We have experienced exactly one day of autumn between the first of September and the start of October: it was a mid-sixties Saturday morning, chilly enough to wear a chunky jacket to the farmer’s market and yet still comfortable enough to spend all day outside. Nothing has matched this Eden-day since. Autumn in Texas is filled with these sorts of false starts, but I’ve come to love how our state eases into the colder months—my front porch is covered with blossoming flower pots right now, the peach trees are full and heavily loaded, and I won’t even need to wear socks until the middle of December. This nineteenth-century, harvest-happy painting of a French farm town in autumn has “Texas” written all over it: mostly green growth, mostly blue skies, and no one knows it’s autumn unless you say so.
“For books are not absolutely dead things”: September reading…
Nearly all of my reading life in September was given over to tackling prelim lists. The goal right now is to get through 10-12 works on my prelim lists each month leading up to the big exam. (And don’t worry, I don’t plan on writing about all those dusty texts here.) Technically, a “work” can range from a complete book of poems to a single play to a triple-decker Victorian novel, so some items on my list go much faster than others. If you don’t know much about the structure of humanities PhD programs, passing preliminary exams is the gateway to the dissertation. For English Literature, the exams are structured around different reading lists (there are 50+ works on all my lists combined) and they culminate in a two-week period where you “sit for” the written tests—these are intense 90-minute to three hour exam periods. I have to pass these exams in order to move to the next stage. (No pressure, right?) When I say this process out loud, is sounds a little mortifying, but I have to say that this is my favorite part of the doctorate so far. After all, reading and thinking about literature for my job has always been the goal. This is what I’ve been working toward. This is the place I’ve longed to be.
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë. Even though my primary area is Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama, I’m taking a 90-minute exam in Victorian Women Writers; so, this month, I got to visit with dear Jane, an old fictional friend of the best sort. Favorite things learned from this re-reading: (1) sometimes people are rude for no good reason, (2) relationships can become disastrously idolatrous and the best cure is distance, and (3) you only need a few good friends.
168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, by Laura Vanderkam. I read this book this summer, but I’ve been revisiting it this month (and Laura Vanderkam’s blog) as a source of time management inspiration. This strikes me as the kind of book that should be required reading at the start of a PhD program, maybe even at the beginning of anyone’s professional life. The biggest reason is this: I so appreciate how Vanderkam emphasizes reclaiming spots of time we would normally brush aside. The concept of a “time log” lets us confront all the small spaces in-between, and makes us wonder where those swatches go once the day ends. I’ve only managed to complete a full time log for one or two weeks, but that practice alone helped me realize the rhythms of my days. In fact, it’s a lot like a close-reading exercise for your schedule: you check for patterns, trends, lulls, heightened moments, and cadences, all of which are elements of reading a literary text with care.
Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. Alright, I never really intended to write much about my prelim reading in this space, but I had a beautiful moment with Hamlet this month that I can’t help but acknowledge. On one of my days off from teaching, the morning got away from me thanks to meetings, and so I came home discouraged about the possibility of getting much studying done. After slowly setting up my workspace and opening my Riverside Shakespeare, I came upon notes and annotations from over six years ago scribbled about the text.
There was something fantastic about sitting with my old notes and highlights, thinking over what it was like to encounter these lines as a searching 20-year old who was afraid to admit her desire to become an English professor. Reading and mastering (well, “mastering” is a strong word…) these great texts have given me so much confidence—becoming a professor is big stuff, and knowing the “big works” intimately makes that task seem so much more accomplishable. (I’ve linked my favorite Hamlet edition above—for those of you who aren’t Bard fans, maybe give him a try with a sturdier edition, something with higher quality footnotes? Editions really make a difference when you’re reading Shakespeare; the free Kindle ones just don’t do the trick.)
On the Telly (British Edition)…
Call the Midwife—specifically series four, which is now available on Netflix. Despite my sometimes-ignorance of the wonder of BBC television series, Call the Midwife did not escape me. I’ve slowly watched this series as it’s been added to Netflix, and I’ve just finished off series four. Although I will always be a faithful fan of this show, it seems like Nurse Lee’s progression from bringing life into the world as a midwife to helping patients die gracefully was abrupt. There is something truly poetic about the vocational shift from midwife to hospice nurse, but that turn needed a more substantial source. (And, no, I don’t think the tragic death of her boyfriend was enough to justify such a reversal.)
Also, there were two sub-narratives of this fourth series that acted as strange foils to one another: Sister Bernadette/Shelagh and Chummy. After trying to settle in as a full-time wife and mother, Chummy finally realized that an active pursuit like midwifery was essential for her to live the good life. But Shelagh seemed to be flailing about trying to figure out how to spend her time: cooking puddings for Dr. Turner and Timothy, saving dying choir clubs, relentlessly pursuing adoption even though Dr. Turner still had some problems to work out, etc. The nuns kept hinting that they were understaffed—I was waiting for Shelagh to re-enter the world of Nonnatus House as a married midwife, but that never happened. Alas, it’s too bad this show is over.
Sherlock—all series. Again, BJ and I are both late to this BBC show, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t feel triumphant as soon as we immersed ourselves in it. I’m convinced that Sherlock is a love song to friendship, and it’s a reminder that the best friendships arise from a shared pursuit or challenge. I highly recommend watching it with subtitles, though—it lets you see how much of what the characters say is just plain indiscernible with all their fast-talking, under-their-breaths commentary.
A Planner of My Own. Because of the people I’ve worked for and with over the past few years, I’ve come to rely almost entirely on my Microsoft Outlook calendar—people send me “invitations” to meetings, I dutifully accept, and then it appears in my calendar. I do almost nothing and it is wonderful. But this month I started to feel like I had too many post-it notes sticking to my brain, and they were starting to fall off. Even with my dependable Outlook calendar on my computer, I was missing the tactile, paper-loving calendar-keeping experience. So I bought very pretty, bookish planner and am satisfied: Today’s post is linked up with Leigh Kramer’s “What I’m Into” series.