I used to have this image in my head of the perfect English major. This person had somehow managed to cobble together enough time, energy, and mental aptitude to spend all of their time reading Great Works of Literature. They appreciated the aesthetics of the nineteenth century. Their bookshelves were full of poets and writers who had been approved for inclusion in The Canon, and they read these works not merely for assignments but for personal edification. This person has read The Right Books, and what’s worse, they’ve done so because they like it.
The specter of this perfect English major haunts me.
Here is my confession: I don’t read the right books. I haven’t ventured willingly into The Canon since my sophomore year of undergrad, when I finally admitted to myself that I cannot abide James Joyce. If I have any say in the matter whatsoever, I will never read “Araby” again. I find Henry James irritating, and F. Scott Fitzgerald bores me. Ernest Hemingway is too bleak for enjoyment. John Steinbeck is too despairing. I read Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and decided that I would try A Tale of Two Cities some other time, and then I did not. I have not read To the Lighthouse because I am afraid of Virginia Woolf. I read Jane Austen for all the wrong reasons. I read War and Peace because my high school English teacher said it was too long for me. I have not bothered with any of Tolstoy’s other works. Shakespeare, I adore, but I admit, I am indifferent to his contemporaries. I am obsessed with Mary Shelley, but I never finished Frankenstein. You couldn’t pay me to read Moby Dick.
Of course, this approach made majoring in English rather difficult. I meandered aimlessly from writer to writer, alighting only on those which took my fancy. In the classroom, I often felt like an uninformed, wretched creature because I didn’t understand any of the references my classmates made. I didn’t know what made a book “good,” and at some point, it became impossible for me to ask without betraying my ignorance. Being an English major who didn’t read The Right Books meant that I Googled the plots of classics such as Tristram Shandy and hoped that nobody would ask me to talk about them later.
My shelves are full of fantasy and mythology and young adult paranormal romance fiction. A solid third of my biggest bookshelf is dedicated to what is technically children’s fiction. Books about teenage spies and magical children and talking animals overflow my shelves and stack up on my nightstand, where my stash of trashy urban fantasy romances from the library is starting to reenact the Tower of Babel. Shakespeare and Aeschylus share a shelf near the bottom with the other Greats whose works I read in class once and didn’t hate.
Notably, you will not find James Joyce on any of my bookshelves.
Instead, I read things that I love. I am reading graphic novels and comic books and one book about belonging to America and another about hobbits. I’m a graduate student in English now, and I focus my academic sights on the books that spark my interests. Maybe I am doing it wrong, but the study of English literature is not an undertaking for those who do not love books, and a forced marriage hardly inspires affection. Besides, I will come to The Canon in my own time, eventually. My TBR list is not a static thing––it grows and shrinks and fluctuates with every new book I see and every “Must Read List!” I encounter––and I always take recommendations. A class on nineteenth-century novels might catch my eye, or a friend might insist that I would love their favorite book, and suddenly I will see what I have been missing. Perhaps one day I shall attempt Dickens again. Maybe I shall find beauty in Hemingway’s sparseness. While I await that day, I shall enjoy my fantasy and my mysteries and the books that some might call trashy, and I shall not concern myself with The Canon’s idea of The Right Books until I know that they are right for me.
Esther Sorg is a graduate student in English Literature at Wright State University. She is avidly reading, constantly writing, and incredibly fond of adverbs.