An alumna recalls a memorable writing course helmed by one of America's literary giants.
Yes, I majored in English, got a master’s degree in English education, and am now an English teacher — but no, I do not want to join your book club, I would not like any book recommendations, and I probably have not read whatever book it is you’re asking about.
The truth is, I went seven years without ever reading a book for pleasure, and now I am taking every chance to make up for it.
I can’t tell you how many white lies I told over the years. A friend would ask about a New York Times bestseller, and I’d say, “Oh, it’s on my bedside table; I’m hoping to get to it next!” Another would recommend a memoir they just loved, and I’d spurt, “That sounds fabulous; I’ll add it to my list!”
And what a list I have! For those seven years, I kept a note on my phone with the names of books I’d like to read, always adding to it conservatively to avoid overwhelming my future self. Even now, two years after I’ve started reading for pleasure again, I have 50 titles waiting to be read.
Perhaps things would have been different if I were a fast reader, but I read slowly and meticulously. As an undergrad, I was shocked by the pace at which we read for English seminars: one book per week, sometimes even two. I took to reading in the library but also in every crevice of the day — while riding the subway, at night before bed, listening to audiobooks while I cleaned my room or cooked. There wasn’t time for anything else.
When I decided to pursue teaching, these habits followed me to graduate school. Again, I found myself picking up only texts assigned on syllabi, trying to remember the joy of reading while working my way through books that other people had picked.
Eventually, just when I thought I was done, I learned the hard truth of teaching English: I have to read what I teach. On my own time, I worked my way through classics in the curriculum that I’d somehow skipped, like The Great Gatsby, Night, and Macbeth. Since they were too far in the past for me to remember, I found myself rereading Speak, Hamlet, and The Kite Runner.
After four years at Barnard, and 18 months of graduate school overlapping with my first three years in the classroom, I finally, at long last, relished the chance to read again, on my own terms.
Over the past two years, I’ve wished that Middlesex, Homegoing, and Pachinko would never end and learned that there is a name for my favorite genre: epic historical fiction. I traveled back to an earlier era of New York in
Rules of Civility; I imagined a grim future in Parable of the Sower. I also connected with others, as I finally understood the hype behind Educated and read the words of another Barnard alumna, Sigrid Nunez ’72, in her book The Friend.
So please forgive me if I am not ready to join your book club for a few more years. Maybe seven more. But after so many years of reading other people’s book lists, I can finally delight in reading my own.
Danielle Blake teaches ELA at the High School of Fashion Industries, where she particularly enjoys working with students on personal narrative writing. If she’s not on her couch reading, she is likely running in Prospect Park or trying out a new recipe.