Plot Junkie: Academic Prospects

You may have noticed, but I’m a bit of a nerd. (Don’t worry, I’ve made my peace with it.) One of the ways the nerdiness manifests itself is through a slight obsession with old or alternate meanings of words—“neat” used to mean precise, another definition for “perfect” is complete, and “prospect” isn’t just a possibility, but also a view. For example, the following passage from Austen describes Elizabeth’s first visit to Pemberley:

They descended the hill, crossed the bridge, and drove to the door; and, while examining the nearer aspect of the house, all her apprehensions of meeting its owner returned. She dreaded lest the chambermaid had been mistaken. On applying to see the place, they were admitted into the hall; and Elizabeth, as they waited for the housekeeper, had leisure to wonder at her being where she was.

The housekeeper came; a respectable-looking, elderly woman, much less fine, and more civil, than she had any notion of finding her. They followed her into the dining-parlour. It was a large, well-proportioned room, handsomely fitted up. Elizabeth, after slightly surveying it, went to a window to enjoy its prospect.

And all of that was to explain the title of this blog post: I’m looking at various views of academia, not my personal possibilities.

This weekend, I had a little spare time. On Friday, I gave a presentation at a research symposium (Victorian ghosties, of course) and then I was done with the academic stuff. So I took a break.

And so, of course, since I had a break from actual academia, I immersed myself in the fictional sort. I’ve been planning to read Jeffery Eugenides latest book, The Marriage Plot, since it came out to such acclaim last year. And now I have.

The book follows the lives of three undergraduate students in the early 1980’s; Madeline, Leonard and Mitchell are getting ready to graduate from Brown University. Madeline and Leonard just broke up (Madeline’s at the stage of heartbreak that prohibits everything except tears and tequila), Mitchell has been in love with Madeline since his freshman year, and Leonard… well, Leonard’s having a few difficulties of his own.  Just before the commencement exercises, a friend tells Madeline that Leonard has been hospitalized for depression.

And so it begins. Or rather, and so it is introduced. Through the course of the novel, Eugenides jumps back to the beginning of their undergrad time, explaining their relationships and their expanding ideas about life and literature and their place in society, and proceeds forward throughout the first year after graduation.

The book ostensibly takes its title from Madeline’s research project–the inexorable marriage plot of 19th century literature—but actually (I think) pokes a little fun at the reader for expecting, regardless of clues, the neat and clean tying up of the plot lines into a traditional happy ending. It’s not neat, it’s not clean, but it is, nonetheless, a happy ending. Qualified happy, perhaps, no absolute pinnacle, but happiness.  Or hopeful-happy. Which, I expect, is all that can be expected in a novel consciously trying to dissect modern ideas about relationships and identity and reality.

I enjoyed it, I thought it smart and well-written (ah, the curse of faint praise) but didn’t absolutely love it. It was cynical about things that I am passionate about.  It mocked—I felt it mocked—the love of literature.  Or maybe it just was aware of the destructive side of literary studies, the side that puts a book on the operating table, starts cutting it open and doesn’t rest until all the blood is gone. Until it isn’t a whole piece anymore. For instance–I love seeing patterns in Jane Eyre. I think it is important to be aware that Rochester treated Bertha abysmally… but I mourn the fact that I’m not really happy anymore when Rochester and Jane get together. Something got lost. And sometimes what is lost—whatever that is—is precious. Maybe it is idealism. Maybe it is naivety. But I miss it. That ability to read a book, to love a book, and be swept away. To not be so dreadfully aware of the gendered tropes, of the unstated power struggles, of the way Rochester’s fortune was made.

I talked to a professor about this—losing the love of reading as you study literature—and he said it would pass. And sometimes it does. But I think there’s a balance you have to hit, those of us who love books, those of us who study books. When your favorite hobby is reading, your only method of relaxation is reading, yet your career and your scholarly pursuits are also literary, then you have to find a balance. And this book just reminded me how difficult achieving that balance is.

And on a completely different note (or, to continue with the trope of the title: to see academia from a different perspective) I also read Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches over the weekend. This was officially a guilty-pleasure read: there are witches and vampires and really old books in Oxford. And while the vampire thing is a little too Twilight for me, I do love a good matrilineal power source (generally the basis of a good witch story) and my affection for books and really old libraries is rather well documented.

Here’s the story: Diana Bishop is a history PhD working on… something or other, I forget, at Oxford. She is also the last descendent of a powerful family of witches, but she hasn’t used magic since her parents (both witches) were killed through magic when she was a child. When the stack of books that she has requested is delivered to her carrel, one of them has the glow/sparkle/odd appearance (indiscernible to the non-witchy eye) which proclaims it to be magic. After opening it and looking for a few minutes she sends it back to the stacks… but the damage is already done. Almost immediately, the other sort of creatures (daemons, vampires and witches) start showing up.

Anyway, Diana is in major trouble, most of all (possibly) from a 1500 year old vampire/academic who shows up and begins offering protection. Or maybe he just wants to suck on her neck. Lots of unresolved tension—I don’t know if you should trust me, I don’t trust myself, I can’t control myself… basically, it might be your fault if I lose control and kill you, though, of course, I’ll feel dreadful about it. Which is a little too close to blame-the-victim mentality to me (she deserved to be raped because she wore a miniskirt and forced me to lose control) but I might be splitting hairs there. (No, I’m not. It’s awful. But I liked the book and it never really articulated that sentiment, so I’m trying not to judge too harshly.) And by the final third of the book, basically it had turned into a romance with a little bit of danger thrown in, but it was still good. I enjoyed it, even as I kind of mocked the vampire/witch thing. At least she was a witch, not a human. She had power, but a different sort.  (Sounds like the beginning of a gender discussion, eh?)

Anyway, she rescues herself. And rescuing yourself is always the best bet.

As to what all this has to do with academia—beyond the (perhaps somewhat perfunctory) setting? It’s the view of what books are. Books in Harkness’s world are keys to knowledge, incredibly valuable receptacles of the most important thoughts and ideas in history.

Eugenides’s books are texts, to be dissected and analyzed. Harkness’s books are works, to be valued and studied.

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