In celebration of the English major

In college, I started out as a wide-eyed freshman interested in journalism. As the daughter of a sportswriter, I understood the concept of a deadline before I knew the alphabet. My dad is a hard-nosed reporter who turned his penchant for getting the facts into his latest gig: writing a celebrated sports column in Washington, D.C.

I’m a columnist, too — albeit on a much smaller scale. It happened sort of by accident — and not because I’d gone through the J School at the University of Maryland, alma mater of both my father and sister.

No, friends, I was that rare breed of mocked college students everywhere: the English major. Tell someone you’re studying literature and the response is almost always one of two options:

A) Are you going to be a teacher?
B) Oh, so what are you going to do with that?

I didn’t necessarily plan on working for a newspaper, though that’s the world in which I’d grown up and understood better than other fields. I’ve been writing since I was a kid and had completed my first “novel” — 100-some typed pages, all in Courier font — by fifth grade. By the time I enrolled in college, I figured journalism was the route I was born to take . . . though I quickly realized I’m not made of the same stuff as Dad and Kate.

English seemed a natural path. A lifelong reader and devoted supporter of the written word, my English degree was a natural extension of my desire to be as nerdy and bookish as possible. There’s scarcely a plot you could describe that wouldn’t find me blurting out authors’ names and titles, and I love nothing more than trying to connect an author to his or her most famous work. I’m a book geek through and through, even taking a job at Borders during my senior year of college.

English majors go into a variety of fields, it’s true. Some of our teachers. Some become actors. Some are writers, or accountants, or vice presidents of marketing. As English is a broad major that exposes you to many wonderful concepts, ideas and backgrounds, it’s versatile — and can take you anywhere.

In English programs, we’re taught to be analytical, intelligent and serious. We study the words of others for hidden meanings — and then translate those meanings into comprehensible concepts. We read the works of Shakespeare, Austen and Bronte and make them applicable for today’s world. And in some cases, we begin to craft our own masterpieces. With my concentration in creative writing (poetry), I learned to take criticism and defy others’ low expectations.

Now I’m fortunate to be able to write and edit for a living — both skills enhanced by my time in an English program. And though my professors may or may not have scoffed at my alleged “talents,” I can smile the broad grin of a woman who is far from a failure. Even if they told me I suck.

Other people turned out pretty awesome, too. From a recent edition of Shelf Awareness:

Question: What literary quality do Jon Hamm, Alan Alda, Maureen Dowd, Jodie Foster, Tommy Lee Jones, Stephen King, Paul Newman, Joan Rivers, Sting, Helen Thomas, Barbara Walters, Sigourney Weaver, Tom Wolfe, Bob Woodward and Renée Zellweger have in common?

Answer: They were all once college English majors.”

So PSA for parents with children considering a major in “the arts”: we’re not all lunatics. And you won’t have to worry about us starving to death or taking up permanent residence on your couch . . . the kids will be all right.

Summer reading that didn’t suck

Unlike my groaning and eye-rolling classmates, the last few weeks of school were always a very exciting time for me — and not just because months of uninterrupted leisure time awaited me on summer break.

No, friends, in classic book-nerd fashion, I was all about obtaining one thing and one thing only: the summer reading list. Finding out the books I’d be required to read before the start of school in August was like getting an early peek at your Christmas presents. I loved the challenge of being presented with a novel and having to read. Like, not because it’s fun . . . but because it’s a requirement.

It didn’t take me long to tear through my books, of course. Since I was such an overzealous literature geek, I’d typically have everything conquered by the time July rolled around. That was just fine, though; it gave me ample opportunity to then tackle books of my own choosing.

And I’ve always been very choosy about books.

To that end, I never understood why other kids would whine and curse the day they were, you know, ordered to read. Reading is everywhere. While I mean no offense to the math and science minds of the world, it’s not like I’ve spent much time doing algebraic equations or chemistry in the years since graduation. But English? Reading? Well, that’s something with which I am quite familiar.

Though not all summer reading books were huge hits with yours truly, there were quite a few that I adored — and still remember years later. Though I don’t often re-read novels, these are titles I could see myself revisiting in the future. And for illustrative purposes (and the mental exercise), I’ve scoured the Internet for the covers I believe were on my own copies.

Summer Reading That Didn’t Suck

The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan
Tan’s famous novel was one of my earliest experiences with Asian culture in literature, and what a world it opened for me! I remember getting so wrapped up in this book when I was 17 that I was actually dreaming about the characters. Some of the scenes — emotional; disturbing — still flutter back to me at random moments.

To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Who doesn’t have a story about reading Lee’s classic — and only — novel? I devoured this one before entering my freshman year and was thrilled when we got to see the film adaptation later that school year. Scout was a hero and Lee’s language and story so poetic . . . it’s not a book you ever forget.

The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe
Space! Astronauts! American history! Though this book was gigantic, I read it entering my senior year of high school and became unduly fascinated by the NASA space program. Even now, almost a decade later, I overhear word of Alan Shepard and think, “Oh — he was in The Right Stuff.” Though I recall being mentally exhausted from the sheer length of the book, it was popular and enjoyed by my classmates and was my first introduction to the style of New Journalism.

Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare
O Romeo . . . O Juliet. Shakespeare’s famous pair of star-crossed teen lovers was my first experience with the Bard and quite the epic tale for a 14-year-old. As hormones raged and every little squabble became a Serious Drama in our school hallways, Shakespeare’s portrayal of these crazy kids who just want to be together no matter what was another popular read in ninth grade. Though most of it went over our heads, I had a great and patient English teacher — Mrs. Chalmers — who, after we returned from break, had us read the whole play aloud. (I was Juliet, natch.) Though I read Romeo and Juliet again in college — twice, actually — and still enjoy it, that first time was the best.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
When I think back on a trip to the California coast with my family, I think less of the glittering lights of Los Angeles, the plush Beverly Wilshire Hotel and the whales of Monterey than I do of Jane Eyre, a sweeping and haunting narrative that had me lodged in Thornfield Hall. Though Mr. Rochester can’t hold a candle to my beloved Mr. Darcy, he still cut a fine “hero” in Brontë’s classic novel.