By Chelsea Vollrath
The time is approaching for Phi Beta Kappa’s 43rd Triennial Council, to be held in Palm Beach, Florida, this August. At the event, five Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholars, current and former, will be speaking. Among these accomplished intellectuals is Patricia Meyer Spacks, the Edgar Shannon Professor of English Emerita at the University of Virginia, a critic, and an essayist. Spacks will not only be speaking at the event, though; she is being honored as the recipient of this year’s Award for Distinguished Service to the Humanities.
Have you ever found yourself picking up a book you’ve already read, either from your childhood or later on in life, for no purpose other than pure enjoyment? It’s nothing to be ashamed of; in fact, Spacks brushes away the notion of frivolousness so often associated with the act of rereading and instead reveres it as a valid pursuit of pleasure. Mainstream media, like The New York Times, and scholarly publications alike have taken an interest in her newest work, intrigued by an intellectual’s acceptance of rereading as, according to Spacks, “a treat, a form of escape, a device for getting to sleep or for distracting oneself, a way to evoke memories (not only of the text but of one’s life and of past selves), a reminder of half-forgotten truths, an inlet to new insight,” despite what is assumed to be the opinion on rereading from others in her field.
Spacks studied the subject for a year and analyzed her own justification for rereading as well as the emotions stemming from picking up already-visited pieces of literature that she experienced to develop a theory on what psychological needs the act can fulfill. Some of the works she reread included universal favorites such as J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher and the Rye, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, as well as several Jane Austen novels and others for the purpose of reliving the joy experienced from childhood reading, giving another chance to books she did not enjoy the first time she read them, and to evaluate whether books so relevant during the time they were written have stayed just as relevant over time. Spacks compiled her research and wrote a book on the subject, On Rereading, which illuminates the goal of rereading so often undermined.
Though the spotlight is currently on Spacks for her most recent book, On Rereading, she has been highly regarded for her work on feminist theory throughout her career. In addition to numerous essays, Spacks has written more than 20 books, including Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind, Gossip, and The Female Imagination, to name a few.
These written contributions, in addition to those made by her involvement in various associations promoting the study of the humanities, have been regarded as worthy of recognition, which is why Spacks has been chosen as the recipient for this year’s humanities award.
Phi Beta Kappa’s Award for Distinguished Service to the Humanities includes a medal, named for Mr. and Mrs. William B. Jaffe, the individuals whose generous gift enabled the award’s creation, and a cash prize.
Chelsea Vollrath is a senior at Elon University majoring in English with a concentration in professional writing and rhetoric. Elon is home to the Eta of North Carolina chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.
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