The following speech was given by Michael Dirda to the graduates of the English Department of the University of California, Berkeley, at their Commencement, on Saturday, May 23, 2015. Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book columnist for The Washington Post and the author, most recently, of On Conan Doyle, which received a 2012 Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America. He holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Cornell University and contributes regularly to The New York Review of Books and The Times Literary Supplement. His latest collection of essays, Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting and Living with Books, will be published in July.
Thank you Professor O’Brien O’Keeffe for that kind introduction.
These days to choose to major in English is an act of courage, even, in some cases, of defiance. For it is a truth universally acknowledged that most parents want their children to graduate with bachelor’s degrees in biochemistry, computer science or finance. The old folks can’t help it. Such majors certainly make life easier. They offer a straight, if narrow path to an obvious career in medicine or business. Yet what uninteresting people often result when parents get their way! I am here to tell you, in the words of the guardian of the Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, that you have chosen wisely.
I know whereof I speak. Years ago, I entered Oberlin College as a prospective biology major. But after discovering that I could hardly dissect a clam, let alone a frog or fetal pig, and that the only things I could see in microscopes were my eyelashes, it gradually dawned on me that my true destiny lay in . . . economics. This was, I should point out, the 1960s when econ, government, and sociology were the hot majors, just as environmental studies is today. After all, you needed to understand the established order before you could undermine it. Not surprisingly, then, I wrote my term papers on such Utopian thinkers as Henry George and his arguments for what he called the Single Tax. As a result, my teacher, Robert Tufts—who had been an advisor to Adlai Stevenson during his losing runs for president—would scribble at the end of my 10 page disquisitions: “Mr. Dirda, you actually write pretty well, but you don’t understand economics at all.”
At that point, I accepted my fate and declared English as my major.
I suspect that some of you may have come to English in the same roundabout fashion. To many in college, it has always seemed the soft, fallback option. What, after all, could be more pleasant than spending your time reading novels and poems? What indeed? By majoring in English you have embarked, my fellow hedonists, on a life of endless pleasure. You can, in effect, have it all. Like any other millennial, you can watch television series, play video games and queue for blockbuster movies, but when these pall, as they will, you can also delight in reading, whether you turn to Montaigne or Jane Austen, Philip Pullman or Proust. By now certain books already rank among the most passionate experiences of your lives. No one is ever the same after he or she has finished Anna Karenina or Middlemarch.
The reading of great books will certainly deepen and broaden your understanding of yourself and of the world around you and, over time, will generate, in the words of Cardinal Newman, “a habit of mind… of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation and wisdom.” But these are, in a sense, supplemental benefits, important ones though they are. In fact, those of us who pick up book after book do so because we can’t help it. As the critic Marvin Mudrick rightly declared, people don’t read for understanding, they read for excitement. Understanding is a product of excitement. We turn to books for nothing less than mental adventure.
What, then, is reading good for? Like some of you, I grew up in a working-class household; my father quit school at 16, and I was the first person in my family to go on to college. Now I was a smart kid, but I was also a smart-alecky one. My senior year in high school I received, on my first report card of the fall, a D in English. Still, I read all the time, everything from comics to classics. My father, when he caught me with a book, would sometimes kick it out of my hands and send me outside to play or down in the basement to build something. Perhaps he sensed that such indiscriminate and voracious reading is the one sure sign of a future English major. At an early age, though, I was lucky enough to discover an abridged version of Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo.
In it, you will recall, the ignorant naïve young sailor Edmond Dantes is betrayed by his supposed friends and sentenced to life imprisonment on the Chateau d’If, the Alcatraz of France. As a result, he loses his fiancée, all his hopes and dreams, everything. But in prison he meets the learned Abbe Faria, who eventually teaches him polite speech, manners, history, languages, fencing, and much else. Thus, when Edmond Dantes finally escapes and goes back into the world to seek vengeance on those who have wronged him, he is no longer a gullible and innocent provincial, he has instead become the unflappably suave and cosmopolitan Count of Monte Cristo.
