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.


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?