historical period get in the way. A lot of my teaching involves undoing their expectations, whether of the topic or of the college classroom itself.

Of course, there is a big difference between being a fan of a book and being interested/ able/ willing to discuss it critically, to analyze it, to come to some larger understanding about it or its significance. I often tell my students if they are having difficulty with a paper topic that it is much easier to write about (i.e. analyze) a text that they don't love -- as paradoxical as that sounds, if you really really love a book usually you can't see its details clearly. When I teach Jane Austen, for instance, there's always some doe-eyed quiet girl who confesses to having read Pride & Prejudice 50 times. She loves Mr Darcy, and she wants to be Elizabeth Bennett. (After all, who doesn't?) But if she can also learn something about how it is that Austen makes us feel that way about her characters -- through her prose style, through the structure of the plot, through the details she gives and those she omits -- then my student is on her way to an even richer kind of love.

Conservative critics of English departments often trot out claims about how the study of theory "destroys" the love of literature, how professors of English "hate reading" and other claims that I completely don't buy. Every English professor I know got into this business because of love. Writing a dissertation and spending 45 years of your life grading papers and teaching classes is not like working in the widget factory. You have to love it. And if you don't love every minute of every day, at least you can count on the fact that you love the books you teach. Learning how to explain why you love a book -- which I do (using other kinds of words besides "love," although I will sometimes admit to that as well) every week in the classroom, helps you understand not only the book but also yourself a bit better. If your love of a book can't withstand some analysis -- can't survive some historical research, some informed understanding of the structure, context, and implications of a text -- then it's not really love, it's just an infatuation.

Deep, old loves -- like the way I feel about The Empire Strikes Back -- happily persist. Yes, I can see the limitations of Lucas's dialogue; I can point out some of the literary, film, and historical sources he drew upon in crafting his plots; I can discuss how the class and gender dynamics in the film are used to create dramatic tension. These things help me understand the film in relation to its own historical moment and to the films that succeeded it. But still, even now when I watch that movie, I smile in certain places; my sense of possibility quickens; I feel an otherworldly delight that transports me beyond the mundane.

That's how it felt to see my old friend, too.