How English Majors Read

Seldom is the case that an English major can’t or *gasp* doesn’t want to read something. Whether it be an old “Classic” (Jane Austen anyone?), the purpose of the lighting in a scene, a situation, the list goes on. I’m not using the verb read here, I mean something deeper, what picks at an English majors brain as they’re analyzing without even realizing it. But, how do we take in what we are reading? What does it mean when our favorite characters speak a witty line about their sensibility to a dangerous situation? Here is what it means to read like an English major.

Dictionary, reference, you name it

I’ve heard of readers who skip over words they don’t know or haven’t heard of before. My question to those who do this is Why? Every word the author placed on the page in front of you is there for a reason and sometimes translated to your native language since the book is praised. Even if it’s just to find out you already know the word, just the modern version, at least know you’ll know that when it shows up in another chapter. Something we do as humans, sometimes unconsciously, is judge a book not by its cover but first page. An author choses to showcase this first sentence and page right after the cover you found pleasing and they will invest you or lose you in their ambiguity. In other words, the first page must contain words that grip the reader like “The baby is dead” (The Perfect Nanny: A Novel) and “Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.” (The Sun Also Rises). Knowing whats going on in this first sentence could help the next time a book almost goes on your never read list.

Looking up words either with a phone dictionary app or a real one, whatever your preference, applies to the rest of a book too. This especially applies when reading a book from a time or region you’re unfamiliar with such as Wuthering Heights and its gothic setting filled with the class of the 19th century. Since its written by a British author and based in England, some words are spelled with an extra letter such as “colour”, but there are also many older words borrowed from French. One of my favorites is the term: sultry. This word heavily depends on context and either means you’re describing a hot day on the picturesque moors of England, or someone who appears to give you the hots, so to speak. This is just one example, but doing your research saves you from having a perplexed countenance during a reading session.

Time periods and cannons

When a book was written matters, this refers to more than the literal release date, a work comes in part from the author’s place in time, if they had status or not, you get the idea. A book where characters tend to emphasize their feelings rather than what they’re thinking, as opposed to, long dialogues debating life’s purpose shows a characteristic of what time period the work was written. Don’t even get me started on the cutting edge Postmodern movement. My own words don’t do it justice, pretty much the movement goes against everything books have been about until now, meaning it breaks apart logic and praise for humans and technology.  Movements such as this one, which form the literary cannon, help a reader identify common themes from the time period, and in turn, better understand what the work says about either the characters or the world around them.

My favorite example of cannon is 20th century literature where psychology enters books of all kinds slowly but surely. This is seen in thoughtful descriptions of what a character is worried about and the developing world around them. “The Great Gatsby” is able to feel disconnected from the world as the world figured out there is something going on in the human mind.

One final example, Contemporary Poetry where the exuberant amount of blank space on the page lets the reader think about what they’re reading. As technology ever advances and everyone is in such a hurry, there may be less time for reading lengthy texts. This leads to an emphasis on the blank space around a simple three line “love” poem.  Simple poetry of this kind may disguise itself a commentary on technology, politics, you name it when seen by an English major with an analytic background.  

Adaptations

If you’re like me, then you have a love/hate relationship when it comes to adaptations. This is especially the case when there is a waiting period of X amount of years for the tv/movie series to come out. After such a waiting period, we hope the final product is a well formed bonsai tree opposed to a wilted mess. One good yet faithful adaptation was the Hulu mini series of the John Green’s popular young adult novel “Looking for Alaska” which I can spend a whole other blog praising, teenage angst showed well in both novel and series. Anyways, what I’m saying is  English majors and dedicated readers alike scan these characters and plot they recall finding relatable. brought to life by actors and writers for consistency. This isn’t to say changes aren’t welcome since they’re usually necessary, a side character or plot may be switched for one better suited for the production. But it can be disappointing when elements such as the setting are not the well crafted Chicago or Panem pictured in our minds. To be clear on this, Divergent was the failed adaptation while Hunger Games captured the struggling societies excellently.  

Obviously filmmakers can’t bring everything to screen considering the adaptation needs to make money and be available to a wide audience. This is disappointing for certain books where huge points serve a purpose only to be rendered taboo. A key example of this is in the film Winter’s Bone where Jennifer Lawrence acts as a strong female protagonist who gets caught up in drugs and a gang war because of her Dad’s history in drug wars. I won’t spoil it as you really have to see and jopefully read it yourself but the book contains an explicit sexual assault scene that is not present in the film. Awful, yes, but it leads to a stronger win when she makes it through and has to overcome it. The author is crafty as well because I missed the assault on my first read as it is between the lines, much like the conversation gets shushed sometimes in real life. Film/TV fills gaps left in certain books where there was an indescribable piece missing.  Using Winter’s Bone again, Jennifer Lawrence brings more life to the film’s rendition of Ree compared to Woodrell’s version. We see a woman willing to fight for the little family she has left by using any strength within her reach unlike the more passive Ree from the book.

Avid readers, especially English majors, love adaptations; they show our beloved characters come to life just as we pictured them hopefully. The fine line between too graphic and subtle enough for consumption bogs them down sometimes. I guess that’s what the book is there for as long as they don’t become censored. Yes the book may bring something up we don’t want to hear, but maybe that’s exactly why it was written.

Other mediums

While visiting my family for a weekend, my mom, my fiancé and I watched the pilot for the Amazon original “Hunters”. A quick rundown of the show is the war between fascist Nazis and Jewish people has not ended in the modern day. This leads to the central character, a young Jewish man, finding a resistance group of Jewish people and joining to get revenge. In this episode, the opening scene caught my attention as it threw the viewer off guard. The viewer sees a colorful summer barbecue with a pool of the clearest blue ruined by a murderous man later known to be part of the Nazi group. What should be a happy scene given the bright colors and outfits on the random characters unexpectedly turns into a bloody massacre. I asked my fiancé if she noticed this and she commented that she didn’t until I pointed it out. Maybe English majors read television scenes too.  I think it helped that I had read enough Dean Koontz to never trust a beautiful setting.

There are other shows with creators who try to be clever by recalling books/themes that a viewer is familiar with. One is ”The Walking Dead” series, which I’m a huge fan of, and its dull at best spin off, “Fear the Walking Dead.” A literary reference appears in episode 5×10 “210 words per minute”  focuses on a new character Grace who enjoys listening to audio books at two times the speed. Where this becomes important is while in the middle of saving a survivor at an abandoned mall, she finds a copy of the classic novel “A Tale of Two Cities”. It’s a novel written by Charles Dickens about a time of high tensions in both London and France preceding the French Revolution. Now, I understand that in a zombie show there of course “best” and “worst” times mentioned in the first line of Dicken’s novel. However, by this point in the shows course, its rare that anything remotely bad happens to the characters. It’s a reference, while famous, it doesn’t add a connection to the plot or the characters as much as it shows the writers started looking up other source material than their own.

Conclusion

If you’ve made it this far, thank you so much for reading. I hope this gave a little insight to what English majors and book lovers find in the act of reading and even in other medias as well. My next blog is going to be a review of a French Netflix original to switch back to my French major roots.