By IHE Fellow Mark Bauerlein
When I was in my first years of graduate school in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s, I had no money and no friends. I lived in a building near the La Brea Tar Pits, one of a hundred two-story dumps that stacked small rooms along a single hallway running front to back. The space I was in had no kitchen, only a sink, hot plate, and mini-fridge. There was a narrow bathroom and a shallow closet. I had a single bed along one wall, a cheap book case on the other, and a breakfast table and one chair in between.
It ran $190 a month, which helped because I had no income save for $75 a week as a research assistant for one of the professors, plus a little cash for helping a first-call man down the hall transport bodies to mortuaries now and then. I lived on oatmeal and spaghetti and carrots. Three days a week I drove to campus in a ’67 Dodge Dart I’d bought the year before from a friend, parking a half-mile from campus to avoid fees in the visitors’ lot.
None of this mattered, though. Making money and seeing friends weren’t important. I had something else to do. I was in the English department at UCLA, and the curriculum assigned us an overwhelming schedule of reading, reading, reading . . . and that’s what I did. In our third year we had to sit for the Part One exams, four tests lasting four hours each and focussed on a particular time period. Each historical field had a reading list that was handed to us early in our first year. The lists were massive, hundreds of novels, poems, plays, stories, essays, memoirs, and treatises. We had to keep up with important criticism published on those fields in the preceding 30 years, too.
That left us with a daily schedule that couldn’t be interrupted. We knew that several students failed every year and were kicked out of the program. The routine was set, and I was frightened enough to hold to it. I woke up in the morning, ate some cereal, and got to work. After three hours with Wordsworth, I made lunch and turned on the little black and white TV to watch an episode of Get Smart. Then it was back to the books for another three hours, more Wordsworth or Coleridge or Keats. Then, some push-up, sit-ups, a run around the neighborhood, dinner and a baseball game on TV, then two more hours of the Romantics. Lights out at midnight.
The only thing that broke the routine was a trip to school to attend class and complete some research assistant errands. When I was driving home, I couldn’t wait to settle in and get back to the books. I wasn’t bored or fatigued, and I was lonely only in the quiet of the night. I didn’t want to do anything else. What worried me most was losing time, not getting through enough pages each day, not retaining enough of what I had read.
It wasn’t only because of the Part One exams. I knew even then that I had to get a lot of reading done in my early-20s. There would never be enough time later on. Being poor and isolated now was small price to pay for being well-read later.
I am telling you this as an encouragement at the present time of social distancing. You are stuck at home, doing your school work but having lots of time you might otherwise spend at the gym or at Starbuck’s or with one another. When the semester ends, you’ll have even more open hours.
That leaves you a choice: social media or books, games or books, TV or books? Ask the question with the long term in mind. Which activity today will serve you better five years from now? When you are 27, will you be glad that you devoted hours to Henry James and Pope Benedict, or to texting and Law & Order?
You know the answer. When summer comes, then, begin the season with your own syllabus. Create a set of readings that you will have completed by the end of August. It could be five novels by Henry James, five by Dickens, and five by Balzac; or the most important writings of the popes of the 20th century; or three Shakespeares, three Restoration comedies, two of Oscar Wilde’s dramas, and two of T. S. Eliot’s. Set out two hours of each day for your own private agenda. On September 1st, you will feel very good about it.