Monday, May 18, 2015

Culture Corner: On Studying Literature at Brooklyn College

On Studying Literature at Brooklyn College

I have always been a reader. As a kid, I devoured comic books. In my teens, I worshipped the Beats. In my twenties, I read anything that piqued my interest whether it was pulpy trash or highly acclaimed literature, every book to me hung luminously within the same universe. In this way, my appreciation for literature was viewed through the hazy lens of an autodidact, which is to say that it was passionate, if obscured.

When I decided to return to college to study literature, I had one real concern; is this really going to be worth it? What can I do with a English degree or, as I ultimately decided, a BFA in Creative Writing?

This concern is, I think, a typically American one. We live in a Capitalist society that demands a Return on Investment, which is almost always measured financially. It is this very thinking that has caused many to question the value of an education in humanities. Indeed, were I to study business or health services or computer programming, there would certainly be a more substantive access to job security once I graduated. Of course, I would not be very good at my job because I really couldn't care less about any of those things. 

However, I was thrilled to read the novels in my 18th Century literature class (yes, even Pamela) and gain a deeper understanding of the novel by studying the works that shaped the nascent art form. In my Victorian poetry class, I delighted in Robert Browning's ironic verse and lamented the limited hours at my disposal to research his work and write a paper on him. One of the aspects of college we should all treasure as students is that for many of us, this time will almost certainly be the last opportunity to study the influential works of literature and then be asked for our most well articulated opinions about them! I mean, it's freaking awesome! I enjoyed it so much, I often felt that I was getting away with something. Isn't this much work supposed to seem, y'know, like work?

Despite my initial reservations, I am glad that I did return to college. Specifically, I am glad that I decided to study at Brooklyn College. Not only have I had the opportunity to study under erudite, warm, and encouraging instructors, I suspect that there are not many academic institutions that can boast such a wonderfully diverse student body, which is a shame. I think that even among the most open-minded among us, there is a kind of invisible wall that separates us from those who look differently or believe differently than we do and this wall is hard as hell to break down. But I think being in the trenches with students from varied backgrounds gives us the tools that allow us to reduce that wall to rubble. The distanced "other" becomes simply "another": another student, another classmate, another friend.

On that note, I don't know that left to my own devices, I would have sought out the work of Edwidge Danticat or Claudia Rankine, but having read their works, I can say that I am a better person for it. Before, I may have dismissed their work as "not for me", which of course means "straight white male." But, instead my empathy for those who live outside of my personal experience has deepened and my own ignorance about literature has been obliterated. 

When people ask if the humanities really matter, I think this empathy is the reason the answer can only be an emphatic "yes." While studying literature, I learned that the hopes, fears, humiliations, and victories experienced by people living in 18th Century England are much the same as those living in 21st Century America. I learned that the color of my skin does not inhibit my ability to recognize injustice in society. I learned that the flaws that we all share, the ones that can sometimes make life seem so unbearably arduous, are the ones that make us human; that make us all beautiful. This knowledge may never make me a millionaire, but to study an art form that I love, to participate in the agony and ecstasy that is the human experience, has led to a richer life than I could have hoped for. 

-Justin Gray


It will come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog that I am a fan of Marlon Brando. Not long ago I was chatting with my mother about a Brando movie I had watched, spouting every trivia fact I knew because that's what I like to do, when I saw the look on her face that indicated she was about to say something annoying. 

"Elizabeth," she said. "Is this going to be another one of your obsessions?"

Clearly she meant this is a negative way, but I've come to embrace the obsession. I love movies. Some people seem to think that movies are purely superficial, not worth talking about when there are "real issues" in the world. Entertainment magazines are relegated to waiting rooms and supermarket check out lines, and pop culture sites are referred to as guilty pleasures. But I love that whole glitzy, glamorous industry. I look forward to movies and read the message boards on IMDb like it's my job. I absorb the trivia of every movie I watch and talk about them every chance I get. Movies, and everything that goes into making movies, thrill and fascinate me.

Movies, much like literature, create another world that I, for a short time, can be a part of and for two hours or so nothing else matters. The difference between movies and books is that reading is an individual experience; whatever you see in your head is yours alone, and no matter how many people have read that book no one experiences it like you, which is its own virtue. But it seems to me movies are like someone saying "See this story as I see it." A director, if he or she is good at the job, can paint a picture in ways that I never would have dreamed. And watching that movie in a theater, surrounded by excited people like yourself eager to be entertained, laughing together or sitting in silence, is a special feeling as well.

Now a lot of people love movies, and can extol their virtues at length. I also love celebrities, and I'm here to defend that, too. I know the cult of celebrity has been overblown, and a great many people are famous for lousy reasons, but man, they're called movie stars for a reason. The story can be great, the director can be top-notch and the cinematography on point, but without the right cast a movie is impossible to watch. Actors give the movie life; they give characters on paper a face and movement, make them into someone you love or you hate.

At least that's what it does for me, because I'm obsessed with movies. I'm happy to be obsessed with movies, because I like to be interested in things. Somehow I got the impression that there are some things more worthy of interest than others; not anymore, because if I like it, then


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