Learning to Read The Classics
I remember being taught The Great Gatsby in High School. It was the kind of teaching which is geared toward prepping you for particular essay questions. I came away with the belief that literature consisted entirely of deliberately hidden clues and symbols, and by decoding them correctly the reader could mine a concrete set of meanings from the text like gold; you either "get it" or you don't. Faltering my way through an English degree like a blind whale on two legs somehow didn't disabuse me of that idea.
I was in my mid-twenties before I discovered that you really can just experience and describe a text, more or less straightforwardly as it is. You can taste it like it's a sandwich, no math necessary, and appreciate it for the flavour. That was also around the time I started to like myself more and make friends more easily, although I'm sure that's unrelated.
Props to Mr Hetler. He sounds like a real one.
"Let me submit the following practical suggestion. Literature, real literature, must not be gulped down like some potion which may be good for the heart or good for the brain - the brain, that stomach of the soul. Literature must be taken and broken to bits, pulled apart, squashed - then its lovely reek will be smelt in the hollow of the palm, it will be munched and rolled upon the tongue with relish; then, and only then, its rare flavor will be appreciated at its true worth and the broken and crushed parts will again come together in your mind and disclose the beauty of a unity to which you have contributed something of your own blood."
Most of the time when I see an argument for reading things outside of "the cannon" the response is a straw man saying person A is "unintellectual" or "emotional". It seems to me that the person replying is the one exhibiting those traits. I think there's a good argument for reading other things because that will make someone a stronger reader. I remember a teacher asking us to think further than symbols and foreshadowing while reading "fool's crow". It was a bit jarring to have to completely reexamine my reader's toolbox, but I think it made me a stronger reader to analyze literature outside of the predetermined categories I had become accustomed to.
Anyway, that's just my opinion. I liked this piece and thank you for sharing that one from Howe.
Do you know that Norm Macdonald used to have a twitter book club where he assigned and discussed the canon? It was so weird.
It seems depressing that most people I know who are into literature either had literary parents - academics, teachers and the like - or had to have this 'right time, right place' moment with a teacher who opened the door to literature. I don't know whether it would be good to have a society that intriniscally appreciates and inculcates a love of literature (or if such a thing is possible) or if as you point out, its the teaching method/approach that needs to improve.
Either way, this article made me subscirbe and I look forward to reading more in the future.
It's easy, and fun, to dunk on the people who give simplistic negative readings of classic books - or to join in if you also hate the book you were forced to read in high school - but I think you cut to the heart of the issue here: the debate's really about how kids learn to read, and whether they're being taught in such a way that they'll find pleasure in it, with the specific books being taught serving as a proxy. Just as you were lucky to have Mr. Hetler, I was lucky to have a murderer's row of good high school English teachers, and I was lucky to have them after being set up by my parents from an early age to see reading as a pleasurable activity, but I can see that that's not often the case.
A lot of the laughable readings in these threads - the one you'll probably most enjoy, if you missed it, is 'Wuthering Heights is about how incest is okay if your dad refuses to confirm you're siblings' - just hammer home how poorly these books are being taught. And a lot of the anecdotes end with somebody learning to hate reading because of how they're evaluated for the activity, rather than drawn into enjoying it by having a book's pleasures and possibilities opened up for them by a skilled teacher. I don't think the answer is 'change the books,' though that might help in some cases, but it's easier to argue over whether or not Moby Dick is any good than it is to reconfigure literary pedagogy throughout the country, or turn our society into one where the literary humanities are valued.
I enjoy when you start he multi-strip Calvin & Hobbes stories, if only because I read C&H exhaustively as a kid, and used it to help build my adolescent self, but haven't looked at any of the strips in years, so I get to experience the satisfaction of vague remembrances clicking over into clarity in the course of a few posts. Plus they're great on their own.
Does everybody already know Frank Kermode's book "Pleasure and Change"? (I may have heard about it here... I can't recall now.) I read it yesterday and found it very relevant to the topic. It's a short book published as two lectures and then some debate from colleagues. (And easily pirated from Library Genesis.) As the title indicates, Kermode reminds us that books are on the canon because they give pleasure -- not because they're homework. And in the Change part he makes the case that any canon isn't as written in stone as some people fear. He sounds a bit as if he knows he's on the losing side, politically. But I found it encouraging.