When I started studying literature at Oxford, a bright-eyed Fresher still reeling from the fact that I had actually been allowed into this infamous institution, I had several expectations of how I would end up after graduating. I expected to be turned into an erudite, well-read man, able to rattle off quotes from the canon at will and solidify my inchoate dreams of becoming a writer into reality (I also expected to be able to use the word inchoate in a sentence unironically). I would come out with a sense of what literature actually was, what it really meant, how it shaped our views of life and reflected our culture and society – and to be able to explain that all with nonchalant ease to anybody who might ask.
Three years, far too many books and a battery of exams later, almost none of that has come to pass. Instead, I’ve been afflicted by an acute case of ‘the more you know the less you understand’. I couldn’t really tell you much about Shakespeare (I managed to get through the entire Shakespeare module by reading about six of the plays). I’ve barely read ANY of the big Romantics – who is this Keats person anyway? – or many 20th century writers. Graham Greene? Nope. Evelyn Waugh? Nope. Iris Murdoch? Nope. Furthermore, we run so fast through so many books that I can barely remember the contents of half the stuff I finished – and wrote essays on – over the past three years.
What about all that theory that we are supposed to be inundated with? Well… I still don’t really know what structuralism or post-structuralism is (or if I did, I’ve forgotten). I have the vaguest understanding of queer theory, and have read almost nothing of the big (mostly French) theorists that everyone has heard of. My main contact with literary criticism week-by-week was less a detailed reflection on the merits of each critic’s argument, and more a desperate search for out-of-context quotations that I could ram into an essay to tick the ‘critical engagement’ box (and usually get berated for my tutors for doing so). I never did understand what Stephen Greenblatt was on about, but I’ve quoted him liberally in my essays all the same. Looking back, my degree seems to have been a mad, whirlwind tour in which I charged around the outskirts of the great ivory tower of literature, occasionally picking up the odd snippet of wisdom that wafted from within as I rushed by.
So, on initial reflection back on the previous three years, what exactly have I learnt from my degree?
Firstly – and perhaps most usefully – I now have phenomenal bullshitting skills. Three years of discussing books that I’ve barely read, writing long extended essays on those books and presenting arguments that I don’t really believe, have helped me develop my BS skills into something of an art form. Give me a hook and I can bullshit on just about anything for a few minutes – especially if it is literary-based. About halfway through my first year I started to realise that the study of literature is pretty much built on a shifting sea of BS anyway – everybody is acting as if the nonsense they are talking about actually resides within the texts (which they have barely read) and fits it within the constraints of arbitrary theory (which is more BS that they don’t really understand). I’m not sure if any degree develops the ability to BS on demand quite to the level of English Literature (perhaps Philosophy?), and by God it does a good job of it. I now know just enough names, quotes and book titles that I could just about pass myself off as a well-read individual, even though I really ain’t.
Jokes aside, though, I have managed to find a few useful gems from my degree. Firstly, is that it has demystified so many famous names and titles in English Literature. Once you realise that Shakespeare wasn’t always considered a literary deity, and that half of the canonical greats wrote hack work or fawning panegyrics for their daily bread, it helps to clear the misty aura of mystique and sanctity that sometimes surrounds them. Happily, I’m now no longer intimidated by ‘great literature’ because I now know the context in which it came from.
Secondly, while I haven’t read as many of the ‘big names’ of literature as I would have thought, I have been introduced to so many fascinating, lesser-known writers and literary traditions that I was not even aware of before. I’ve read medieval poems about drunk peasants bashing each other over the head with sticks, early newspaper articles, and centuries-old scurrilous satires that would be considered outrageous even today, to name a few. Indeed, some of my favourite works have been from authors I had never even heard of before and have enjoyed far more than the writings of the ‘big’ literary names.
Thirdly – and as a history-lover, perhaps best for me – I have had a great introductory insight into the minds, tastes and attitudes of our ancestors, marvelling both at their similarity and dissimilarity to us today. As an example, a late-blooming favourite of mine has been early-modern British travel literature, which particularly shows this trend: I’ve read works by typical ‘little Englanders’ who hate and fear anything foreign, and others by those who are curious and love exploring different cultures and societies. Reading the writings of the past helps shatter the myth that everyone ‘back then’ thought in a certain way and is a helpful reminder that humans have always been a diverse, strange lot, no matter the period or place; I would hope that it has reminded me to be as open-minded as possible for the future.
Perhaps in a few years I’ll look back on my time studying Literature and see many more benefits that I can’t imagine today. Or perhaps not. In any case, from where I’m standing here, I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve read a lot, learned a lot, forgotten even more, and had good fun along the way.