How We Read

This year, I ambitiously set my reading challenge on Goodreads to 50 books. I used to be able to meet that easily, but navigating school, husband, baby, and life makes it hard. I thought, though, that it would at least be easier this year because I was preparing for my PhD exams, which involves a lot of reading.

Currently, Goodreads says I’ve read 9 books this year, which is apparently “seven books behind schedule.” Whatever that means.

I’ve have read far more than 9 books.

This fact puts some pressure on our modern understanding of what it means to read, and especially to read *a book.*

I did indeed read only nine books cover-to-cover. I also read a wide mix of academic book chapters, short works (essays, poems, short stories, etc), academic articles, and online articles and blog posts (for the class I’m teaching and for personal edification).

By my count, just for exams, I read another 42 works between January and March–and I’m probably missing some–ranging from short sonnets to nearly all of a 200 page book (but not *all*, so it didn’t make it to Goodreads). This doesn’t count the fluffy novels I read to rest my mind, which I don’t put on Goodreads, any of the articles I read for the class I’m teaching, or thought-provoking blog posts or parts of books I began and abandoned because I lacked time or interest or both. Those 9 completed books are not only a small portion of what I read, but also a misleading representation of it.

I value reading whole, long books. I think that the attention needed to do so is something we should guard in this day of frantic data streams. I also think we might be looking at reading in the wrong way. You don’t have to complete a text cover-to-cover and in order for it to “count” as read. People read for all kinds of reasons, and there are as many manifestations of reading as there are reasons to read.

Something I learned from my exam reading is that in the eighteenth century, the most common form of reading was a method called “desultory” reading, which Abigail Williams discusses in The Social Life of Books. You could call it “browsy” reading. After a slow but steady rise in the availability of books and the prevalence of literacy following the advent of the printing press in the 1450s, a number of cultural changes took place that made England and America the site of a reading explosion during the 18th century. Yet despite this impressive increase in print culture, the average, middle-class reader did not merely read books cover-to-cover; indeed, this average reader might not read a whole book, even a whole novel, cover-to-cover at all. For example, books of excerpts of longer works called miscellanies were very popular. People read journal articles and poems, they read the second volume of a four-volume novel, they read parts of nonfiction books but not others.

Some of this was because of access. Although the price of books had decreased, books were still expensive; a large library for a middle-class person was about 100 books, and most owned less than 10. Borrowing and library use were common, as was social reading. It was popular, trendy even, to gather with one’s friends to read through a book, or do dramatic readings of favorite scenes. While social critics had plenty to say about this new reading culture, one of the things that was not criticized was desultory reading.

We still do the same (maybe not the dramatic readings or the social read-alouds, although I think we should), but our biases have changed. These days, did you really read anything if you didn’t read the *whole* book? Aren’t reading short works *lesser*? In the eighteenth century somebody might respond to the question “What are you reading” with “oh, just a novel,” but today we’re more likely to say “oh, just an article” or “oh, just a poem.” I think this likely stems from having literature in schools, at least in part. You learn from an early age that an assignment isn’t complete unless the whole of the assigned portion has been read; in this way we train a society of completionists.

Books are tools; they are repositories of information; they are conveyers of entertainment. Falling into a good story, or being engrossed by a nonfiction book, is a special kind of magic. This experience of reading is one that I hope every person has, at least sometimes.

But you can be A Reader if that happens rarely, or never. While I don’t ascribe to “anything you read is fine as long as you’re reading” (some texts can be harmful, to you if not to others), I do think that a robust reading life is more easily achieved if it allows for all kinds of ways for reading to manifest. Read meaty articles. Read poetry. Revisit your favorite scene in your favorite novel. Read the newspaper. Read the back of a cereal box.

Now that I’m a mother, I read far less than I used to. I almost never read a book in one week, let alone in one sitting. And I often feel discouraged–if I can’t *really* read, I may as well just scroll social media in my spare time instead. Reflecting on my exam experience has helped encourage me to re-prioritize reading in a way that allows me to continue having a reading life. It will look different from what it used to, but whatever it looks like, I know I won’t regret filling my life with words instead of screens.

