I entered a competition run by UCAS and The Times earlier in the summer to explain in 400-500 words why I enjoy my degree other than for the job prospects. I decided to write as experimental an essay as I possibly could, with the intention of catching someone’s attention. Since I haven’t heard back from them I’m going to assume I didn’t succeed, and so I’ll publish my entry here to salvage a little bit of my pride. I hope you enjoy it.
‘A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies… The man who never reads lives only one.’
– George R.R. Martin, A Dance With Dragons.
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there lived a boy who liked to read. He would read with his parents, on his own, inside and outside, but he was almost always reading nonetheless. His favourite book was the story of a dragon, and the knight who vanquished it. He liked to think of himself as the brave knight, and imagined himself in all the books he read. When he wasn’t reading he was usually writing his own stories, in which a brave white knight went on adventures slaying monsters and rescuing princesses.
When the boy grew a little older he continued to read, but now he also learned at school about the books he was reading, and his friends said they were boring. But he never found them boring, and still he stayed in his books day and night, through rain or shine. Now he was older he wrote about adventurers exploring strange Eastern lands, voyaging on pirate ships, and encountering Chinese dragons. He was no longer the knight in his own mind; he was the brave ship’s captain.
A few years later, it was time for the boy to go to university. He continued to read and to write as he had always done, but through his new study he was taught to see the books in a different light. Now, when he looked at the stories, he saw the ingrained post-colonial prejudice in his oriental adventures, the formulaic fairy-tale structure of his brave knight stories, and the allusions to Treasure Island, Gulliver’s Travels and Disney’s Aladdin in all the magical journeys he imagined. He no longer saw himself as the chauvinist knight, or the imperialistic captain… he didn’t really know which character he was any more, if any.
This was because studying English Literature hadn’t given him the answers. It had just given him more questions. He questioned everything he read, he wanted to know what was under the surface, what was being secretly said, what influenced the author, what had other critics before him said about the text, and how did it relate to other books he had read? Thus when he learnt about literature, he learnt about the world, and he saw it through the eyes of a thousand different authors from a thousand different times and places. He knew that his stories were another tiny piece of that massive patchwork of human history. He too was on a journey of exploration. He knew now that he was not the knight, not the captain, but the thinker, and there was nothing in the world more valuable than that.