(Now That She’s Not an English Professor)
I stopped working as an English professor last year. I didn’t get a tenure-track job after five years of trying, the small rich college I was teaching at wouldn’t renew my contract, I couldn’t take another year of increasingly precarious contingent work, and I quit. I still work in academia—I even teach sometimes!—but I no longer have a job in which my thinking about books has anything to do with my livelihood.
My attempt to disentangle myself from books—or more specifically, to disentangle my feelings about academia from the books themselves—has not gone so well. It is hard to change a life. There are many good things my career change has brought. My work is different now, but still meaningful. I live in a place I love. I have more stability.
And I don’t have to read things I don’t care about; I don’t have to pretend to care about the books that other people like just because I’m hoping they will publish me or hire me—or because we go to the same conferences, or work down the hall from one another.
It might be freeing to extricate books from all of that, to take the tastes and judgments and arguments of others out, to extricate books from the status and power of others, and to say: I don’t care about your books. To that end, here’s a list of books that I no longer have to pretend to like now that I’m not an English professor.
Middlemarch, George Eliot: For so many English professors, this is the book. I put off reading it for years, but when I finally decided to read Middlemarch a few years ago nightly before bed, at the rate of approximately ten pages per night, it took only 407 long years. Dodo was fine, but I never, ever want to read about a man’s gambling debts again.
The Ambassadors, Henry James: A lot of my grad school professors were Very Into Henry James, as so many white men academics are. As a young person, I thought that I might want to join this club because so many do. It turns out, I do not. I read The Ambassadors in a week as one does when one reads a long novel for a graduate seminar, and I felt like it had been written specifically to torture me out of graduate school. I like novels with fucking, and that boat scene did not do it for me.
The Changing Light at Sandover, James Merrill: This is an epic poem structured by a Oujia board, which is totally my thing, and it features a spirit guide named Mirabell and the ghost of W.H. Auden—and it is still (somehow, incredibly) the longest, most boring poem ever written.
Aesthetic Theory, Theodor Adorno: Once, understanding this book was extremely important to me, and I worked so hard at it for so long, but now I cannot tell you one single thing about it which suggests to me that maybe it was not worth spending so much time on in the first place.
The Cantos, Ezra Pound: As someone who built a career—and then lost a career—writing about experimental poetry, I feel particularly good about renouncing The Cantos. I have never, ever liked these poems, not even the Pisan Cantos, which are the ones you are supposed to like because they are about memory (or something) even if you don’t like the other ones. I am not completely anti-Pound. I understand why he is important, even though he was a literal fascist, and I used to begin my modern American poetry classes with Pound. I unabashedly love “In a Station of the Metro,” and I have spent hours of my life teaching and writing about those two perfect lines of poetry. It is a perfect tiny poem. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t pick Stein or Toomer or even Eliot to read over Pound any day of the week; I would. No one needs more fascism in 2020.
What I am saying, though, is that I appreciate a tiny poem, and while there may be a time for long books, I look back on the career I did have and wonder how many other books I could have fit in those years when it mattered, when I felt I mattered—to books, which is to say, to the academic communities around books—if I hadn’t spent quite so much time reading all those long books that I didn’t like reading, but that I did read just because other people told me they were important for me to read.
Because the thing is, I don’t really read books anymore; I cannot make them cohere.
Jacquelyn Ardam is a writer, educator, and the Social Media Editor of The Rambling. Her work has appeared recently in venues such as the Los Angeles Review of Books, Hyperallergic, Avidly, and LitHub. She lives in Los Angeles.
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