So my friends, if you feel like you’ve not done much reading because you don’t check off whole books that often, be encouraged! Have you read a good short story lately? Have you been devouring articles? Have you been reading Sandra Boyton’s Moo, Baa, La La La to your kid five million times (hi, it’s me)? Have you started seven novels and not finished them? Maybe you just needed the beginning of that fluffy novel. Maybe you really were only interested in the introduction of that one nonfiction book. Maybe short stories are all you have the time for these days. Good job! You’re a reader.

If you feel so inclined, I’d love to hear about your piecemeal reading: what short texts or partial texts have you read and enjoyed lately?


Eighteenth Century April: Poetry

In the 18th century, poetry was king. This seems strange to us now, because to the modern eye 18th c. poetry looks incredibly dull and stiff. We have the Romantics to thank for that; more about them later.

Poetry was the default literary form of the 18th c. Poets wrote verses to commemorate public occasions, to praise potential patrons, to tell stories, to satirize cultural norms–basically anything. In America, at least (and I think in England also), you would often see broadsides (single sheets of paper) printed with verses to draw a moral lesson from an execution. Poetry wasn’t something for the elite, but was available to all classes. And all classes participated in the making of verses, too. While Pope was, even at the beginning of his career, a true talent, and while England and America had their fair share of professional or semi-professional poets, ordinary people frequently wrote poetry for fun. Some of what survives is terrible, but some of it is actually pretty good. Even people who were illiterate could participate. by hearing others read or recite poetry, and by making up their own verses to recite.

It is true that 18th c. poetry tends to be very formal; it is written in a “high” style with archaic words and often borrows its forms from classical (e.g. Ancient Greek and Latin) styles. But, as I have come to learn, these features are often only a superficial barrier to encountering some incredibly skilled and subtle versifying.

For example, in Alexander Pope’s 1711 poem “Essay on Criticism” (which, by the way, manages to get in some very good and hilarious digs at critics), Pope writes,

"Tis not enough no harshness gives offense;
The sound must seem an echo to the sense.
Soft is the strain when zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
the hoarse rough verse should like the torrent roar.
When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw,
The line too labors, and the words move slow"

Ok, so we note the iambic aa bb rhyme scheme, which to our ears sounds repetitive, even plodding, and perhaps you feel like he over-does it on the description. But some careful attention shows that Pope literally does what he argues poetry should do–his “sound…echo[es]… the sense.” He uses gentle “s” sounds and round vowels in the next two lines, which are supposed to be “soft.” The following lines use stronger consonants to make the lines “roar.” And when the line should “labor,” he actually alters the metrical pattern to make the line plod.

While I have come around to 18th c. poetry since initially disliking it, I’ll admit that I just don’t understand the popularity of some 18th c. poems. For example, James Thompson’s long poem The Seasons (1740) was massively, enormously popular. It was widely read, and widely excerpted for anthologies and the like. I find it incredibly tedious. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad, just that the people of the 18th century engaged with poetry in a way that is very foreign to me.

This is because of the Romantic movement, which began in the 1790s. Romanticism stripped a lot of the formalism out of poetry, making it more loose, more emotional, more individual. Poets started writing about their feelings and experiences (see: Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” or Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”) instead of about public occasions or outside topics (like “Essay on Criticism”). Romantic poetry did still engage with public topics — Shelley wrote a number of poems about politics, for example– but it was so profoundly different in style and feel that we, living in a poetic world still essentially Romantic, struggle to engage with 18th c. poetry. Of course, the switch didn’t just magically occur in one particular year; you can see pre-Romantic ideas and styles earlier, and 18th c. forms later. This is a very broad and over-simplified description; perhaps I’ll do a later post comparing 18th c. and Romantic poetry more thoroughly later.

If you’re interested in tackling some 18th century poets, here are some suggestions:

Alexander Pope: Y’all, he’s good. Pick a poem that sounds fun and dive in. Slow, careful reading is rewarding

James Granger: wrote a fascinating 4-part long poem about sugar cane called, shockingly The Sugar Cane. Book IV is particularly interesting in that it engages with the question of slavery (you could skip the other books no problem, unless you want to learn a lot about sugar cane).

Phyllis Wheatley: an American slave, later freed, who was something of a prodigy. Her poems are lyric poems, which means they tend to be short, too.

William Blake: Blake is kind of an intermediate poet, often taught as a precursor to the Romantics. His lyric poems in Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience are very memorable.

I mean, yeah, you could look up James Thompson if you want to. Prepare to read a lot about sheep.

