Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Reading All Day Long

I had this fantasy in my head for many years, and it went like this: I would get a job where all I did was read all day long. Eight hours a day, a constantly changing stack of books which in turn entertain and provoke deep thoughts, just me and my La-Z-Girl recliner. That's the life.

Or is it? (Dun, dun, dunnnn!)

I've had the chance to test out my all-reading-all-the-time theory this semester, and wouldn't you know, it's not quite as fun as I expected it to be. By the end of the semester, here's what I will have read:

Writing for Mass Media: about 200 pages
American History Before 1865: about 450 pages (plus a 300 page textbook, the spine of which is perfectly intact and will remain so)
Literature of the Sacred: 1,659

Seriously, one class has over 1600 pages assigned, and that's a conservative estimate. I'm not even including the two 200 page books and many articles suggested as research for the paper due in at the end of the semester. I've done a fair amount of skimming where I could and picked up a couple of audiobook versions of novels so I could squeeze every drop of productivity out of my day. This semester is truly testing my love of reading. I may have to take up a new hobby, like bullying nerds or playing kickball or whatever it is that non-readers do for fun.

I knew when I first saw the syllabus for my lit class that it was going to be a killer, so I have no one but myself to blame for this deluge of paper and ink. No one but myself...and my professor, of course. Not only did he assign an acre's worth of dead trees to be read in 15 short weeks, but he made the class so freaking interesting that I couldn't possibly make myself drop it. This is probably my second-favorite class I've ever taken. It has a lot in common with my #1 favorite class, Ethics and Values. Both are extremely thought-provoking--I lay in bed and churn over what we discussed. Both make me examine what I believe and why. But I don't remember Ethics and Values even requiring a textbook, so it's going to stay the winner. Sometimes practicality trumps quality.

Since misery loves company, and I'm all about the misery this semester, here's a list of the books I've been reading.

The Jesuit Relations: about the French Jesuit missionaries in Canada during the 1600's. They were trying to convert the Native ummm...Canadians? Wait, what do you call them in Canada? I'm going with Indians here, because the book was all about being not politically correct; the Jesuits called them savages and worse. The missionaries were required to send yearly reports back to France, telling about all their baptizing and conquests and such. I couldn't read this without being outraged at the treatment of the Indians and the arrogance and superiority exhibited by the Europeans. Outrage--it's the emotion of the semester.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, respectively: More outrage, this time over slavery. I'm not quite finished with Slave Girl, but when I'm done I'm going to write a paper about the role of Christianity in the lives of the slaveholders. The hypocrisy! It's insane. The violence and mental torture is too much for me to read sometimes.

Literature of the Sacred: The Literary History of Adam & Eve

Eve & Adam - this is our main textbook, which has a cartoon picture of a naked Eve on the front, causing much uncomfortableness for my tween-age son. The book is an anthology of documents that show how the Adam and Eve story has been interpreted for the last, oh, 2500 years or so. The fascinating thing about the story in Genesis is that it is basically a blank slate for each culture/society to write their own meaning onto. Does your society value women? Then Eve saved humanity from being stuck in a boring garden. Does your society value men? Then Eve was an evil temptress. Want to keep women subject to men? Stress the superiority of Adam. Reading how people (priests, rabbis, novelists, etc) interpreted Adam and Eve tells more about that culture than it does about Adam and Eve.

Book of Urizen by William Blake: Almost completely incomprehensible. Thank goodness for wikipedia, so I could actually understand what was going on, mostly.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelly: This book was slow to start but picked up speed further in. It's obviously a Creation story and an entertaining one at that. My professor wrote his dissertation on Frankenstein, so we spent a good bit of time talking about it. I read Dracula two years ago for a Brit Lit class, and frankly, I enjoyed Dracula more than Frankenstein. I don't know how that's relevant to this blog post, but there you go.

Cain by Lord Byron: This is a play, I think, and I skimmed it.

