A Small Epiphany About Context

(fun fact – I learned the word ‘epiphany’ from the Simpsons movie!)

My biggest weakness as a student of literature is my almost total ignorance of literary history; because I never really read for fun, seeing reading as an, albeit enjoyable, form of work, I was never particularly motivated to read beyond set texts and syllabuses, only branching out into Inferno and Middlemarch because I thought it’d help with my English interviews, because it all seemed a bit like work. As a result, I became – and I’d argue still am – pretty good at close reading and language analysis, but suck at actually having a conversation about books, because I kinda know bugger all.

And this never bothered me; I was happy in my ignorance, because I know that there’s more to life than a single interest even if that interest is something cool like reading, and felt that books can be appreciated in their own right, and knowledge of a wider context is only necessary to view those books within that context, instead of being an intrinsic part of getting to grips with the words on the page. Basically, knowing literary context was an optional in-app purchase compared with the free download of the book itself that is enjoyable in its own right.

But then that changed last week as I sat in a seminar on Rousseau’s Confessions, trying to not fall asleep in two straight seminars after a night of like four hours in bed (yet again); my mind drifted to my rather more expansive knowledge of American hardcore punk – from Minor Threat and Bad Brains on the East Coast, to Pennywise and Bad Religion on the West Coast, then the more recent north-south divide between pop-punk groups like Bowling For Soup in the south, and Rise Against in the north – and I suddenly realised that this knowledge is exactly the same as what knowledge of literary history would be. Essentially, I know the context of punk, but not the context of literature. I then realised that a lot of my enjoyment in listening to punk, especially new bands, comes from appreciating this context, and placing them as an individual group into the much larger stream of people with guitars who are pissed off at things, making them seem more relevant and influential than just their own songs.

It then hit me that literary culture is basically the same thing; close reading is all well and good, but it doesn’t really build up a wider understanding of culture, that I always assumed was one of those bullshit terms they use to sell A-level English to GCSE students caught between taking that and Economics, but might actually be something worth engaging with and enjoying for its own sake.

It remains to be seen if I’ll actually stick to this though, and how much I’m actually interested in this context malarkey; it’s one thing to plan to do a thing, like read all the Romantic poems over summer, and another thing entirely to actually do it (as my failure to complete NaNoWriMo continues to hauntingly remind me to this day).

But even if I don’t go out and read all the books I really should have at least heard of by now, I’ll be more aware of my ignorance, and the damage it’ll be causing; thank the gods for knowledge.

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