Eighteenth Century April: Realist Fiction

This is one of the most important literary developments of the century. Although novels and novel-like books had existed before, it was in the 18th century that what we consider a “novel” really developed. There are a lot of different variations of “novel”; you could think of the realistic novel as the base form.

The realistic novel has a few key features:

  • Set in the “real world” — a place you could visit
  • Characters could plausibly be people you could meet
  • Situations are things that could “really happen”
  • Narrative focuses on the main character(s) inner thoughts and psychology.

These aspects distinguish the novel from other kinds of fictional narrative, like the medieval romance, the poetic epic, and many kinds of drama. We don’t get real-world situations or settings in Le More d’Arthur, for example, and the narrator never puts the reader in Sir Lancelot’s head to get to know his inner thoughts, for example. Whereas Daniel Defoe is very interested in his main character’s thoughts; so much so that there are pages and pages of inner dialogue, and not a lot of action in his novels. Or think of Jane Austen, who is a realist novelist par excellence, who balances action with interiority; the chapter where Elizabeth Bennet digests the letter Mr. Darcy sends her is a great example of the realistic novel’s portrayal of a person’s interiority.

Different novelists, especially early on, handle the “realism” of their novels differently. Defoe is scrupulously, even journalistically accurate and detailed (as far as he can be–he does accidentally put penguins on Crusoe’s Caribbean island). Henry Fielding is perhaps less scrupulous, but he insists on presenting his novels as “history”; which in this period was used to encompass a wide range of nonfiction texts.
Of course, sometimes realistic novelists stretch the boundaries of reality (Could you really survive for 30 years alone on a deserted island? Is a young servant girl really going to win over her pushy boss by her virtue?), but these novels still are considered “realistic” for the above reasons.

Major eighteenth century realistic novelists include Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Eliza Haywood, and Frances Burney. Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding are the trifecta of novel development, and have received a lot of critical attention, including in the foundational book The Rise of the Novel, by Ian Watt. Haywood and Burney, despite being popular in their time, were neglected or forgotten for a long time, but have been experiencing a critical comeback. If you’d like to explore these major novelists, I recommend the following books:

Daniel Defoe: Robinson Crusoe is the obvious recommendation, about a man who is shipwrecked on a deserted island and manages to build his own little kingdom over the 30 or so years that he is stuck there. I also recommend Roxana, a very interesting story about a woman who, left destitute when her husband abandons her and their children, eventually gains great wealth by becoming mistress to a succession of more and more important men.

Samuel Richardson: Pamela is the story of a young servant girl who heroically rejects the unwanted advances of her young, single master (despite actually liking him), until he is willing to marry her. The plot feels rather far-fetched, especially today, but Pamela herself is a fascinating character, a strong woman who holds fast to her principles even under extreme pressure and mental distress.

Henry Fielding: Tom Jones is the “history” of a young man, a foundling, who is raised by the squire Mr. Allworthy. When Jones’s actions, exaggerated by his enemies, lead to him being kicked out of his home, he begins a comic and sometimes ridiculous journey around England, as he tries to find a way to make himself worthy of the fair Sophia. This novel is long, and rather episodic, but it does circle around and tie everything together at the end in a satisfying way. I also like that we don’t only follow Tom, but get the perspectives and adventures of a number of characters, including Sophia, another virtuous but determined young woman.

Eliza Haywood: Love in Excess is an absolutely wild tale about, well, love in excess. A half-dozen characters fall in love (lust?) with each other, and DRAMA ensues. For something shorter, Fantomina is a novella about a young woman who, after finding her virtue compromised, decides she’s going to enjoy herself as long as she can, and uses several clever ruses to hold her lover’s interest.

Frances Burney: Next on my list to read, I’ve heard Evelina described as an influence of or precursor to Jane Austen. Burney is later than the other four novelists, and would be a good example of how the realistic novel developed over a half-century.

In the 19th c. the realist novel remained the main novel form, and most major classic novelists wrote this form: Austen, the Brontes, Hawthorne, Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, James, etc

Even today, most novels that are “contemporary” or “historical” fiction are realistic novels, and the tenants of realism infuse most other novelistic genres, even if they are simply there to be made fun of or undermined (as in satire or metaphysical fiction). Fantasy still usually focuses on a character’s interiority, for example, and strives for realism within the fantasy world.

As a final note, Tristram Shandy really shouldn’t be in the above picture: it’s a metaphysical novel that calls attention to and makes fun of the realistic novel.