The message of Dumas’ novel was clear to me at 12. Through education—and through reading, above all—you could change your destiny. I needn’t become a steelworker like my father and his father before him. I could — and what is more American than this?—remake myself. Through books I could grow; I could enlarge my world; I could escape the borders of Lorain, Ohio or even of the United States. I could become—and this will sound corny—that maligned ideal, a citizen of the world.
After all, the person who has read Homer, Herodotus and Plutarch, Sophocles and Dante, the medieval epics and Arthurian romances, Shakespeare and the dramatists of the Renaissance, Don Quixote, the Arabian Nights, the world’s classic fairy tales and folktales, at least some of the many great 19th century novels, and always kept a volume of poetry on his or her bedside—that person can never be surprised by anything or feel utterly lost. Add some knowledge of history and the cultures of the non-western world and he or she will be unconquerable.
What can you do with an English major, crude people crudely ask? This question presupposes that college is simply an exalted trade school, prep for a future in orthopedics or general dentistry. As one who feels the aches of age and who could use a number of implants, I honor such careers. But training isn’t education, certainly not a liberal education, one that shapes the intellect, the soul and the heart. As. W.E. B. DuBois wrote, higher education should be “devoted specifically and peculiarly into bringing the man into the fullest and roundest development of his powers as a human being.” That goes for women too.
Books, as I. A. Richards said in Principles of Literary Criticism, are machines to think with. Think only of the most obvious benefits of a reading life. Sympathy and understanding of those different from yourself. Connection with the some of the great minds of the past. The chance to reflect on religion, civic duty and other important issues of life. Command of written and oral expression. An enriched response to all the wonder and beauty of nature and the world. And, most of all, there’s aesthetic bliss. As Italo Calvino once said, “The classics are books which, upon reading, we find even fresher, more unexpected, and more marvelous than we had thought from hearing about them.”
By becoming an English major, you have chosen—if I may be slightly facetious the way of the Jedi, you have chosen mental power over mere technology. For English—along with history, the study of classical and foreign languages, and philosophy—are the studia humanitatis of our day, the disciplines that allow one to be receptive to the whole spectrum of human experience. Reading opens the door, it is the door, to a life of consequence, passion and self-exploration.
How sad, how impoverishing it is not to read books! According to the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies, he once taught a university class in which one student didn’t know who Noah was.
To some people these days, even a basic knowledge of history, classical mythology and the world’s literature now seems charmingly antiquarian. Or irrelevant. Or sort of hokey.
“One of the more frightening things about our age,’ wrote the poet and critic Randall Jarrell, is “that much of the body of common knowledge that educated people (and many uneducated people) once had, has disappeared or is rapidly disappearing. Fairy tales, myths, proverbs, history—the Bible and Shakespeare and Dickens, the Odyssey and Gulliver’s Travels—these and all the things like them are surprisingly often things that most of an audience won’t understand an allusion to, a joke about. These things were the ground on which the people of the past came together. Much of the wit or charm or elevation of any writing or conversation with an atmosphere depends upon this presupposed easily and affectionately remembered body of common knowledge; because of it we understand things, feel about things, as human beings and not as human animals.”
It is sometimes said that being an English major prepares you for nothing. In fact, it prepares you for anything. The Sherlockian deductive skills of a close reader can be applied to any problem, any situation. A recently retired friend of mine, a former English major, used to work as the chief reference librarian at the Library of Congress. Before that he was a private eye in New Orleans. An English major, a research librarian, and a private detective–the skill sets, he said, are all pretty similar.
Back when Britain ruled the world, what did its leaders study? Classics. Gladstone built up a personal library of over 30,000 books and in his spare time or when out of office translated Horace and researched his three-volume Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age. His rival Disraeli was the son of the great antiquarian Isaac Disraeli, author of Curiosities of Literature. Before entering politics and after he withdrew from it, Disraeli wrote witty, best selling novels, some of which—like Coningsby—you may have read in classes devoted to Victorian literature. To find a modern analogy one would have to imagine that Neil Gaiman would run for and be elected president.
It is, I am told, de rigueur to include a list of some sort in commencement talks. So I’ve thought about what I’ve learned from books and prepared a short one.
