Thursday, October 9, 2008

"What Should I Read?"

I fantasize about people asking me this question because I’m a seriously educated reader and would never dream of hiding my light under a bushel so I make darn sure everyone who meets me knows this. But no one ever asks. People seem intimidated when they find out I have a master’s degree in English and want to change the subject fast, but only after telling me how much they HATED taking freshman composition and Introduction to World Literature.


Unfortunately, normal people should be nervous about asking people with advanced degrees what to read, because people with advanced degrees are almost always mentally unbalanced. They often specialize in subjects that most people don’t care a fig about, and by “specialize,” I really mean “obsess.” If your obsession leads you to a career as something useful like a neurosurgeon, people respect you for it because you can save lives and make good money doing it. But what if your obsession doesn’t pay well and never saved a life? What if most people think it is a total waste of your time, effort, and energy?

Welcome to my world. I’m obsessed with almost anything written in the Middle Ages (c. 410-1475). I have a huge bookshelf full of medieval literature. This makes me very happy, but normal people usually avoid medieval literature unless forced to read it by a teacher who, they are convinced, wants them to suffer.

It’s lonely being me sometimes.

How did medieval literature become my obsession? I wanted to be a sophisticated reader and knew that sophisticated readers read books written by dead people like Shakespeare and Homer and Hemingway. That’s what schools teach you in 9th grade, which was when I decided my reading should become sophisticated. I was a budding intellectual snob, and my English teachers encouraged me shamelessly. Furthermore, I was a goody-two-shoes who did my homework without being asked, kept a dime between my knees on the rare occasions I had dates, and always told the truth. Just call me Sandra Dee. All that repression was bound to come out somehow.

In eleventh grade, it happened. I discovered that sophisticated literature could be naughty. We read The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. My favorite was "The Miller’s Tale," a bawdy story about adultery and very literal ass-kissing that actually makes pubic hair the punchline of a joke. I quickly decided I wanted to be a medievalist so I could read more naughty literature and feel sophisticated while doing it. So to speak. This is how we goody-two-shoes rebel; we become geeks.

In college, I majored in English and Medieval and Renaissance Studies. The Renaissance was certainly fun—it had Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth the First and Leonardo da Vinci, after all. But for true rollicking bawdiness and sheer strangeness, you can’t beat the Middle Ages. This was the age of faith and the heyday of the Catholic Church. The Middle Ages had the Inquisition, philosophical debates over how many angels fit on the head of a pin, and trial by ordeal (where God settled your guilt or innocence in bizarrely sadistic ways). All that religion ironically highlighted the earthier aspects of human existence. I soaked it all in—the good, the bad, and the just plain weird—like an alcoholic on a bender and kept looking for more.

While doing research for a very serious medieval history class my sophomore year, I stumbled across a book on the Bayeux Tapestry, an embroidery done in the eleventh century to illustrate William the Bastard’s conquest of England in 1066. It was almost certainly commissioned by Bishop Odo and hung in his cathedral at Bayeux for hundreds of years. In the lower margin of the embroidery, which measures an impressive 20 inches tall by 230 feet long, there is a little vignette which shows a naked man with a huge, um, part reaching out to a naked woman. Honestly, what is not to love about this fabulously graphic juxtaposition of headless, blood-dripping corpses and laughably comic lust? It's just so...medieval.

In graduate school, amidst my more serious papers on Beowulf, Quaker rhetoric, and feminism, I gave a very entertaining presentation on a piece of medieval pornography called The Romance of the Rose, a French poem about a lover who spends a lot of time figuring out how to pluck a woman named Rose. The presentation was a hit with my professor and fellow grad students, especially because I included medieval illustrations of the lover plucking his Rose in a canopied bed.

Like all normal, healthy people, English professors and graduate students are obsessed with sex; we’re human and hardwired for it by Mother Nature. Unlike normal, healthy people, however, English professors and graduate students dress up their interest in highly opaque jargon and tweed jackets. Sex is much more sophisticated and intellectual when it is dressed up this way.

