One of the best decisions I ever made was to change my major from Mass Communications to English Literature.
To pragmatically-minded Asians, an English major is impractical at best, and frivolous at worst. Some people asked me if I wanted to become a professor. Others asked how I felt about being poor. Even now, I feel pressured to sculpt my passion for English into a passion for journalism, which sounds far more respectable. At least it’s easier to justify as a career.
I’ve come across tons of articles about how reading literature makes us better people. But as grateful as I am for that argument, I didn’t study old texts because they are good for me. I studied them because reading is fun. I have a Shakespeare app on my iPhone. I can recite Sonnet 116 on command. And my heart literally started beating faster the first time I came across Philip Larkin’s “Aubade.”
It’s been a long time since I’ve written an academic paper about Elizabethan playwrights, e.e. cummings, or novels from the Jazz Age. But whenever I feel a little jaded, all I need to do is reread “somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond” to remember what it’s like to experience something beautiful. Even a page from The Great Gatsby will do (and well, even Fitzgerald had to move from the French Riviera to Hollywood to keep food on the table).
This long, dry season has made me feel dead inside. But poetry, plays, and old books make me come alive. And what could be more practical than that?
“We need the humanities not because they will produce shrewder entrepreneurs or kinder C.E.O.s but because, as that first professor said, they help us enjoy life more and endure it better. The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human. That’s enough.” (from here)
tl;dr read ALL THE BOOKS, and not just the “useful” ones
Of course it was a disaster. The unbearable, dearest secret has always been a disaster. The danger when we try to leave. Going over and over afterward what we should have done instead of what we did. But for those short times we seemed to be alive. Misled, misused, lied to and cheated, certainly. Still, for that little while, we visited our possible life. - Jack Gilbert, “Going There”
“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”
<p>When my heart was grieved<br/>
and my spirit embittered,<br/>
I was senseless and ignorant;<br/>
I was a brute beast before you.</p>
<p>Yet I am always with you;<br/>
you hold me by my right hand.<br/>
You guide me with your counsel,<br/>
and afterward you will take me into glory.<br/>
Whom have I in heaven but you?<br/>
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.<br/>
My flesh and my heart may fail,<br/>
but God is the strength of my heart<br/>
and my portion forever.</p>
This song always reminds me of New York. Not because I listened to it when I was there. By the time it came out, I was already living in Taiwan and going through my “indie electro” phase. I hated living there. So to keep myself a New Yorker at heart, I listened to music that I knew our local radio stations wouldn’t play. Every day, I would trawl Pitchfork and Hypem to look for something that was a little esoteric, but not too challenging for my pedestrian tastes. And that’s how I found “Midnight City,” by M83. I hear it, and it’s like I’m in Manhattan again. For four minutes and three seconds, I’m 22, and shuffling to my office 27th and 7th while avoiding eye contact with the students loitering outside of F.I.T. It’s windy out, my hair’s still damp from my morning shower, and I’m fishing out the dimes that have slipped through the holes inside my coat pockets. I listen to the song a second time, and I’m outside of K-Town, awaiting a friend who will insist that we get Pinkberry after dinner even though it’s barely 40 degrees out. I listen to it a third time, and I’m walking past that dorm in NYU with a facade that looks like a church. I’m waiting for somebody. I always am, in these imaginings. It’s always winter, and I am always outside. But then those four minutes are over, and I either hit “repeat” or I venture into the living room, where my mother passes the time by combing out the knots in our dog’s fur.
Now that I’m living in Singapore, I don’t seek out music like this anymore. I don’t know if I ever really liked it, or if i just liked what it sustained in me. You would think that “Midnight City” would remind me of those afternoons in my Taiwan bedroom, which I left only to pee or help my mom set the table. But no. The synth comes on and in my mind, I’m among skyscrapers and $1 pizza joints again
I realize now that’s not my actual life in New York that I return to when listening to this song, but the fantasy that I inhabited during that year I lived in Taiwan. And maybe that’s why the effect is uncomfortable, rather than nostalgic — because it reminds me of a place, and of a life, that I created and have since outgrown. Of the New York I could have had, and that persists only in daydreams.
"Though much is taken, much abides; and though We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are, One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” - Lord Alfred Tennyson, Ulysses
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