How I Became a Professional Bookworm
“So . . . why German literature?”
This is the inevitable question I get once I tell people what I study. It’s a fair question, in my opinion, but for years I didn’t have a good answer. I have some German heritage, but it’s been many generations since anyone in my family lived in Germany. I learned German in college, after realizing that if I wanted to do a literature PhD - even one in English - I would need a second language. I hadn’t enjoyed my Spanish classes in high school, and so I decided to start over with something new. French or German? I thought. German seemed quirkier. Ten years later, here I am. Not a very satisfying story.
But the truth is that I don’t identify as a Germanist. I identify as a humanist. And I am a humanist because when I was a child, I loved to read.
When I was seven, my second grade teacher asked, with grave concern, if I ever did anything other than read. I said that I did, but I had a hard time coming up with things that I liked as much as I liked to read. A couple years later, I discovered that I liked writing as much I liked reading. But whenever I said that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, the adults in my life inevitably pointed out that very few people actually make a living as a writer and perhaps I should choose something more practical. I liked pleasing adults, and so I switched my ambitions to the most practical career I could think of: medicine.
Clearly, I did not end up becoming a doctor (though the scifi-lover in me sort of believes that there's probably an alternate universe out there in which I did). In my transition from high school to college, I made a series of somewhat unusual decisions that led me in an entirely different direction. Having been accepted to both UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz, I chose UCSC, because it was as close as I could come within the University of California system to a liberal arts college. At UCSC, I majored in literature and feminist studies. In other words, I chose to become a humanist rather than a scientist.
Humanists and scientists both wrestle with very important problems. But scientists set out to solve their problems, and humanists do not. It’s the wrestling that’s important to humanists. It’s the conversation, the argument, the working-through of ideas that matters. And, I believe, it’s the love for certain things that matters as well: for books, for writing, for ideas. I believe that we don’t talk enough in the humanities about our love for the things that we study, and indeed, many humanists study things that they don’t love at all. I’ve certainly worked on texts that I did not adore at first read (or even second or third). But surely it must have been love of something that led us all here, for why else would we have chosen such a strange and difficult path?
Most scholars have a handful of questions that drive them. One of mine is certainly: Why do we love what we love? How do we experience literature and film? What about it is compelling - and why do I find something compelling that the person sitting next to me finds incredibly dull? These are questions that will probably continue to preoccupy me throughout the rest of my life. No matter where I end up after I finish my PhD, I will always be a humanist.
And I’ll always love to read.