I just convinced Sarah and Aidan to let me interview them about their bookshelves and experience at St. John’s for an email to prospective students. I’ve got some pretty awesome friends.
What’s the difference between attending St. John’s College and just reading the books on your own?
I actually can’t tell if St. John’s is more about the conversations we have about the books we read, or the books we read themselves. The way a class goes can totally change the way I feel about a reading, and that’s something that I wouldn’t get anywhere else. On the other hand, it can be nice to be able to have your own private and naive opinions on a book you really like. At St. John’s you kind of get forced to lay all those cards on the table.
Have you done any cool study groups at St. John’s? What do you like to read when you’re not reading for class?
I did a study group on William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, which is probably the single hardest thing I’ve ever read. I made it through the whole book with the group, but understood maybe 5% of what happened. I like to keep Wallace Stevens, Monica Ferrell, and Michael Palmer by my bed most of the time. Ursula K. LeGuin, as well.
What are some of the books you look back on the most—whether to reference in a paper or just to revisit for pleasure?
Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, Augustine’s Confessions, and Huckleberry Finn.
Okay, how about a haiku that describes St. John’s:
How many Johnnies
does it take to screw in a
lightbulb? ∞ = 1 = 0.
Are you counting ∞ = 1 = 0 as three syllables?
Fine, how about this one:
Set the alarm for
eight twelve: I’ll let this one
seep in while I dream.
What was your first Aha! moment at St. John’s?
It is all one long Aha! moment. I know that is not a satisfying answer but it is true. In freshman year it was amazing to me how connected all the subjects seemed. Everything is intrinsically linked, nothing is disjointed. That is satisfying.
How did you know St. John’s was the place for you?
I knew that I wanted to study the history of Western thought and I wanted to study it rigorously. I had attended another liberal arts college before St. John’s and it felt like a big joke to me—it was all looks and very little substance. I wanted to be able to laugh and learn, take the program seriously but not take myself too seriously, work hard and feel like I was getting somewhere intellectually. I didn’t want to be pigeon holed as a certain type of thinker. I wanted a place with structure because I think it is very hard, if not impossible, to really get far intellectually without it. St. John’s was a place that I felt could offer me the opportunity to realize these goals. I was right.
What’s the deal with some of your non-program books, like Shop Theory or Wonders of the Human Body?
My partner and I are interested in the way things work, by the intersection of craft and philosophy. He is a blacksmith and so we have many blacksmithing books on our shelves, like Shop Theory. We both come from “maker” families: my dad is a boat builder, mom a baker; his dad is a graphic designer, mom a painter, but trained as a typesetter. Our lives are very influenced by them. In many ways, our bookshelves seem to reflect that influence.
What types of books have you read at St. John’s that you wouldn’t have chosen to read on your own?
Oh so many! But the one that immediately comes to mind is the Bible. It was such a challenge for me. Reading the Old Testament for so long, yet not having the time to really synthesize and digest all the information in it felt a little like getting beat up. It was exhausting. But I ended up writing my enabling essay on two Psalms, 90 and 91. I felt like I owed it to myself to attempt to understand something from the Bible, if only thirty short lines. It was a very gratifying process. It made me feel much more at ease and made me want to re-examine what we had read in first semester sophomore seminar.