The “Gap Year” Canon: How I Dropped Out, Tuned in, & Read the Classics

I dropped out after the first year of college.  I didn’t know what the hell I was doing or wanted to do. I was majoring in “boyfriend,” with a minor in cutting classes. Although I tolerated my literature classes, I preferred reading Virginia Woolf –she was not on any syllabus then–to skimming the Psychology textbook, which focused on rats, not psychoanalysis or the The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) .  While reading Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary, I imagined myself one day living in Bloomsbury and mysteriously learning to write as beautifully as Woolf. It would indeed have been mysterious, as I wrote very little and preferred reading.

Anyway, the “gap year,” i.e., dropout year, was wonderful. I had an undemanding job, with a good salary and benefits.  I completed my work in two hours and spent the rest of the day discreetly reading.  No one minded, so long as I didn’t flaunt it.

The year was remarkable,  because I had time to read what I wanted, and knew other people who had time to read. I hung out with college graduates who couldn’t find an appropriate professional job because they chose to stay in a  university town. And for some reason, maybe because it was a university town and the bookstores carried so many classics, we did not read many new books. Well, we did read some by Writers’ Workshop grads and professors: Gail Godwin, Kurt Vonnegut, John Cheever, and Marvin Bell are a few I remember.  But in general we were reading the dead.

It was not a wasted year: it prepared me to appreciate a university education.

I joined The Literary Guild Book Club, at the pressing of a friend. The books were not as nice as the editions printed by the publishers, but I enjoyed the company of this smart bibliophile, and she and I became addicted to the book club’s cheap hardcover sets of the classics.

The sets were not particularly nice, but they were adequate.  I wryly refer to this period as my “personal prep school.”  When I taught at a prep school a few years later,  I observed that the students received the equivalent of an  undergraduate education at an age when few were mature enough to understand it .   But it gave them the advantage as an undergrad, because it was their second time through the material.   And thus the well-educated rich have an advantage over the public-school-educated middle class and poor.

I returned to the university after my “gap”/dropout year more confident than when I had left.   Like Susanna Kaysen in Girl, Interrupted, I intended to build a life on literature and boyfriends.  I earned a degree in School of Letters, which required proficiency in two foreign languages and a slew of classes in English and literature in translation.  Essentially I did classics and English.

Tonight I surfed the internet and lo and behold!  found  images of some the Literary Guild sets I used to own.  They’re for sale at eBay and other sites for ridiculous prices.  But what a good reading list!  I loved my sets.

I plan to return to some of these books later this year.

HERE ARE SOME OF THE LITERARY GUILD SETS THAT SHAPED MY GAP YEAR READING.

lot-of-3-henry-james-portrait-of-a-lady-golden-bowl-spoils-nelson-doubleday-1971-491ef6bc83528a8fcce4ddadccac759d1 The Henry James set:  The Portrait of a Lady The Golden Bowl, and The Spoils of Poynton.  I fell in love with James and have never understood why he is considered difficult.

dickens-set-literary-guild-il_570xn-614156782_mndr2. The Dickens set.  David Copperfield, Great Expectations, A Tale of two Cities, and Oliver Twist.  The only one of these I’ve not gone back to is Tale.  David Copperfield is one of my favorite books.

f-scott-fitzgerald-set-literary-guild-il_570xn-1029373479_nso03.  The F. Scott Fitzgerald set.:   The Last Tycoon, The Great Gatsby, This Side of Pardise, Tender Is the Night.  I’ve gone back to Gatsby many times, and even read the original manuscript, Trimalchio.

d-h-lawrence-set-literary-guild-41fsko1zh3l-_sx285_bo1204203200_4. The D. H. Lawrence set:  Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Women in Love, and Sons and Lovers.  Lawrence is one of my favorite writers.  Lady Chatterley and the gardener can be ridiculous at times, but I love Women in Love and Sons and Lovers.
forsyte-saga-galsworthy-literary-guild-il_340x270-828452278_7jgk5. The Galsworthy set:  The Forsyte Saga, A Modern Comedy, and End of the Chapter.   I watched the TV series and naturally had to read the books.

camille-madame-bovary-anna-karenina-s-l5006.  What I call The Love Affair and Adultery set:  Dumas’ Camille, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary I love Anna and Bovary and have read both multiple time.  Is it time to return to Camille, which I barely remember?

What were your gap year, or dropout, reading experiences like?  They are intense, no?