Remember “Life is trouble.” That phrase comes from Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek, a book that changed my own life when I first read it at 16. In it, a repressed young Englishman meets Zorba, one of those people who are forces of nature. The sentence that changed my life occurs early in the novel: “I had fallen so low,” says the young Englishman, “that if I had had to choose between reading a book about love and falling in love with a woman, I would have chosen the book.” I went out on my first date the following week. Your parents want your lives to be all smooth sailing. They won’t be. Life is trouble—and, to some extent, it should be. The desire for too much security is a death wish. In times of difficulty, you might also call to mind another line from Cardinal Newman: “It is a rule of God’s Providence that we succeed by failure.”
After all, as Chekhov once said—and it’s one of my own favorite observations—you would have to be a god to distinguish between success and failure in life. We all remember the fate of Richard Cory, in the poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson, who was rich, envied and imperially slim and one night went home and put in a bullet through his head. You don’t have to live up to other people’s expectations. Try different things. Travel. Go be a waiter or waitress in New York or Paris or Tokyo. There’s plenty of time to be responsible and wear sensible shoes. I’ve spent most of my adult life as a literary journalist but I never wrote a book review or worked on a newspaper until I was 29. But I did spend a year in Marseille, where I used to have my hair cut by a dwarf. You’d climb down into a hole in the concrete floor and sit on a kitchen chair, so that your head would be level with his arms. He’d then clip merrily away while discoursing about the perfidy of women. I can hardly remember most other years of my adult life, but that year in Marseille I will never forget.
Given that a properly led life will be full of trouble and failure, how should you deal with these? In the immortal words of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Don’t panic.” Stoic Marcus Aurelius recommended keeping what he called “an interior citadel,” a mental space into which you can retreat from the world’s slings and arrows. Albert Camus suggested that one could surmount any setback or injury by regarding it with scorn, while his older contemporary, the writer and adventurer Andre Malraux, felt that most people simply needed to reduce their share of histrionics to a minimum.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once recorded that a lady friend told him that “feeling well dressed gives a sense of inward tranquility that religion is powerless to bestow.” So, keep up appearances. Be courteous and polite. Look your best. I was once asked which character in fiction I would most like to be and, no fool I, answered “Bond, James Bond.” The equally sartorially correct and invariably polite Mr. Darcy might be my second choice, if only because I, like so many others, am in love with Elizabeth Bennet. So be sharp. Stay cool. As an elegant friend of mine sometimes intones, “Blessed are the debonair for they shall drink cocktails.”
Despite all my talk of pleasure, don’t neglect hard work. It will not only help you toward your dreams but is also a good in itself, a realm of comfort and solace. Besides, the greatest virtue, after courage, is doggedness. As Lytton Strachey wrote of Florence Nightingale: “It was not by gentle sweetness and womanly self-abnegation that she had brought order out of chaos; it was by strict method, by stern discipline, by rigid attention to detail, by ceaseless labor, by the fixed determination of an indomitable will.” An awed interviewer once exclaimed to the jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, ‘you do amazing things on the saxophone, Mr. Parker.’ The musician replied, “I don’t know about amazing—I practiced for fifteen hours a day for quite a few years.”
Don’t take yourself too seriously: nobody likes an old fogey or a young one. Keep things in perspective. As Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote, “It is a good lesson for a man to step outside the narrow circle in which his claims are recognized, and to find how utterly devoid of significance, beyond that circle, is all he achieves, all he aims at.”
Okay, six bits of advice are probably enough. I suppose that most of them boil down to the old Greek ideal: Become who you are.
But what would a graduation speech to English majors be without a passage from Chaucer. I knew you were just waiting for this. So let me send you off this afternoon with the Wife of Bath recalling her frolicsome younger days. “It dooth my herte boote,” by the way, means “It warms my heart,” or “makes me happy.”
But Lord Crist! What that it remembreth me
Upon my yowthe, and my jolitee
It tikleth me aboute myn hearte roote.
Unto this day it dooth my herte boote
That I have had my world as in my tyme.
May you all, each and everyone, have your world, in your time.