Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Thoreau Reincarnated as English Major

{excerpt from a commencement speech}
I thought of these things with the tools with which we English majors graduate into the world - not the tools that enable you to splice genes, cantilever bridges, or make piles of money, but those that enable you to analyze, to see patterns, to acquire a personal philosophy rather than a jumble of unexamined, hand-me-down notions; those that enable you not to make a living but maybe to live. This least utilitarian of educations prepares you to make sense of the world and maybe to make meaning; for one way to describe the great struggle of our time is as the endeavor to become a producer of meanings rather than a consumer of them - in an age when meaning as advertising and marketing, as others' definitions of pleasure and terror, is daily forced down our throats.

To make meaning, to change the world, or just to read it thoughtfully (which can itself be insurrectionary) . . . And never has our world been so overloaded, so rapidly changing, and so full of surprises that require us to change our minds, rethink possibilities, and then do so again; never has it required such careful reading. In my own case, the kind of critical reading I first learned to do with books, then with works of art, turned out to be transferable to national parks, atomic bombs, revolutions, marches, the act of walking - a skill transferred not only to feed my writing but my larger path through the world.

Books themselves sometimes change the world directly: you can talk about nonfiction like Diderot's Encyclopedia, about the Communist Manifesto, The Origin of Species, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, about an essay that mattered a great deal only a very long time after it was written, Henry David Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience," and about a book in that Thoreauvian vein whose practical impact we might actually be able to measure.

In 1975, Edward Abbey published his novel about a charming bunch of what the Department of Homeland Security would now call domestic terrorists, The Monkey Wrench Gang. . . .
{Rebecca Solnit's commencement address at Berkeley continues at the link above...}


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