New Year’s Reading Wishes

Goals? Wishes? Desires? Orientations?

I’m not sure what to call these things. My reading life has struggled for the last few years, for a number of reasons. Personal loss, the demands of my PhD program, the insanity of the last few years, getting married and just having less reading time (which I’m certainly not mad about!). I feel like this year, and especially the first six months of this year, are going to be an opportunity for me to course-correct a bit.

For various reasons (burnout being one of them), I’ve taken the semester off my PhD program. As a result, I see this coming six months as a chance to re-learn my reading self. What do I actually like? What will I read with no other demands on my reading time? For the last few semesters, I’ve struggled to finish the books I’m supposed to read, and reading anything more complicated than kid lit or romance in my spare reading time has felt like a chore.

I have a few – lets call them orientations – that I’d like to shape myself towards in the coming year. I don’t want to call them goals, because I want to pressure myself as little as possible.

Read fewer (or no) romance novels. While I may read a few by authors I really enjoy, this genre as a whole has been feeling stale and I’m losing interest.

Find new authors/stories. I really haven’t had the time to do much work to dig up new-to-me authors, but the ones I did stumble across last year were so helpful. I’m especially looking for writers who produce good stories with low stakes — you know, not the edge-of-your-seat kind of tale, but the one where you know from page one that everything is going to be fine. Mercedes Lackey and Patricia Wrede did that for me last year; I hope to find more this year. One of the biggest things that has made reading a challenge in the last couple of years is that I really can’t stomach a *dramatic* book, which feels like most fantasy and adult fiction that has been published recently. You know, the kind of story where people say “this was so good it ripped my heart out.” No, thanks.

Gently return to classics. It’s been so long since I read a classic just for fun. The days when I picked up an 800 page Dickens and plodded along with it for a pleasant month seem hazy and distant. Even in the summers, I just haven’t had the reading energy to try; when I do, the book ends up languishing. Now that I’m temporarily freed from any obligation to read classics, I’d like to eventually start picking up whatever I feel like reading, and actually finish a few classics this year. I hope that doing this will help me gain some momentum with these more challenging books, so when I get back to my exam reading later in the year it will feel more natural, and less like a chore. Also, I just miss reading good classics! I have a number of books already, just waiting to be read, so I’ll probably pull from there. Just, whenever I feel like it. No pressure.

Write about books more. Again, with school, I’ve struggled to write anything, even what I’ve been required to write. I hope this blog can be a place where I can pop in, whenever I feel like it, no pressure, and share some thoughts, if I ever start having those again. Or maybe I’ll start with reviews. Who knows? I would like to get in the habit of putting words on the page again, of feeling that loose flow when you are really in the zone. I miss that.

If you have any suggestions for books or classics that are fun, well-written, and low-stress, I’d love your suggestions!

What are your reading goals/orientations for 2022?

Incarnational literary studies: Exam Reading Week 2

This week I read:

  • Part of Cathy N. Davidson’s Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America
  • Part of The Intimacy of Paper in Early and Nineteenth-Century American Literature by Jonathan Senchyne
  • The second half of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress
  • Mary Rowlandson’s Captivity and Restoration
  • A wee tiny bit of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding

Reading a number of different things this week was nice. The Bunyan and the Rowlandson were quick and now out of the way (I did enjoy them! It’s just nice to get things finished). I’ve decided that to tackle the Locke (and probably any other philosophical works), I’m going to kind of let it wash over me, while still taking notes. Trying to parse out every little point will make it take far too long. And speaking of taking a long time, I’ll be reading it in small pieces over a couple of weeks so I don’t get bogged down in it and get stuck there.

The scholarly books were both very interesting. Davidson’s book is from the mid-eighties, and its one of those “foundational in its field” academic books. That is, it shaped the way the field looks today, and most scholars after her reference this book. I haven’t encountered much about the earliest American novels before, since in both high school and college classes the American novel tends to begin with “the greats” – e.g. Hawthorne, Melville, perhaps Fenimore Cooper. I didn’t even know there were earlier American novels until I started my PhD! It’s true that the American novel was rather late to the scene — the first one was published in 1789–but there were about a hundred early novels that don’t really get talked about much. I enjoy the information, and, for the most part, the analysis, that Davidson provides, although her approach is very overtly feminist and marxist. This isn’t surprising; it’s the normal approach today and was even more normal in the 80s, but I tire of these interpretive approaches, really.