Autobiography of Adam and Eve by Mark Twain: The first and only (so far) book in this class that I would read again for fun. Twain writes (in two separate stories) Adam's diary and Eve's diary from the time that they are first created to when they're kicked out of the garden. It's funny and it has that great timelessness--written like 150 years ago and still nailing the stereotypes of men and women. I highly recommend reading this.

Just because I like you, here's a link to the free Kindle version of Eve's Diary and Adam's Diary. Read Adam's Diary first.

Tomorrow's Eve by Villiers de L'Isle-Adam: The other book my professor wrote his dissertation about, but this was deeper than Frankenstein and less entertaining. It was written in the later 1800's and contains the first use of the word "android," to describe the robot a fictional Thomas Edison created to be the girlfriend of a friend of his. If you like science fiction, this might be of interest to you, as it's an early entry into that genre. My prof considers it one of the most important books no one's read. I'm just glad to be done with it.

God's Grace by Bernard Malamud: This one is on tap for Thanksgiving break. Also sci-fi, and maybe post-apocalyptic to boot. The only thing I know is that Prof. Peterson warned the class that there is a scene of human-monkey sex, and the most disturbing part of the scene is that by the time it happens, the idea of human-monkey sex is not disturbing.

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett: This is also on the syllabus for December. I've read it before, wasn't impressed the first time, but then I tend to read for plot first and this play has basically none. But it's one of those classic things that English majors have to read and pretend to find really, really deep and meaningful. This time I might just rent the video instead.

Women and Authority by Maxine Hanks (editor): Now this is an interesting book. It's a collection of essays written by Mormon (or soon-to-be-former-Mormons) about LDS feminist issues. When I told Prof. Peterson that I wanted to write my final paper on women in the LDS Church, he looked at me carefully and asked, "Are you a practicing Mormon?" I said that I was, and I could see him weighing whether or not to encourage me in this topic. Finally he asked me, "What are you going to do with information you find disturbing?" A good question. The problem is, when you spend ten weeks (so far) studying women's issues in a religious context, questions are going to pop up. It's fine to say, "Oh, so that's why Paul was such a jerk about women two thousand years ago," but the next thought is, "I wonder what my religion teaches about this issue." I told Prof. Peterson that it's too late--I already had disturbing information, and I think the best way to deal with it is just lay it all out on the table and accept the good with the bad. When it comes to information, I have to go all in. He relaxed a little--I think it would have bothered him to have a faithful member leave the church over what we learned in his class. He said, "The important thing is for you to stay in. The church won't change because of what people outside the church say or do--it'll only change from within." And then he gave me this link to the book Women and Authority .

He was right to warn me. Thought-provoking? Oh, yes. Disturbing? Also yes. I don't agree with a lot that the authors in the book say, and in fact several of the authors seem to contradict each other as well. But the ideas in the book--primarily about the equality/inequality of women in the church, the church hierarchy and women's place in it, and women's relationship to the priesthood--several of the ideas reinforced questions I've asked myself. For example, why aren't women ever asked to pray in General Conference? Why does so much time and money go into Cub & Boy Scouts but not Activity Days and Young Women? Why don't sister missionaries get to stay for two whole years, and why do they have to wait two years longer than the boys? I've had wonderful male leaders and I sustain all of them, but sometimes I have to ask myself why men and not women? Fundamentally, why? Women and Authority looks at that question and comes up with a lot of disturbing answers. I don't know exactly what I believe on this topic right now, but I know that the Holy Ghost will confirm the truth of all things, and that's what I'm relying on.

Well, that was a little bit of a diversion, wasn't it? Possibly I'll write more on the topic of women in the LDS church at a future time, after I've written my paper about it and, of course, when I've finally finished reading the 500 pages I've got left this semester. If I ever finish the 500 pages I've got left. In the meantime, if there's an earthquake in Utah, you can find my broken body crushed under the weight of too many books. And here I thought reading all day would be fun.