Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Over the weekend, I read a blog post by V-grrrl that struck a harmonious chord with my recent reflections on the Word of the Year project. At the end of the post, she writes, “Maybe we need to respect, not despise, the unfinished business in our lives and see it not as a failure, but as evidence of a life fully lived and explored. In the process of running in circles, we are also covering a lot of ground!”

I like this. As someone whose hyperactive brain is always hatching far too many grand schemes for a single human to accomplish in one lifetime, I like the idea of shifting perspective so we see our unfinished business as proof of richness and the limitless possibilities of life, and not evidence of insanity or inadequacy. Truly, the world is such a fascinating place how can people not want to explore subjects as diverse as Roman aqua ducts, the symbolism of sacraments in medieval romance poetry, and string theory?

V-grrrl's comment is directly relevant to our Word of the Year project. Part of my perceived failure the past two years has been a belief that I need to accomplish my word, like it's a goal rather than a guideline.

Then, last night, I read Chapter 5 of Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project. The Happiness Project, in case you didn’t know, documents Rubin’s year-long attempt to find practical ways to apply the latest happiness research to her life.

Will wonders never cease? There’s happiness research. The psychological community finally realized that it needed to study happiness just as seriously as it has studied neuroses, psychoses, anger, fear, and other negative stuff. Perhaps by studying happiness, we might better understand how to get over, under, or through the bad stuff of life.

But it’s hard to take happiness research seriously. I mean, how do you quantify happiness? Can it be charted and graphed and referenced with jargon? Sure.

But it takes all the happiness out of it.

Rubin’s book, however, shows how the research can be played with in our lives to make them happier. And Chapter 5 is all about how Rubin tried to have more fun because having fun is a part of happiness. (Research was done to figure that out.) In thinking about what Rubin finds fun, she explores how she enjoys children’s literature a bit more than literature for adults. She writes,

“But my passion for kidlit didn’t fit with my ideas of what I wished I were like; it wasn’t grown up enough. I wanted to be interested in serious literature, constitutional law, the economy, art, and other adult subjects. And I am interested in those topics, but somehow I felt embarrassed by my love of J. R. R. Tolkien, E. L. Konigsberg, and Elizabeth Enright.”

While I’ve never hidden my love of Tolkien or the Harry Potter series, I strongly relate to Rubin’s desire to be grown up enough in her reading. A year ago, I bought Proust’s Swann’s Way, the first book in his magnum opus, Remembrance of Things Past. I’d always thought my ignorance of Proust was a gaping hole in my literary education, and after reading the fascinating book Proust was a Neuroscientist, I felt compelled to fill that hole. A year after purchase, however, Swann’s Way rests unopened on the bookshelf by my bed. I've read a LOT in the last year, but somehow, Swann's Way never made it off the shelf and onto my bedside table.

So does the shelved state of Swann’s Way constitute failure on my part or does it simply provide evidence of the richness of my interests in books? I suppose the answer depends on what I do with that unopened book. Right now, it represents potential knowledge. Will I learn something interesting? Will reading it be fun? I don’t know. Not until I crack it open and give it a try, which I suppose I'll do sometime this year in my pursuit of my Word of the Year: Learn.

Last week, I took Ovid’s Metamorphoses to my bedside table and have started reading it as the beginning of my Learn journey. If you are wondering why in the heck I'm reading a really long poem written by an ancient Roman poet, you've clearly forgotten that I am a geek...and not just any geek, but a geek completely obsessed with all things medieval. Metamorphoses had a huge influence on medieval literature, and while I'm familiar with a lot of the mythological stories it tells (thanks to my fifth- and sixth-grade obsession with Greek and Roman mythology), I've only read around in it, not all the way through it. Given that part of what I want to Learn this year is new stuff about the Middle Ages, Ovid's seminal work (pun intended) seemed a good place to start.

At first, though, it felt like a chore, and I wondered why I was doing this to myself. Was this really a fun thing to learn? But now that I'm into Book II, Ovid has pulled me in to the world of lust and deception and infidelity and hubris and revenge and weird transformations of beautiful young girls into laurel trees and giant bovines. I'm not, however, feeling more grown up reading it. In fact, I'm feeling very much like a dirty-minded teenager thumbing through romance novels for the dirty parts. Only in this book, pretty much the whole thing is dirty.

And dang, that is fun!

Proust, however, may not have the same adolescent appeal. Perhaps there will be a different appeal to reading Swann's Way, something equally fun but more grown up. If there isn't, I'm not going to waste my Word of the Year on it. Life's too short to read unappealing books when you don't have to, even if they are brilliant works of literature and you feel like you're supposed to like them.

To wrap up all this rambling, let me say that V-grrrl, Gretchen Rubin, and Ovid have helped me shift my thinking about the Word of the Year project to a happier, healthier, less serious perspective. I don't have to Learn grown-up stuff unless it's fun. There's lots of stuff that's not grown up at all that I don't know, and it's okay to pursue learning that stuff, too. There's not time for learning everything in my life, so I'm going to focus on what's interesting to me, FUN to me, and let the rest go.

I'd love to hear about whatever is helping you get going with your Word for 2011. Please share!


  1. Following your rationale, Susan, would it be safe to say that there may be an art to learning and like reading should only be approached if fun? But what about what we learn when it's not fun? There's some value there, too. It's a conundrum. But probably worth learning about...

  2. Mickey, you're right. A lot of the learning we do when we're young may not be fun but is still valuable. This holds true later as well. But when we are making choices about what to do with our free time or what to pursue more actively, we can always choose something fun. One thing we learn when it isn't fun is something about ourselves. We don't have to know it all, understand it all, or do it all. There will definitely be value in trying Proust whether or not I stick with him to the end of Swann's Way and beyond. Thanks for pointing that out!


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!