In university I had an English professor who taught a third year criticism and theory class. On the first day he handed out the syllabus with a wry smile on his face. When we looked at it we understood why. The class was broken up into lectures that steadily progressed through a long history of Western literary criticism.
This meant that we’d be spending the rest of the semester reading dense text from Horace and Longinus to Baudelaire and Foucault.
“I know that you’re probably not looking forward to the reading,” he said. “But you have to work hard at dry material to get a proper understanding of literature. My class is about doing that. It may be more enjoyable to read more exciting texts, but this semester we’re not having cake. We’re all going to have to eat our hay together.”
That turn of phrase has stuck with me ever since. In some classes the reading was pleasurable, the syllabus filled up with Alice Munro short stories and Mark Twain novels. In others, like this criticism/theory class, I spent nights trying to unpack huge ideas from intricately written essays and drinking heart-stopping amounts of coffee in an effort to stay awake through gargantuan Victorian tomes penned by Britons who were paid by the word. Just the same, by the time I graduated I appreciated what I had taken from all the effort.
I’ve tried to keep eating my hay on personal time. Since graduating I’ve supplemented a diet of “easy” fiction with bales of James Joyce, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, David Foster Wallace, and Leo Tolstoy in an attempt to keep my reading as full of nutrients as possible. I’ve also found that trying to do the same with both listening to music and playing videogames has been valuable.
Just the same, experiencing the classics isn’t always easy.