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Taking It All In

By Adam I. Arenson

Retroactively, I have found I had a real winter break this year. I didn't think of it as a vacation. There was reading, writing and research, and the traditional grumbling in the face of friends on a between-semesters break of the type that Harvard, due to a penchant for believing class should begin after Labor Day, seems unlikely ever to adopt. Yet, at brunches with friends, on lazy days in front of the television and when relishing the luxury of having parents who believe that college students can come home and not have to do their own laundry, vacation somehow crept in to surprise me.

I realized this, of course, once I was back at my desk at school, looking at the to-do lists I had left myself. Turn that calendar page to January, and all the due dates stare at you coldly: term paper here, writing exercise here, final here. The clock is ticking, so I know it's time to buckle down and spend the days reading, writing and researching, without the benefits of parent-powered laundry services.

And yet, looking back over the past three years of reading periods, I see that this has actually been one of my favorite times of year. While spouting the traditional lines about work, deadlines and a lack of free time, I have spent reading periods doing what I like best about college: spending time with friends, exploring new places near and far, and figuring out what I am really getting from this experience, if only evident in hindsight.

My memory of reading periods past is of roommates sprawled on the floor, reacquainting themselves with syllabi and dutifully checking off the reading. That is about a third of the time; the rest of the memories from my suite are of Warcraft, bridge, an obscene version of Tetris and whatever else we could scare up on the computer. Come to think of it, it seems the reading was only what we did to fill time between rounds at the computer.

Some of my best Harvard meals have been during reading period as well. I notice no change in the food, but it seems everyone is willing to linger a little longer, and there are fewer places to run off to. It's the one time of year I feel I run the schedule, not that it runs me. That meal with a blockmate or lab partner that never seemed to happen finally occurs, a gloriously lengthy dinner where you sit over your plates and catch up, trading tidbits of distinctly Harvard gossip--yes, he is applying to be a summer proctor, no, she didn't get the Marshall and now is figuring out what to do next year--while wondering whether it's time to reach for the soft serve.

As for new places, I have a secret. Reading period, or between exams, is my favorite time to go away. I have hit D.C., Toronto and Amherst, Mass., over the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. It's not the sort of thing to win you points among the group who has a term paper due tomorrow, but it has been a pleasure, and it's not particularly hard: you can get lost within the hour across state lines, with only an Unofficial Guide and a sense of adventure to guide you. If the weather scares you off, any Harvard or Boston museum will oblige as a place to escape for an afternoon and enjoy something beyond the textbooks.

There is another revelation from being home as well, since I got a chance to catch up on my connections to the outside world, from mindless sitcoms to the pages of the New Yorker. I was once again rudely reminded of the Harvard insularity we adopt--did you know that starting today U.S. postage is 34 cents?--but I also appreciated reading an article on modern architecture and a discussion of the new state-by-state estimates of immigrant populations released by the Census Bureau. I mention them because I took classes on related subjects in semesters past, and in reading the articles I recalled what a professor had argued or the slide of a particular building--in short, what I had learned, not just to be regurgitated on a test or in an essay, but what I had really absorbed in the class. In that I am in the process of stockpiling for that first, more artificial measure of comprehension, it jarred me a bit to see real learning at work, two years after the fact.

I mention all this because, as I begin this reading period, the calendar reads 2001. A semester from now, I will graduate from Harvard (assuming the thesis and the last Core course chug along fine). Next year, I will not have this knowledge-gathering period, this peculiar pause when there is much to be learned--about friends, out-of-the-way places, and what will stick with you years from now. College itself is a vacation, a chance to take a long view and get immersed in a subject in a way few jobs allow. To my pleasant surprise, I am a long way, in my growth as a person, from where I was my first reading period, eating Double Decker Pizza Ring on the first floor of Hollis Hall. I hope, starting this reading period, to see what I have really learned--even if I can only see it in retrospect.

Adam I. Arenson '00-'01 is a history and literature concentrator in Lowell House. His column has regularly appeared on alternate Fridays.

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