As a sophomore at UC San Diego, I went home for the summer to get a cavity filled in at the dentist’s. I lay there, saliva ejector hanging out the side of my mouth like a fishhook as Dr. Nguyen worked her way around my tooth.
“What’s your major again?” she asked.
“It-tra-cha,” I replied.
“Oh, literature?” She asked through her face mask. Then she posed a question that was rather patronizing now that I think about it.
“What would you rather be,” she said, holding her tools upright for a moment, “a doctor who made lots of money or an author whose name would be remembered?”
It sounded a bit cruel. The subtext, of course, was that I’d be poor and should not be under any illusion that I could expect a standard of living above pauper grade.
Literature is many things: memories recollected in tranquility, the hum and riot of the heart recorded on codices, vellum, paper, pixel. It’s a global positioning system for the soul. It’s the study of broken things and broken people, with the glimmer of hope for redemption and repair and reconciliation.
Literature does for us what religion often does. It allows us to transcend the subjective smallness of our experiences and place them in a larger framework. It nurtures empathy and builds an ethical profile. It makes us emotionally sentient.
Literature is invaluable.
But a literature major? Come on. Barista jokes aside, what does a person think of when he thinks of a lit major? Probably something between monastic and hedonistic. We imagine someone devoting years to an obscure reference in a poem. Or a person whose field of study involves an activity everyone does after the kids are put to bed or a flight is delayed. “The best reason to read literature is for pleasure,” Matthew J. Bruccoli wrote in the preface to The Great Gatsby in 1992. We know what he meant, but the theme doesn’t make it easier for literature majors to be taken seriously.
And in the age of doers and makers, of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) obsession in K–12 education, of everyone trying to be TED-Talk exceptional, who in their right minds would take on the bondage of student-loan debt to study a few words by dead people? After all, a bunch of very smart people have announced the deaths of expertise, book-y books, and the Canon. Why study literature when Sparknotes has done all the work for us?
I shadowed two literature majors to see how their lives led to their discipline, to see how their learning has shaped their lives, and to see how their institution can benefit those in their charge.
Memory and chaos
Makenzie Read is a 28-year-old former Navy petty officer second class, the fifth rate for an enlisted sailor. She works as a solar-panel maintenance supervisor for Solare Energy during the day, and in the evenings she takes writing classes at UC San Diego. People in her field are accustomed to spreadsheets and networking, to tangible problems and solutions. But for Read, the decision to be a literature writing major is about exploration as much as it is about expression: she wants to use her writing to unpack and develop the intangible parts of her life, and to live in a more purposeful way.
“It’s what I’m passionate about,” Read said. “It may not make sense, or it may not be of value to the world economy, but you have to have balance in your life. You have to do what you love, and if you don’t nurture that, you die a little inside.”
Career-wise, her writing degree may end up with her teaching someday. “Maybe someday when I’m in my 40s when I have something to offer other people in my life experiences and my education, I would go into academia and talk about literature and my life,” she said.
Read grew up in Auburn, Washington, half an hour from Seattle. Her mother died of colon cancer when she was five years old, and her father — an ordained minister who had found God in prison after being sentenced for cocaine trafficking — homeschooled her until ninth grade.
For a time, her father ran a program that helped ex-cons transition from prison into the outside world, and Read and her sister (she also has two half-siblings from her father’s former marriage) had houseguests who came through the program.
She wanted to study literature for college but knew she would have limited job opportunities. So Read opened up her journal and pulled up a bucket list. The top item was military service. Her father, who had served in Vietnam for two years, helped sign her paperwork for the Navy, because she was still 17.
Read performed well on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test that new recruits are given and transferred to San Diego for Tomahawk weapons system training. She eventually moved to Maine, becoming a “plankowner” (a member of the original crew) of the USS Stockdale when it was commissioned in 2008. Her last ship was the Princeton, aboard which she was a Tomahawk supervisor before leaving the Navy in 2013.
When it was time for Petty Officer Second Class Read to consider her reenlistment options after four years, a retentions official approached her to discuss her future in the Navy. Her response: “F--k no, I don’t even want to talk to you.”
“It’s like controlled chaos,” Read said of her time in the Navy. “You’re in port one week and out of port another. You move around and change orders every four years. I think there’s a lot of pain in the military. People are lonely, they’re missing their families, they’re trying to find that stability that we’re all trying to find.”
Military life taught Read how to deal with chaos and gave her a technical education, but there were parts of the culture that disillusioned her.
“I was a patriotic young kid, and I thought the military is about discipline and honor and these things,” she said, “but I was a little frustrated with the Navy culture that had to do with alcoholism and adultery. It opened up my eyes to the real world, where not everybody is doing the right thing or has got their life together.”