The paradoxical effect of my “liberal” education

I’m having a minor mid-life crisis. I’ve been a practicing lawyer for almost 23 years now. I’m quite good at what I do, but I hate it. And lately, it’s been getting harder and harder to flog myself into getting the work done and meeting the deadlines. (Although I should assure any current or potential clients reading this post that I do get my work done, and I’ve never missed a deadline in 22.5 years. I may be bored, but I’m good at what I do and very reliable.)

What I like to do best, of course, is blogging, but that’s not a way to earn a living. I was speaking with a very wise person about my little career crisis, and he suggested that I write a book. His first suggestion was that I write a nonfiction book, perhaps an expansion of my “San Francisco in decline” post. I vetoed the idea, explaining that I’m too much of an intellectual dilettante to put together an entire book on a single subject: my knowledge base is wide and shallow, and a single subject book needs depth. Rather than focusing on a single topic, I like to bounce off of things that catch my interest — explaining why blogging is a perfect, albeit financially unprofitable, outlet for me.

My friend pointed out that, while I’m reactive (as opposed to proactive) at a detail level, I do have a fully formed ideology that I apply consistently to every factual scenario that comes my way. Running with that, he suggested that I write a “novel of ideas.” I looked at him blankly. I had absolutely no idea what a “novel of ideas” was. He explained that Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead is the quintessential “novel of ideas.” Ayn has taken a world view (individualism), and created a fully realized novel centered around the virtue of that ideology. Her book is not a polemic, filled with wooden characters mouthing political speeches. Instead, her lead character lives out his political beliefs, for better or worse. 1984, of course, is another example, showing the horrors of the wrong world view.

For the first time since I started hated my work (about 21 years ago), I suddenly though, “Wow, I’ve just heard about something that I really would like to do.” I have absolutely no idea how to go about writing a novel, since plot and dialog have never been my strong points, but those can be learned. I can take writing classes or read books on the subject.

My friend suggested that the first thing I should do, even before I start writing, is to start reading. He told me to ask people I respect what novels helped form their political beliefs. So, I asked you all that question yesterday. Your answers stunned me. First off, they reminded me again of what I already knew: you are an incredibly intellectual crowd, well-read and thoughtful. I’m often in great awe of your knowledge and your ability to apply that knowledge to real world scenarios.

The second thing that struck me is how few of the recommended books I’ve read, including any of Ayn Rand’s books. I can tell you exactly why I’ve read so few of those books: I had a liberal arts education at very liberal institutions. The result of this ostensibly liberal education is that I have a strong aversion to vast numbers of writers I’ve read, as well as unreasoning prejudices against writers I’ve only heard of.

The easiest example of the negative effect of my liberal education can be described as “my adventures with Charles Dickens.” When I was in 9th grade, we read Great Expectations. When I was in 11th grade, we read Great Expectations. When I was in my Freshman year at Berkeley, we read Great Expectations. By the third read, I could quote large parts of the book practically by memory and hated it with a passion. In every class, whether I was 14, 16 or 18, we engaged in two, and only two types of analyses: we did what I now realize was a Marxist inspired analysis that examined the class system in mid-Victorian England; and we painstakingly went through the book looking for literary symbolism. At no point did we ever examine the book as Charles Dickens wrote it. Unlike his Victorian audience, we never got to see a rip-roaring novel about a boy’s life trajectory, the weird characters he meets, the wrong assumptions that guide him, and the decisions he makes and their effect on his life. In other words, we never looked at why, long before Marxist analysis and symbolic investigations, legions of ordinary Brits anxiously awaited each installment in this exciting cliff hanger.

By the time I was 19, I vowed that I would never again read another word of Charles Dickens. I hated Dickens. Dickens was ponderous. Dickens was preachy. Dickens was depressing. Blech. And then one day, when I was living in England, I found myself quite bored. Boredom didn’t happen to me often when I lived in England. I was a student having fun. I went to parties, and more parties, and still more parties. But even I couldn’t keep the dancing going forever. So I asked my roommates (pardon: “flatmates”), “Do any of you have something good to read?”