The Senchyne is the text I want to focus on this week, despite only having read the Introduction so far. But to get to my point, I must first provide some Context.

I’ve been meeting a lot of new people lately, which leads to a lot of “what do you do?” questions. When I mention I’m doing a PhD, the follow-up question is usually “what do you want to do with that?” and the answer is, I don’t know. I am increasingly dissatisfied with the state of Academia–it’s become more of an ideological bubble than ever before, it’s struggling in all sorts of ways, the jobs available continue to shrink, and frankly, I don’t think that there is a place in academia for the questions I ultimately want to engage. Really, the idea of becoming a stay-at-home mom who scribbles at stories and ideas after the kids are in bed becomes more and more attractive.

That doubt, of course, leads to further doubts–should I still be doing this PhD? Would my time be better spent elsewhere? Some of these doubts, fortunately, have been eased by the beginning of the semester. I like doing a deep dive into a topic (which is what exam reading ultimately is, in spades), I like teaching (though I could do without the grading), I like the generally busy and convivial air of the lively campus.

It’s odd that I’m doing work in print culture, because I firmly believe that a traditional, classical approach to the humanities is the best–close reading and discussion of the Major Canon, and so on. Why then, am I rummaging around in the dusty corners of the archive? Why am I concerning myself with books that nobody has read in hundreds of years? Why am I doing what is essentially historical, and not so much literary, work? What is an Orthodox way to approach literary study? How do I bring my understanding of the world to my work? It’s hard to do, because of that ideological bubble I mentioned above.

Reading the Senchyne introduction helped me answer some of those questions.

Senchyne mentions at one point that print culture/book history/bibliography–terms that describe slightly different approaches to studying the material and social contexts of books, instead of the abstract contents (or in addition to, I suppose)–are often set against the predominance of Critical Theory, which is very abstract and concerned solely with Ideas. Senchyne goes on to argue that the two things–material and Idea, print culture and critical theory–are not opposed, and I suppose he’s right.

But his mention of this potential duality helped me see clearly something I’ve been sensing intuitively. I am doing print culture because I enjoy it, and part of the reason I enjoy it is that it’s not critical theory, which I dislike. I may be burned at the stake for heresy if any of my colleagues or professors ever read this, but it’s true. I find it difficult and, frankly, mostly pointless. Treating theories as lenses that help us explore books in different ways is useful, sometimes, if they are good lenses, but Theory has become something like a religion or a worldview (or an identity?) in academic circles, (and they’re not good lenses usually) and, well, no thank you.

Focusing on materiality helps to balance the at-times extreme, almost gnostic, abstract world of theory. But materialists often go too far (I’m looking at you, thing theory), and ascribe to material more agency than it ought to possess; it becomes almost mystical, and often collapses the distinction between objects and people.

What literary study is looking for, I realized, is incarnational approaches. The Incarnation (yes that Incarnation) is in one degree about the marriage of spirit and material; it is God-become-Man. Literary study is struggling to find a way to approach both the ideas that a book or poem or play contains, the truth they invite us to uncover, and also the way that those ideas are contained in physical objects and impact actual people. The incarnational approach may offer a way to integrate those two apparently disparate approaches into one coherent whole. But even more important, by thinking incarnationally instead of gnostically or materially, we invite an entirely different way of thinking about literature, one that is open to the Orthodox, spiritual, way of seeing the world. It could be an escape from the ultimately materialist, modernist and post-modernist ways of reading that infuse the academy right now.

Don’t ask what the incarnational approach actually looks like. I have no idea. I had this thought literally yesterday. But as I keep reading and preparing for exams, I’m going to start trying to figure it out.

A Beginning: Exam Reading Week 1

Confused? See my last post for Explanations.

I tried to begin my exam reading in earnest back in May, and it was such a slog. I felt like each page read was hard-won, and the one day that I did read all I planned to I ended up with a tension headache from eye strain. So I took a break.
Looking towards the beginning of the semester (the time I told myself I would begin my reading, and high time, too), I was worried I would have the same struggle. But friends, I did not!