11 thoughts on “The “Gap Year” Canon: How I Dropped Out, Tuned in, & Read the Classics

  1. That sounds like a wonderful gap year! Alas, I never did one – didn’t go to university, and college was a secretarial course! But I guided myself through reading on the recommendations of friends and from books about books. Alas, I’ve big holes in my knowledge of the ancient classics – but 19th century onwards I love! Those sets look lovely – I have a weakness for book club editions myself!

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    • You’re an autodidact! When I went back to school I zeroed in on classics and languages, but I had been drifting before. And as a secretary, you had a skill, thank God–I cannot say that of some of my friends, who really struggled in the workplace.

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  2. What memories your post brought back. My ‘gap year’ started in high school, when I was bored and hated gym class and the gym teacher. My mother was complicit in my almost weekly absence from school. One year I missed 32 days. I’m not sure how they allowed me to graduate! But I was allowed to stay home and read instead of going to school. I lasted three weeks at college. Too big and too redundant and freshman initiation too ridiculous. So I quit and never went back. But, with a bit of a chip on my shoulder, I made sure I read all the classics, as well as more obscure books. One of my most treasured compliments was bestowed by a well-educated friend who went to Swarthmore and Harvard Law School. He told me he didn’t know anyone who had read more broadly than I had. I don’t think I missed anything and my life has been full of love and adventures. (I also had a bunch of those Literary Guild sets.)

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    • I was absent from high school a lot, too. What a waste of time THAT was. Well, I agree that you’re well-educated and well-read! I was very bored by my job so returned to school with new zest. I’m so glad somebody else read those Literary Guild sets. Who would have thought a book club could provide such a great canon?

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  3. What a great reading list! I’m glad your drop-out year turned out so well. I teach at the university level, and I find that college is often wasted on the youth. I find returning adult students (over 25 or so) much more ready to learn and engage with the material.

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    • Debra, that Literary Guild book club was so much fun! I was too immature to appreciate college before the year of reading classics. I’m not surprised that older students are more appreciative. What could be nicer than returning to school and studying with enthusiastic people like you?

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  4. I had a two year gap: what taught me to want to go to college, and why I wanted to was a bad marriage at age 16 and the experience of that. I really found myself in these teen years ages 17-19 (which I’ve talked about on my Sylvia blog) in a slow unconscious way, discovering what I loved best and where I could find meaning and comfort, a reason to stay alive and what would be for me valuable to spend my life on. I had always known I loved reading, and knew I enjoyed English, language (learning languages and then reading texts though trying to talk the language was hard for me and still is) and art history best of all. What I had not aspired to was to think of these things as something I could find a paying job for. This is what those around me expected me to do. I had been a legal secretary for 2 years and loathed it. I did know with my background and lack of self-esteem I’d never get the professorship, that it was a dream, but it was enough of a socially acceptable excuse to hide within.

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    • Yes, those tedious jobs would drive anyone back to college. (And they did me too.) I agree that language study is one of the best incentives to go to college. We really could NOT learn those on our own, or not as well anyway. Alas, the paying jobs don’t come for many in our fields: you can be a gypsy scholar, or teach in a private school, but those are your options. And yet my life is founded on that liberal arts education, which is why I’m always raving on that subject.

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  5. Henry James is one of my very favorite writers and the “difficult” label almost always seems to be attached to him. Although it’s true that The Golden Bowl, for instance, doesn’t breeze along in quite the same manner as The Europeans, I enjoy his later books immensely.

    I had to go look at my bookshelf and, yes, there was the same Oliver Twist you have pictured. My copy was picked up at the Friends of the Library bookstore (where I find many of my books). Bleak House remains my favorite Dickens. I love David Copperfield and need to read it again soon.

    I went through a great Lawrence period in my 20’s but have yet to go back.

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    • The Golden Bowl was the second James I read, and I fell in love with it, but the early books are easier, I admit. I liked that golden period, though.
      I’m sure those Literary Guild books do show up at sales now. I confess I did buy the Lit Guild David Copperfield at a sale out of nostalgia. Perhaps that’s who’s shopping for them at eBay???
      I love Lawrence, but many don’t. Aren’t classics the greatest?

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  6. I had a couple of gap years when I was 14-16. I used the time to read read read and to teach myself to reread poetry until some light came through the initially opaque walls of words.
    I was around some stuffy academics and I refused to be considered a wretch with an 8th grade education so I read Ulysses, Virginia Woolf, Proust: and while you could make an argument that my eyes were only running slowly down the page, I would counter by saying that some images, some words, some ideas, some descriptions did catch me in the act of needing to try to understand. The experience left me with a deep need to go to university and become more organized.

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