I would like to begin with an apology to the members of my Thursday afternoon Shakespeare seminar, who, yesterday, undeservingly suffered the loudest, squeakiest, and most impassioned conniption fit I’ve had in at least three days.
I try not to make a habit of yelling and gesticulating wildly at innocents, especially while being watched by the people who grade my papers. But I sort of couldn’t help it. I felt that they, my classmates, were threatening someone I loved — a role model, even.
I mean, they weren’t really threatening her, since she’s not real. But even if Portia may not exist, I have come to love her in the course of reading “The Merchant of Venice,” and I guess I don’t like it when people question the things she never actually did because she isn’t a real person, even when those people are doing it well, and under the instruction and leadership of the person who grades my papers. Again, I’m really sorry, and I’ll try to keep it from happening again.
By nature, I am a passive reader. I’ve always thought of this as unusual — and unfortunate — as my major, English, is predicated on the active penetration of literary texts. I think my way of reading — in which the mind is just a piece of bread being dipped into a bowl of delicious soup — is the way most of us read, at least at first. I like to wallow in the poems or stories I’m assigned, and I often have to do a good bit of rousing myself from floating languidly over a text before I do the necessary mental exercise of actually thinking while I’m reading.
I’m both a runner and a lazy person, so this exercise metaphor works for me: It’s hard and I’m usually loathe to get started, but at the end of the day I’m much better off for having exerted myself over a play or a speed workout. There are a lot of people, though, who don’t like exercise or active reading, and to them I want to say: It’s okay. Please read anyway.
A lot of us come to Yale and realize that maybe we’re not cut out to do all the things we love. How many art history majors here loved calculus in high school? But linear algebra wasn’t for them. And how many chemists loved their high school English classes? I know of at least several.
But it can be upsetting if you’ve spent your whole life taking “Romeo and Juliet” at face value (“My bounty is as boundless as the sea,” you told your prom date, “my love as deep.”) only to have someone undermine what you had taken to be a perfect love. Now, suddenly, you’re bothered that Juliet was only 14; you’re bothered that, just yesterday, Romeo was lovesick over Rosaline.
But if you didn’t care when you read it in high school, you don’t have to start caring about it now. Your feelings are as real as anyone’s — realer than those of the characters on the page. If your heart broke to read Juliet plunging Romeo’s dagger into her breast — if you think the balcony scene is the most beautiful love exchange ever written — if when you read these things you are glad for their beauty and the feeling they evoke, cling to that. Don’t change because you think an opinion or a paper has invalidated it.
Don’t give up on reading the classics because you don’t think you’re doing it right. Don’t put “Ulysses” on the shelf for another year because there isn’t a class on it. If you want to read something, read it. And if all you make of it is a string of pretty words — well, aren’t you happier to have read such a lovely line?
All that matters is that you like it, or that you feel it — and if you misunderstand it in a way that makes it more meaningful to you, be glad of it. Let it mean what it will mean to you. That’s a valid way of reading — and perhaps, in the end, the most important one.
As long as you don’t go yelling at people about it. Trust me, it’s pretty awkward.