Jenny was the only one with an answer (perhaps because she partied less than the rest of us). “I can loan you David Copperfield.” It is a measure of my desperation that I even let her put the despised Dickens in my hand. It was even more shocking that I started to read it — and I fell in love! Reading the novel as it was meant to be read, as the picaresque adventures of a young man, wending his way through the highly colored, eccentric England of Dickens’ imagination, was absolutely delightful. It was such a relief not to have to analyze every phrase for its class or symbolic implications. After David Copperfield, I gobbled Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, and A Christmas Carol. I was finally able to see Dickens as a first class writer, rather than an intellectual burden.

That pattern, of my hating a writer because of the way he was taught, happened again and again. Last night, after my husband and I finished watching The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, my husband turned to me and asked, “Had you read that story?” I drew back in revulsion, announcing, “I hate Fitzgerald.” And then I paused. I realized that I’d actually read only one Fitzgerald book, and that was in an English class. We read and analyzed The Great Gatsby to death. As with Great Expectations, we focused obsessively on Marxist class issues and literary symbolism. Ironically, the one thing we didn’t do was try to look at the novel as it was read in its own era: as a good story that also described the tension between the controlled 19th Century and the wild Jazz Age. The kind of close textual analysis we did sucks the life out of everything. When we were done, I vowed never to read Fitzgerald again, and I’ve kept that youthful vow. (A vow I’m thinking I might want to abandon now.)

Oscar Wilde got the same treatment. The only way I can think with any fondness of The Picture of Dorian Grey is to remember the student in my class who, in a desperate bid to impress the teacher with his grasp of symbolism, announced that “Wilde repeatedly describes flowers in the book because he wants to remind the readers of the phallic symbolism of the female sexual organs.” We can now cross Wilde off the list of writers I ever want to read again.

In addition to turning me defiantly against the classics, the liberal arts institutions in which I found myself kept up a constant drumbeat of negativity about many of the books that you all recommend. Rand was a boring fanatic, Huxley’s book was a fantasy, Clancy was a right wing techno wacko. Indeed, it’s amazing to me, looking back, that George Orwell’s books were (and are) still part of the educational canon. Thinking about it, the only reason I may like Orwell’s books is because their defiant anti-Leftism meant that the teachers couldn’t subject them to a Marxist analysis, and their straightforward writing defied any in-depth symbolic exegesis. In other words, the teacher’s couldn’t turn them into deconstructionist gobbledygook.

These snarky views about anti-Leftist books even infected popular culture that surrounded me when I was young. As an example, I was a big fan of Dirty Dancing when it came out. I was in my early 20s, and Patrick Swayze was so beautiful. Who wouldn’t be impressed? So I paid attention to the story — and I certainly didn’t miss the fact that Swayze’s arch nemesis, the swaggering, dishonest stud, Robbie Gould, justified his immorality by informing Baby, and the viewing audience, that he lived his life according to Ayn Rand:

Robbie Gould: I didn’t blow a summer hauling toasted bagels just to bail out some little chick who probably balled every guy in the place.
[Baby is pouring water into glasses for him]
Robbie Gould: A little precision please, Baby. Some people count and some people don’t.
[Brings out a copy of The Fountainhead from his pocket]
Robbie Gould: Read it. I think it’s a book you’ll enjoy, but make sure you return it; I have notes in the margin.
Baby: You make me sick. Stay away from me, stay away from my sister or I’ll have you fired.
[Baby pours the jug of water on his crotch]

Clearly, Ayn’s writing makes people evil and immoral. You may as well read Mein Kampf, since it will have the same poisonous effect on your soul.

So here I am, the product of a fairly high level liberal arts education, and I hate the books I’ve read, and won’t read the books people recommend. The process of reading and studying so many of those books was such agony, it was always impossible to imagine that there might be a simple pleasure associated with the actual story the author was telling. I shied away from those books just as I shy away from certain foods I associate with food poisoning. (Don’t ever bother trying to feed me scallops.) And as for many of the writers I might have found interesting, the ones who directly or indirectly articulated anti-Marxist sentiments, I was ordered away from those books, assured by professors and pop culture alike that they had the potential to corrupt my brain and my soul beyond redemption.

I think I’m going to have a lot of reading to do in the next few months, not my ordinary diet of fascinating nonfiction and painfully innocuous fiction, but serious stuff — the heavy intellectual stuff that will help develop my thinking as I contemplate creating a literary world in which my own political ideas can flourish.

Cross-posted at Bookworm Room

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