It helped that I began with a book I was looking forward to reading: Abigail Williams’ The Book In Society, a scholarly book about the social aspects of reading in the 18th century. The topic was fascinating, and Williams was engaging, and thus I conquered the first book in list three. According to Williams, reading was a highly social activity; throughout the century there was an elocution fad, and lots of books and opinions on how to read aloud “correctly.” People read together, often pausing for discussion, to while away the hours during the evenings or bad weather. Lower classes would take turns reading (if there was more than one person literate), as they sat around and worked at carpentry or whatever. There was even a market for book-related merchandise–statues of beloved characters, tea sets and fans with quotes from favorite books. Williams did a great job of evoking the eclectic, sociable world of books in this time, with examples from an impressive swath of diarists and letter-writers, male and female.

I also finished Tom Jones, which I had begun in January. It is long–my edition clocks in at almost 900 pages — but it shouldn’t have taken me that long to read. I’ve been poking away at this book for a couple of weeks, but never reading more than thirty or so pages every couple of days. That was enough, however, for me to start to suspect that about 200 pages from the end I’d get hooked, and find my pace pick up, and that is exactly what happened. Despite my mostly slow reading pace, I thoroughly enjoyed Tom Jones. It is the story of a young man, a foundling, who is raised by a country squire, Mr. Allworthy. Tom is brought up with Mr. Allworthy’s nephew, and falls in love with his neighbor, the lovely Sophia. When Tom, through the malice of his enemies and also through his own fault, is cast away from Mr. Allworthy’s presence, he embarks on an often-madcap journey around England that takes him eventually to London. Along the way, he begins to grow, and become a man who is worthy of Sophia.

One of the things I enjoyed about the story is the strong presence of the narrator. The first chapter of each book is a discussion of an idea of some sort, usually relating to this new genre we now call the novel, or about writing, or about virtue. And the narrator often addresses the reader directly throughout the narrative. Indeed, in the last book, he says, effectively, “we have so much plot to get through in this book I won’t be commenting,” and you know, I missed it. One of my favorite narrative moves is when the narrator often says something like “and then they had a conversation about such and such, but that’s not interesting/relevant, so we’ll move on.” It’s such a neat trick–it implies that this conversation does take place, which adds depth and richness to the novel, while adding little in the way of words, of which this novel already has so many.

There’s so much in Tom Jones, and I simply have not had the time to explore its themes. I plan to continue to engage with the book after reading some scholarship about it to help me get a handle on it. But I definitely recommend it. Take it slow, and enjoy the journey! Not only is it a good story (with an amazing plot twist I did not see coming right towards the end), it does an excellent job of depicting (and satirizing) mid-eighteenth-century culture.

On to week 2!

PhD Exams: Overview

Between now and March I will be reading for my PhD exams. Partly as a way to keep myself accountable, and partly because others might find it interesting to get a glimpse into this strange time of the PhD experience, I’ve decided that each week, I will list what I’ve read since the last post, and choose one of those texts and do a short review/analysis/discussion of it. This will also be great for anyone curious about eighteenth century British and American literature; we’re covering it alllll.

But before that, what even are PhD exams? Consider this the “info dump,” overview, explainy post. Don’t really care? Come back this weekend for the literature. (Or check out the archive if you’re from the future. Hi there! How are things?)


Have you ever wondered what it entails when someone in a PhD program says they have exams? Or are you considering a PhD program yourself and wondering about the experience? Or do you just want to know why I’m reading a bajillion books* in six months? This is the post for you.

A caveat: this explanation is specific to the program (*school redacted*) and field (literature) I’m in. How this works varies from school to school and program to program, so your experience (or your friend’s) may be different. And by “may” I mean “definitely will.”

So you start a PhD program in literature. Here in the US, that usually means you take a few years of classes, then have your oral or comprehensive exams, then write a dissertation (a book-length scholarly project). This semester, I’m beginning the “exam” phase.

The purpose of the exam is twofold: to prepare you to teach by giving you the chance to read and study all the major literature of your chosen period, and to help you explore the ideas and questions that you hope to work on in your dissertation through a list of secondary (scholarly) books and articles.

The first thing you do is put together your exam committee. This involves identifying 3 professors who do work in or adjacent to your proposed field of study, and asking them to be your committee. They will help you develop your reading lists, and provide the exam questions. Typically, one of these professors is the chair, or head, of the committee. They are the one you work most closely with, and the one that has the final say in your lists, etc. (And they’re responsible for the administrative paperwork.)

