I hated history and literature when I was in high school. I avoided them because I was intimidated by what I didn’t know and frustrated with my inability to comprehend them. Looking back now, I realize that not overcoming these obstacles really stunted my development and shut a lot of doors for later vocational endeavors. I wish so dearly that I could go back and make myself understand this before I completely wrote them off as inconsequential subjects. But, I might not be sitting here writing this blog if I had, or taken the same journey to get here that I did, or woken up soaking wet and half naked on a living room floor in a house I didn’t remember going to…but that’s a tale for another time.
My hatred for those two facets of learning was not because of the subject matter per se, it was my dislike for reading, which is a pretty essential process for understanding them as the typical means of transmission is to print them in a book and all. I avoided reading like the plague, only ever doing just enough of it to get my assignments done—not realizing that this was making subsequent assignments that much more difficult. I also started to fall behind my friends, and that gap only became more apparent as we progressed through more grades. By my Senior year, I was struggling to get through basic, English 4 while they were sailing through AP English. I would hear those more gifted friends discuss Dante’s Inferno, the brilliance of Shakespeare and the wisdom that could be gleaned from his copious body of work, all while I was doing my best to feign comprehension and feverishly look up in the dictionary the words they were using.
I read “The Masque of the Red Death” with the rest of my class and all that started to change (though it wasn’t until years later that I was able to pinpoint that as the moment I went from dreading to enjoying reading). It was by this Poe guy that I’d heard of before. I knew he was a great author, one of the best, so my friends told me, so I immediately went to my default of being intimidated by something new and complex. But to my surprise, I was able to keep up as we made our way through the work, and I actually found myself enthralled with the story—as well as wigged out by it. Through the effect that reading it had on me, I started to see that writing was a way to communicate ideas and imagery just as effectively as photography or cinematography, if not better than in some situations. This change of perspective prompted me to give some other works a shot, wanting to see what wonder and intrigue they had to offer.
Shortly thereafter I read The Catcher in the Rye at the behest of a buddy of mine, one of the aforementioned smart ones. I wasn’t quite at his intellectual level, but this dude saw my potential and insisted that I read it, for he was certain I would enjoy it. So with my newfound willingness to try the seemingly impossible, I agreed to read it, though I had some serious doubts about being able to. Swallowing my pride, I explained to him that I would need to borrow his copy of the novel seeing that I wasn’t in the “Highfalutin English Class,” as I mockingly called it. (I mocked it for two reasons, neither of which were mature: I was intimidated by the works they were studying and their ability to so easily process them as well as embarrassed by my own ineptness.) Now, we were both recluses and socially awkward, so our paths crossing and us hitting it off over a book telling the tale of a socially awkward recluse really pushed the limits of how much irony one relationship could bear. But the fortuitous encounter pushed me up to and beyond the boundaries of what I thought I could achieve, and this work is a fine example. For as I dove deeper into it and forgot all that kept me from reading it before, I understood it—I knew what was going on! Suddenly, all this reading stuff wasn’t so bad. In fact, I was starting to like it.
My literary conquests continued to accumulate and I grew increasingly confident, but it was not without great effort. The most formidable obstacle I had to overcome at the onset was the intimidation mentioned previously. If I came across a classic or a work that came highly recommended by my peers, I would immediately exclude understanding it as an attainable goal. To combat this, I instead sought out pieces that were bite-sized—my bite size. It would be a short story or short poem that was just out to the margins of my comfort zone so that I would be able to read it and comprehend it. This would bolster my confidence and empower me to work up to those more difficult works that were so mysterious.
The other obstacle that was problematic, and still is with each new book I pick up, is growing accustomed to the way the author “speaks:” his unique choice of words, cadence, and the way sentences are structured and punctuation inserted to amplify the ideas expressed within them. I find it takes until about the end of the first chapter to really start seeing and feeling what the author intended to convey, and this is especially true with older works.
My journey has been long and arduous (having handicapped myself so early on), but I’m finally starting to reap the benefits of putting in hours with my face buried in a book. I haven’t built up my literary chops to the level I’d like, but as with a physical skill, one must start out at the bottom and work up to the goal that’s been established—and continue working even after it’s been met or else stamina and proficiency begin to wane.