A Minor English Major

           Hello. My name is Lanning Lee, and I’m an English major.
          Everyone said it would end like this; I refused to listen. For a while, maybe one afternoon in late May or earlyish June 1976, I think I saw this path as my destiny. Now that I see time the way I do, I understand it was my fate.
           English majors, I guess, are fit for only one thing: to read. Interminably. What we should've done is chosen a vocation that could actually better the world. Or, having made the decision we did, we could at least try to make amends by doing small things. Picking up all the garbage on the road outside our homes. The stuff morons throw out of their car windows as if the earth were their trashcan. In the same moron class as those who start leaf blowing at 6:30 in the morning when you're trying to sleep in. These dawn patrol yard-work fanatics believe the world is theirs alone, and they all have high-powered blowers that sound like jet engines at full throttle, and they think nothing about waking up the whole neighborhood.
           English majors, at best, might focus their effort on solving this problem by turning it literary, even if only in a half-assed kind of way. After all the big noise this guy makes, let’s say there’s still one leaf he can’t blow, and instead of bending over like most folks and simply picking it up, he keeps blowing at it and blowing at it. Why? Well, come to find out he’d announced something like, “When I’ve blown away the last lychee leaf this season, I'm going to die.” Turns out his granddaughter heard him, painted the lychee leaf there during the night, in the middle of a hurricane, got pneumonia, died. So this geezer who can’t bend over and pick up the last leaf keeps trying to blow it away, day after day, and finally recovers from cancer, so he’s able to honor his granddaughter by blowing leaves at 6:30 a.m. until he’s a hundred and fifty.
           Yeah, so O. Henry-izing the problem could at least give guys like him a decent reason for being, redeem them, but I don’t think even O. Henry could help make English majors any less pathetic.
          The English major’s enduring problem, absolutely, is allocating too much precious life energy to reading. This doesn't help get the trash picked up or the leaves blown. Not only have I read too many books, but I compound the problem by reading them over and over again. Take The Great Gatsby. I’ve read it a hundred times. To what greater good? For the self-indulgent reason that it still makes me laugh. Except for Gatsby getting killed. And Myrtle.
           This incredibly nosy Midwestern effete becomes so caught up in Gatsby's life that he’s got to tell the whole world. It's a crazy story about forgetting who you are because you can’t stop butting into somebody’s life and then blurting out every minute detail like some National Enquirer reporter, and of course it’s after the guy you're blabbing about is dead and can't defend himself against any of the stuff you might say. Nick Carraway is a blood-sucking vampire. If it weren't for Gatsby, don’t you get the feeling that Carraway wouldn't have any reason to exist? It’s really sort of tragic in a funny kind of way. Very much like declaring your major to be English, if you really want to think about it.
           And it’s not just whacky characters that keep me reading. The authors who create them are equally culpable. Mr. Bingley could come over to check out the Bennett babes in Chapter Two, reveal he’s a serial axe-murderer, and slaughter the whole clan at tea time. Ahab might trip over his whale-bonding leg hobbling up onto the Pequod, fall in the water, and drown — and everybody would be alive to tell the story. George Webber could just step through the front door of the old homestead early on, kick back, sip some hot cocoa with those melty miniature marshmallows, and live happily ever after.
           My eyes. Do you know how bad my eyesight is today?
           William Shakespeare: j’accuse. I cannot tell you how much time I've burned up going blind in reading your plays over and over. Thanks a bunch for all the mesmerizing mayhem and shipwrecks and fighting and feasting and fairies and ghosts and backstabbing and mistaking females for males and lusting for power and killing and dying and brooding about life and about death and composing all those songs where I have to make up the music in my head every time I run across them, not to mention all the great jokes I still want to figure out completely before I die because I know they were knee-slappers for folks who lived at the same time as you.
           Instead of screwing around with literature, I should have mastered time travel. I could go back in time, warn The Bard that in the future people only have the attention span of Chihuahuas. Not only do they hate to read him so much that they’re constantly trying to prove he didn’t write his own work, but some folks can concentrate only long enough to read him maybe ten lines at a time. I could encourage him to stop making up all those cool new words and using all those odd old words that require so many footnotes, tell him that the best way to ensure he survives is to limit himself to single-syllable words, forget adverbs and adjectives altogether because anyone who has to think about them in the time I'm from jumps off a cliff, that the only verbs anyone understands are “to eat,” “to sleep,” and “to party.”
           Thanks to my chat with Shakespeare, back in the 21st-Century it takes 30 minutes to blow through one of his one-acts. More people will remember him since they can whiz through a playlet on the can in the morning.
           The semicolon. Henry James should be cursing the invention of the semicolon. I could go back and explain that folks now days deride his writing, saying things like, “Didn’t they invent the period before James was born? I always get the feeling when he was writing, he didn’t know the period existed, that maybe his editor threw them in.” Is it I who lets him know that his use of the semicolon makes modern readers who actually try to read him forget what the beginning of the sentences were about by the time they stumble their way to the ends?
           Might I also tell him that in the future hardly anyone who’s supposed to read, say, The Portrait of a Lady actually does, advising him every English major has heard it’s one of the most important novels ever, although most of them never read the whole book? To put it in terms he’d understand, should I say that even the longest opera ends sooner than some of his short stories which, non-fans grumble, take a lifetime and a half to get through all by themselves?
           Would I take back a copy of the Portrait Cliff’s Notes, saying that another reason why future readers don't actually read any of his work is because of this. “Mr. James, see how everything's boiled down to a few salient points? Even if you can’t bring yourself to abandon the semicolon and edit your work like a madman, you can assure your immortality right now by publishing the Cliff's Notes versions along with your novels. If it’s the only thing future English majors read of yours, at least they’ll be getting an informed and authoritative condensation."
           But you can’t go back and James will always be the same. Which is bad, because I won’t make better progress on cleaning up my neighborhood, and I won’t successfully sue Ford Motor Company for breech of contract in supplying Budget Rent-a-Car with only 95 economy model cars instead of the promised 100.
          And I wouldn't want to forget those persevering monks who preserved Beowulf. To make sure their life’s work is not forgotten, I’d take them one thing.
           "Gentlemen," I'd say, "I want everyone to be talking up Beowulf in the 21st-Century and beyond big-time, so I have this little fire-proof safe in which I want you to drop the first completed manuscript, then carefully hand it down from generation to generation. In the 21st-Century, English majors who study Beowulf want to dedicate all their time and effort to pondering the poem rather than agonizing endlessly about what might have been lost.”
           If the brothers miraculously understood me, what would my efforts accomplish? Beowulf would be longer than it is now. Great!
          Those monks, Austen, Shakespeare, James – all are long gone. We have what they left us. If I could actually travel back, now that I think about it, I know I could never bring myself to try to convince any writer to change one damn thing. I’d be collecting first-editions and autographs. Taking lots of pictures, me with the shaka sign. Showing them how to use solar-powered digital voice-recorders and video cameras.
           You know what? It is weird. I’m kind of glad I’ve worked through this some; I feel a bit better. For good or ill, I am what I am because of everything I’ve read, and while I’m not gonna find a cure for cancer, at least I know – I hope – that I’ve never done anything to hamper the efforts of those good people who’ve chosen not to dedicate their lives to loving literature.

Mahalo for reading!

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