I did this last fall. I met with the professor I wanted to be my chair (Professor C, for chair), and asked him if he would. We discussed the (very vague) research direction I’d like to go in for my future dissertation, and he agreed that our interests overlapped enough that he would be a good choice. I picked this professor first because his interests align with mine, in terms of period (the literal time period, which for me is 1700-1830 British and American literature), method (the way you approach analysis: print culture and historiography) and specific interests (the reading and writing practices of ordinary people of this time). I also picked him because I’ve taken several of his classes and know we work well together. This is best-case scenario; sometimes the professor you need hasn’t taught during your “take classes phase.” In this case, I strongly recommend trying to get to know them by meeting with them a few times to chat about your interests.

After meeting with Professor C, I asked the other two profs, Professor 2 and Professor 3. I chose these professors to help fill in ‘gaps’ in Professor C’s expertise, to help give me a more rounded exam list. For example Professor 2 does work with 18th century British literature, while Professor C is more focused on American, so they balance each other out.

In the spring, I started writing my lists. I did this by looking at lists written by other students in my program, googling and finding lists from students at other schools who were doing similar work, and by asking my professors for suggestions. After a few rounds of back and forth with each, I finalized the lists. They will still fluctuate as I do my reading; I’ll run out of time to get to *everything*, and I may find books that are more relevant than others on my list currently and switch them, things like that. But they are on the books as “officially approved,” which is what matters.

The exam list has three parts: primary literature, secondary literature, and scholarship. For a lot of people, the primary list is the books in the genre or sub-field they most want to work in, and the secondary list is more of a survey. For example, you might have list one be “American postmodern encyclopedic novels,” and list two be “general American lit from 1860.”** I’ve arranged things a little differently, as I’m essentially “double majoring” in British and American literature, so the subordination of “primary” and “secondary” doesn’t really matter. The primary list is primary because Professor C. is an Americanist, not because it’s most important. So you see, within the general practice there is a lot of individualized variation, at least at my school.

My first list is major works of American literature 1700-1830. You might recognize names like Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, Washington Irving, Thomas Jefferson, and James Fenimore Cooper. Also, while 1700-1830 is a pretty typical time frame that scholars use (there were some big shifts in the 1830s after a lot of continuity), most American lit I courses in college go to 1860, so I’ve added some of the big hits to prepare me to teach–books like The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, and the poetry of Walt Whitman show up for that reason.

My second list is major works of British literature 1700-1830. Did I say 1830 so I could get Jane Austen on this list? I’ll never tell 😇. Since I’m focusing on novels in my research, I have a lot of novels on this list (and the other one, too, but there are far fewer American novels published in this time frame). Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy; Maria Edgeworth, Fanny Burney, Anne Radcliffe, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley (there were a LOT of female authors in the second half of the 18th century). It also includes poetry and prose, from writers like Samuel Johnson and Alexander Pope.

My third list is secondary scholarship about reading and print culture. I’m looking at general scholarly takes on print culture, on books about reading specifically, and also books about the relationship between reading and education. For the curious, “print culture” is the study of printed things — books, pamphlets, broadsides, newspapers, etc.–and the way people interacted with them as objects.

I was actually supposed to begin reading in the spring, through the summer, and take my exams late this fall. But between the chaos of the world and getting married in March, I got to May and was staring burnout in the face, and so arranged to push things back and take the summer off. I’m so thankful that my department is willing to work with us to arrange things like that when we need them.

So! Tune in this weekend for some thoughts on the first books I’ve been reading.

  • *It’s actually something in the neighborhood of 130; this includes long books like Tom Jones (almost 900 pages), parts of nonfiction books, essays, average-sized books, collections of poetry, and single poems. So it’s a lot of things, but at least some of those things are short.

**This is a real example.

2021: Exam Year, Reading Year

Hello, friends!

I’ve been toying with the idea of blogging a bit about my PhD exams reading. As you know if you’ve followed me at all, I’m not great at sticking to a schedule, but I think that writing about the books I’m reading for my exams would be a helpful way to study, and doing it blog-style could be fun! If you’d like a ~weekly glance into my exams prep and reading, would you drop me a comment and say so? Knowing that even a few people are interested would help my motivation greatly!

What even are PhD exams? Well, they vary between subject and field, but basically this is when you do all the reading that makes you an Expertâ„¢ in your field. My field is 18th century British and American literature, so this year I’ll be reading all the major canonical works by British and American writers from roughly 1700-1830 (with a few outside exceptions at either end). I thought blogging about this would be particularly interesting as 18th century literature is under-read compared to the Victorians.

