The Best Upper Division Essay

Jill Wagner's Life Between Covers

11:30 P.M., 1990. She hugs a cherished, dog-eared paperback volume to her chest, the pages gently rustling as they brush against the soft green flannel of her nightgown. The black marks of literary magic we call words are illuminated by the gentle glow of the plastic flashlight that the reader clutches in her hand. The covers on her bed form a low tent over her head bent over the book.

The reader is, of course, not mentally present in her bed, her room, or even her house. She is stroking Aslan's mane in the land of Narnia; last night she was accompanying Charlie and his fragile grandfather to Wonka's factory cloaked in sweet mystery. Tomorrow she will probably be comforting Jo as Amy passes from the world of Little Women. Her interest in books and literature is so deep and intense that when she reads, she becomes completely self-absorbed in the story. For her, reading is enjoyment, leisure, escape from the harshness and boredom of events in ordinary life, and a free ticket to different unexplored worlds. The library is her haven; for her, going to the library is what, for other children her age, is hanging out at the mall or going to the movies.

11:30 P.M., 1997. She sits comfortably on the carpeted floor of her room, dissecting Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The thick volume is open on the floor, the typed language lit softly by the overhead light. The reader's mother peeks in, yawning, but the reader does not even look up. She does not even notice. Surrounded by commentaries and works of literary criticism, the reader is wrapped up in the brilliant language and witty humor of the tales of Chaucer's travelers. She is amazed by the parallels she can draw between the old classic, her life, and modern society. The unusual characters and the intricate settings depicted in the book intrigue her, but the themes behind the concrete images are even more crucial to her understanding. Those themes of love, hatred, denial, and peace, which are common to all people of all times, are present in Canterbury Tales. The reader absorbs the material found in the pages because she has to for high school English class, yet she also reads outside of the classroom for vicarious enjoyment, for expression of emotion, for understanding of the world around her, for wisdom. She reads to discover others, and in doing so, to discover herself.

I am the reader. Ever since I was born, reading and writing have been passionate activities. My parents read to me as a young child until I could read for myself, and I began filling notebooks with adventures and thoughts. There was no television in my home while I was growing up; we still do not have a TV in my house. Literature was my substitute for television. Now literature is more than that; it has taken on its own power and place in my world as an entertaining medium for the exchange of ideas. Instead of channel surfing for hours after school and on the weekends, I filled my mind with the magic that authors offered. I always asked for books for my birthday and Christmas.

I was introduced to "real" literature in junior high and high school. Fahrenheit 451 and Metamorphosis appalled me, Faust intrigued me, and the horrific but brilliant works of Poe kept me awake at night with their haunting gore. I remember acting out "Julius Caesar" and "Macbeth." The sparse, poetic language of Wiesel's Night destroyed my naiveté and prompted me to seek out new knowledge of the Holocaust and testimonies of its brave survivors. The striking reality of Brave New World in present society, the devastating but beautiful romance and intensity of "Romeo and Juliet," and the sheer magic of the bygone era of "Camelot" - all of these demonstrated to me that literature is more than thick, dusty books hidden in the corner of the library. Literature is the miracle of life somehow captured between two covers with the thrill of discovery available to all readers.

As a college student, I cannot honestly say that I am well-read in many of the recognized "great literary works," but I have a voracious appetite for writing in all genres. At this stage, literature is a pathway to the discovery of life. For me, literature can be a vehicle of emotional expression; it can incite, bring to tears, and create laughter. It allows me to express myself vicariously and discover who I really am. And it offers me a goal to strive for - to be able to create similar vehicles with words.

11:30 P.M., 2001. The reader reclines on her bed, lit gently from above by the overhead light in her dorm room. She is engrossed in Michael Crichton's bestseller Timeline, but a copy of Zinsser's book about the power of writing lies open next to her. She has discovered the delicate balance between enjoyment and learning in reading, and she desires to become a writer herself. By reading the literature of established writers and about the skill of writing, she is developing her own writing and interpretation skills. But if anyone intends to ask her about these developments, it is not a good time - she is somewhere in medieval France right now, searching for a missing professor in the middle of a fencing tournament…

 

Prizes:

George S. Diamond Prizes
Beck Shakespeare Prize

English Prize
The Erskine Prize
Zinzendorf Prize
Beck Oratorial Prizes