We tweedy geeks instantly fall in love with almost any piece of literature that has been banned anywhere for any reason. Lots of medieval literature has been banned. I wrote my thesis on Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, a frequent victim of banning even though she’s only a little bit bawdy. Mainly, she threatens uptight religious fundamentalists’ ideas about how women are the root cause of all evil and need to be kept in their place by men. Even Chaucer couldn’t keep the Wife of Bath in her place, and he wrote her. She takes on a vigorously independent life of her own and is openly contemptuous of men’s feeble attempts to control her. She’s a blast.

I could have written my thesis on something more spiritual, like the morality play Everyman. Trust me: no one, not even fundamentalists with book-burning tendencies, would ban Everyman. It’s a complete buzz kill—beautiful, yes, but definitely a buzz kill. The Wife of Bath joins the Canterbury pilgrims on her quest for a sixth husband just so she can be the boss of him and keep him in his proper place, which is in her bed. Doesn’t that sound more interesting than a play in which Everyman says goodbye to Worldly Goods and his five Wits because only Good Deeds will go with him to the grave? I certainly thought so, and because I discussed the Wife of Bath with appropriately serious jargon and proper footnotes, so did every single member of my thesis committee.

Which leads me back to my original point, from which I have badly strayed. If you were to ask me what you should read, my answer might surprise you.

It’s this. Read whatever you want.

That’s what I do. I read great literature of both the bawdy kind and not-bawdy kind because I’m mental unbalanced, but I also read historical fiction, murder mysteries, science fiction, chick lit, and Harry Potter with equal enthusiasm. You’ll even find a variety of nonfiction on my overflowing bookshelves. Technically, I am a “master” reader who could work a room at a Modern Language Association Conference if I had to, but what sophisticated reading taught me is that reading should be…fun.

Right now my mother is thanking the scholarship and financial aid gods that she didn’t pay much for my very expensive college education.

I will leave you with a few wise words from an exceedingly sophisticated source. Professor Lee Patterson, a top-notch medievalist, once asked his class, “Why do we read literature?” When someone offered up the standard answer (“Because it makes us better people”), he said, “I know plenty of people who’ve read great books their whole lives, and some of them are real assholes. The honest reason we read these books is because they are fun.”

Amen, Brother Patterson. Amen.


  1. What a great post! My husband reads the classics; I don't. I admire anyone who reads!

  2. I wanna be you when I grow up, which considering I graduated in '87 means, what... 3 years? :) You write so well - it's a joy to read your blog. Thanks.

  3. I really enjoy reading. I tend to read a random mix of whatever I'm interested in at the time. I was reading morgue and body farm books for a while, then I was interested in the history of the Hawaiian islands, then hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.

    I feel like I missed out on all of the classics that everyone else read in school. I want to work my way through them, eventually. It's tough with two little kids. Most of my reading right now is more like Dick & Jane. :)

  4. Amazing post! I, too, love Canterbury and the Wife of Bath. I was one of the few in my college class that truly enjoyed what Chaucer was saying with his characters. I think I'm going to reread it. Thanks for bringing back to my thoughts.

  5. Thank you, Susan, for your kind memory.


  6. Wow, what a well-written explanation of the love of literature...makes me want to break out my medieval lit! There's nothing like Medieval art, especailly in person.
    And what a great answer to the question.

  7. Can't remember where I stumbled upon this, but what fun! I too am a geek bemused by the Wife of Bath and her naughtiness. It's true, reading does not make one a better person. But I prefer fun created by my own mind than the modern drivel of television. Thanks for sharing :-)

    [cardmaking and other fun]

  8. lovely post, Susan....came here from your today's pears post to here...Well, I too read everything right from 'serious' literature to comics and harry potter to Erotica ( I have a huge book which has a collection of excerpts from kamasutra, erotic poems and erotic excerpts from old novels). At one time I was such a compulsive reader that I was reading about 2-3 fiction books in a day!!
    love the 'goody-two-shoes rebel bit'!!
    btw Pears remind me always of a back-shot of an amply endowed woman!!


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!