I haven’t yet officially begun my reading, as the first draft of my list is currently under review by the chair of my exam committee,* so for now I’m tackling Tom Jones and will continue to contemplate what this series might look like. I’m imagining a combination of book reviews, close looks at particular literary trends, discussions of the process, etc.

(And maybe in the mix I’ll finally finish those back-reviews I promised last summer).

Review: Wide Sargasso Sea

Second in my short “catch-up” reviews. I finished Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, 31 Aug, 2019.

This short novel is a companion piece to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, following the childhood and early adulthood of the woman who is known as Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre. (There are some slight spoilers for Jane Eyre below; I’ve tried to keep them small and to a minimum, but reader beware) According to Rhys, her real name is Antoinette Cosway, and she is the creole daughter of an European family who has fallen into poverty after the elimination of slavery in Jamaica. Her mother remarries a Mr. Mason, and Antoinette is educated at a convent, and then married to “him” (Mr. Rochester is never named), a relationship that is fractious and full of conflict and even hatred from the beginning.

I was intrigued by Wide Sargasso Sea both because I love retellings and re-imaginings and books related to other books, and because I liked the idea of giving Bertha a well-rounded storyline and the chance to be redeemed a bit. And the novel certainly does attempt that, presenting Antoinette as a complex character living in a complex time, and dealing with postcolonial and patriarchal themes. But ultimately, I just didn’t like it much. As it’s been a year, I’m afraid I cannot remember why in any great detail, but I found Antoinette unsympathetic, and the portrayal of the black Jamaican people rather cringe. Antoinette might have been dealt a bad hand, but she didn’t help matters, either. Indeed, she often does the one thing that would make whatever situation she’s in worse. Her final actions of the novel don’t feel poignant or triumphant, but petty.

Reading Jane Eyre through the lens of today does make Bertha seem maligned, but Rhys’s novel ultimately doesn’t do the rehabilitative work it purports to do. (Imho).

Have you read this? What did you think?

Review: The Mill on the Floss

This is the first in a series of catch-up posts, as I review the classics I’ve read in the last year and not discussed yet (i.e. all of them). These will be shorter and less in-depth than usual, both so that I can get through my backlog quickly and because it’s been a while since I’ve read these books!

The Mill on the Floss was my fourth George Eliot novel, and my least favorite so far. According to Goodreads, I finished it 31 August 2019. I gave it three stars.

Mill follows siblings Tom and Maggie Tulliver, the children of a small-town mill owner. There are several time jumps, so in all we cover about ten years of their young lives, as they move from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. When they are adolescents, their father loses the mill and they teeter on the edge of poverty. Tom and Maggie both do their parts to keep the family afloat, relying on their mother’s several sisters and their more prosperous husbands for help. The Goodreads review, with its talk of “Maggie being torn between three men” makes it sound rather dramatic and even melodramatic, but the focus is actually on Tom and Maggie’s relationship, and on the community in which they live (although there are some dramatic moments towards the end, but spoilers). As with all Eliot novels, the plot is quiet and slow-paced (not a bad thing!), and the focus is on the character and thoughts of each person. Maggie and Tom are both incredibly vivid, as are their parents and aunts and uncles. This was Eliot’s second book, and you can see her improvement in developing incredibly life-like characters and group dynamics.

While I consider Mill to be an objectively masterful work, I didn’t love it. My biggest problem was Tom, and his relationship with Maggie. Tom is one of those people who can only see the world in black and white, and I find that kind of rigidity generally drives me crazy. And, of course, as it was so well portrayed, it bothered me even more. I spent a lot of the book wanting to slap Tom a couple of times and give him a talking-to. Maggie is a precious darling, who is much more creative and flexible in her thinking, but this leads her and Tom to be rather constantly in conflict. Poor Maggie just wants someone to love her, but Tom makes his love always conditional on her behavior, which doesn’t often meet his exacting standards. Like I said, this dynamic is SO well done, and Eliot certainly doesn’t condone Tom’s behavior, but it just happens to be one that I dislike reading, so that diminished the enjoyment for me.

That said, I have friends who LOVE Mill, so I would encourage you to give it a try, at least. And I’m eager to pick up the next Eliot novel (Romola!).