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A tip for future students – never ‘study’ your favourite author

posted on 20 Nov 2015

A tip for future students – never ‘study’ your favourite author

I can very clearly remember that, as a 19 year old, one of the things that excited me most about going to university was the chance to spend time studying my favourite authors in detail. English lessons at school and in the F.E. college I went to had been fine but there were just too many set texts that didn’t really interest me – how much better, I thought, to be able to concentrate on those I really loved.

How wrong I was. What I have learned since is that the quickest way to kill your love of an author or of a book is to ‘study’ it, him or her. Initially I found it hard to understand why that should be – was it my fault perhaps? Maybe I didn’t really love those books at all – or maybe my admiration for them was so superficial that it couldn’t stand any scrutiny? But now I don’t believe the fault lies with me but with the values and practices that lie behind the word ‘study’.

I have come to think that a better word than study might be autopsy. It seems to me that students at all levels are encouraged, in the laboratory of the classroom or lecture theatre, to dismantle the corpse of the book, to disaggregate it, to look for hidden pathologies, to find motive, to contrast and compare the performance of this against that and ultimately to pass judgement. Not judgements born of artistic sympathy or empathy but from a clinical assessment of worthiness.

Once the habits of the clinical reader have been honed to perfection it becomes impossible to read anything without looking for the muscle and bone beneath the skin. Simply standing back and admiring the grace and beauty of a book becomes impossible – instead it has to be assessed as a repository of good or bad syntax, well selected imagery, inventive simile or metaphor and a hundred and one further, dull, characteristics.

So I have tried over time not to fall into the trap of putting my favourite writers on the slab for dissection. Where I have had to engage with any sort of academic endeavour I’ve always gone for subjects that interest me but those writers about who I have only a limited knowledge and little or no emotional investment. It’s a reading policy I commend to all future students – keep your favourite writers away from the academics and their dreadful disciplines.

I would dearly love to banish the word ‘study’ from the lexicon when it comes to English literature and I’d like to replace it with that subversive little four letter word – read.

 

Terry Potter

November 2015