Thursday 8 November 2018

How Studying Eng Lit Stopped Me Reading

Yesterday on Anecdotal Evidence, Patrick Kurp wrote of how 'even dedicated readers tell horror stories about teachers who tried their damnedest to sour them on literature'. In Patrick's case, a teacher managed to turn reading Julius Caesar into 'an exercise in vivisection'. At school I had a similar experience with Henry IV, Part One, a play that became a torment to me, largely because I had difficulty sorting out who was who and what exactly was going on (I've always been weak on plot), and the teacher in question made a point of interrogating me relentlessly on precisely the things I didn't know. Happily his efforts did not put me off the play for life.
  Far worse, for me, was the effect of what is quaintly called the English Tripos at Cambridge. I arrived in the 'city of perspiring dreams' (copyright Frederic Raphael) a fresh-faced youngster in love with literature, and staggered out of the place three years later quite literally unable to read any substantial literature for pleasure or even profit. For about a year I read very little at all, and my appetite for reading only revived when I found myself working in a university library and my wanderings in the stacks left me in no doubt of the vast extent of my ignorance. It was time to start again...
 But what on earth had happened in those three dazed years at Cambridge (a question that applies to more than my literary studies)? What had managed so effectively to put me off literature altogether? I think it was partly the 'exercise in vivisection' aspect – so much probing of the text, so little genuine engagement with it. The work in question was not something to be appreciated on its own terms but a mere springboard for displays of intellectual gymnastics and contortionism, the more modish and far-fetched the better. I even had an early immersion in what I daresay was deconstructionist criticism, which made everything that much worse, and probably put the tin hat on the whole sorry business. Although I managed a decent degree (thanks in part to a gift for creative plagiarism – a very English thing, according to Peter Ackroyd's Albion), I left university thoroughly alienated from the thing I had loved, English literature. Thank heavens the effect was short lived.


  1. I lasted 10 days on the English Tripos at Cambridge in 1977 - party as I was intimidated by a hirsute public school boy peer who started rattling on about how similar 'The Faerie Queen' was to the comings and goings of apparatchiks under Stalin in my first supervision. Obvious to anyone but a fool! I switched to French and Italian which meant I spent much time on Dante and Baudelaire for which I was grateful.

    The difference between the vivisection model and being so excited by a new author that you can't wait to devour him/her is a yawning gap indeed. Fortunately, I still often feel the latter.

  2. A lucky escape, Guy.
    Heaven knows what the Eng Tripos is like now – much the same only more so, I imagine. Never mind – when I'd recovered from my unfortunate experience of Eng Lit, my reading appetite returned with new vigour and has only grown stronger since. In particular, discovering the literary blogscape began my education as a reader all over again

  3. It's been a great help to me too, yours not least. Strange that we read in spite of our education, eh?

    Bye the bye, the hirsute public school boy is now the sonnet-writing chaplain of ............a Cambridge College! who does the rounds of the Lit fests.

  4. Oh dear oh dear. No surprise there...