I went to graduate school at McGill University. In hindsight, to go to the most prestigious university in Canada while only having graduated from public school and the University of Prince Edward Island seems insane…and it was. I was totally unprepared for the cut-throat world of academia that I had been tossed into. Other students had arrived early, met with the profs they would schmooze under, and taken all of the really cool apartments on the Plateau. Me…I showed up and was the one guy without a teaching assistantship or research grant to start or end. Ironic now, as I teach at Canada’s most prestigious private school; I am a solid teacher by any standards, while most of my McGill peers either burned out, dropped out or work jobs to make ends meet. I suppose that is what two years of trying to learn instead of trying to placate professors did for me in its own weird way. I went in weak, but came out strong.
While at McGill, I had made a few close friends and a few closer enemies, but to fight the stereotype that I was “just a simple, quaint Islander” who merited no serious academic considerations I created a persona based on a satyrical perspective of my colleagues: Dr. Tony Fudtje. Fudtje was clearly a scholar emeritus who truly understood Post-Colonialism, Post-Modernism, Post-Marxism and American Pseudo-Lacanian Crypto-Gothic Literatures. He sweated brilliance and jargon, and he wrote the English Department’s monthly newsletter. Fudtje attended lectures by Noam Chomsky at McGill and then hitched a ride to hear Jacques Derrida speak at Queen’s. I may have been patronized by my peers, but Dr. Tony Fudtje kept them all on their toes. Most intriguing was his seminal theory on coming to understand literature through deep reading. His canonical text, The Five Books I Have Read, was required reading at five Ivy League schools and one little university in Madagascar. He was often cited in graduate papers at the school, but never noticed in by brilliant professors who must have read his work, too.
Fudtje’s theory rolled like this – to become a great student of literature one needs only read five canonical texts deeply. Deep reading would permit him to tether his learning to all other experiences ever-afterwards, and would keep his Post-Colonial mind humble, Zen and present. The five texts needed to be from different authors, different genres and be infinitely quotable, because what great academic could not permitted to quote ad nauseum to demonstrate his wit and intellectuality.
The sad truth is that I had probably only truly read a dozen or so books deeply by the time I had begun my M.A. I loved literature in my fashion, but really I loved being in university more. I just enjoyed being around books and interesting people with interesting lives doing interesting things, so to say I had really only read five books was not too far awry. My five books would have been 1984, Hamlet, The Great Gatsby, Interview With the Vampire, and The Canterbury Tales, I believe that I travelled further on those five novels than most do on an entire library.
Fortunately, I could speak with force and I did wield a smidgeon of wit; at least enough to carry me through until I could read enough literature to produce a brilliant M.A. thesis in my second year. What is enough? Well, my first year had been a struggle because no one had truly explained what I was supposed to be doing in graduate school. I chose classes to cover my areas of weakness, while my peers chose classes to polish their strengths. My writing was compelling at times, but was a structural mess. I recall being a frantic mess on my first attempt to write a proposal for my thesis. It was only one page, but all of my words were a cacophony of jargon. I spent one year learning how to write in a room on borrowed computers. I painstakingly fought to organize my thoughts into paragraphs and eventually into a 86 page thesis on identity and self-definition.
What is enough? Enough is over one hundred books in my second year. All I did was read each day, and I read whatever my thesis supervisor suggested. From Freud to Nietzche to Charles Taylor to Maquis de Sade to Saint Augustine to Robertson Davies, I read and read and read. I was the Forrest Gump of literary studies for a time. It was a glorious time to be alive, but it was also a hard, penniless time in poverty, too.
Over the past week I have been thinking about reading and why it is essential to remaining mentally active in a world that demands we skim material in lieu of reading deeply. Like Chomsky suggested at that McGill lecture, very little can be said of substance within a sound byte, which is why those in power love to only provide us with platforms to communicate within small boundaries. Would the Arab Spring or the London Riots have occurred without bbm or twitter? Not in the same manner, and certainly not with such simplistic agendas. Like the Occupy Movement, modern revolutions go nowhere because while the ability to mobilize has multiplied exponentially, the ability to clearly define deep, lasting thoughts has diminished to what Orwell would call Newspeak.
Hamlet is literature’s deepest thinker. He spends his days thinking about the ghost, revenge and mortality, but how many young people have taken the time to read Hamlet? American AP classes are crammed with students attempting to cram more pseudo-knowledge gleaned from Wikipedia into their brains than they do taking the time to consider a piece of literature’s lifelong implications. If we cannot learn from the great novels, then what hope do we have of teaching the generations after us to learn deeply from not only the digital knowledges but also the stable, eternal truths found in classic literature?
Dr. Tony Fudtje would argue that his five novels provided him with a clear, concise viewpoint on the most critical pieces of the human psyche and built the scaffolding for all other literature he would read. Orwell’s 1984 taught him to fear the loss of language, to distrust free media, to doubt what governments tell him, and to never have sex with a strange woman above an antique shop. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales expounded on the seven deadly sins, the importance of telling stories, the beauty of a holy pilgrimage and travel, and showed the language as it evolved from French and Anglo-Saxon into Middle English.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet gave him Polonious’ infinite advice on life, Hamlet’s wordplay and keen mind, ways to turn the tables on our enemies by pretending to be madder and weaker than you are, and it brings us the language as it is duplicitous in its actual meanings. Surely, it forces us to ask whether we are better to be than not.
Finally, we find ourselves with two American novels that teach Fudtje the key tenets of the New World. In The Great Gatsby we learn that “rich girls don’t marry poor boys”, but that we can become whatever we want by merely playing to role, by becoming the “great Gatsby” in illusion. Futdje learned that the rich care little for the world around them, and that a man , Tom Buchanan, who reads only one book is more dangerous than a man who has read deeply. He learned what brilliant, modern writing looks like before its author falls apart into a million pieces.
Whereas in Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire leads Fudtje to follow how to seduce and destroy with reckless abandon, and that we are all preternatural creatures with our own philosophies to justify the morality of our actions. He learns that identity is a construct that must evolve if we are to last from one age to the next. He learns that the imaginary is just as important as the realistic, and that we would each begin our life stories in much the same way: I was born, I went to school…I loved.