A few years ago as an undergrad I took a literature class that very nearly sucked all the life out of me. The class included a plethora of post-modern literature. It meant a semester with authors like Cormac McCarthy and Toni Morrison - authors that other people (re: not me) found genius because of their innovative writing techniques and mystical storytelling. It also included spending a huge amount of time with a professor who, while certainly very qualified in her field, drove me absolutely batty with her elitist views on literature. The books that I was even tempted to enjoy were so destroyed by class discussion that I started a countdown to the end of class.
Now, for you to appreciate any of this, you must understand that my favorite thing in the entire world to do is to talk about what I’m reading. As a student I was an overactive participant in every class discussion (including this professor’s.) As a teacher in my own class, my primary method of inspiring life-long reading in my students revolves around discussion. I still believe that talking about books is a fun and productive way for people to enter into the world conversation. For a teacher to out-discuss a book to me takes a huge amount of work. Somehow, by her focusing more on commentaries on the book rather than the book itself, I managed to leave her class every day with the mad desire to never touch another book again.
But then, at the end of the semester, we were assigned the book Mr. Pip by Lloyd Jones. It was one of those “kindred spirit” reads that so resonated with me that I simply could not bring myself to write what I had been writing all term to please my professor. Before, I had played the game and written exactly what I knew she would like. It was the kind of high brow writing I could do well, but didn’t enjoy. This time, this one last time, I wanted to write for myself just as I had read for myself. So I presented a plan to my professor. I reminded her that I had done spectacularly on all her other assignments and suggested that perhaps I could try a different style this time? Specifically a personal essay instead? My professor nodded, said that would be a fine idea, and I tripped off home to write.
I wrote about how the story of Mr. Pip had resonated so closely with my dearest reading experiences. Those times when you read a book that takes you away to the point where, upon returning “home”, you feel as though you’ve left it and aren’t quite sure what to do with yourself. I wrote particularly of my time with Anne of Green Gables, the dearest and most personal of my reading experiences. I wrote about how, like the main character in Pip who had grown obsessed with Great Expectations, I felt closer to Anne than nearly any “real” person. The resulting essay was a fairly sentimental tribute, perhaps, but I meant it. Throughout my college experience I had enjoyed analyzing the symbolic and historical significance of great works of fiction very much, but this time I wanted to honor it.
Knowing that my professor was often rather forgetful and was likely to need some reminding that she had, in fact, approved my experiment, I included a cover page to my essay. I thanked her for assigning the book and let her know how much I enjoyed it. Then, feeling more than a little cheeky and daring and fed-up after a long semester, I included the following quote:
The elitists are such boneheads they think literature exists to be admired. Wrong. Literature exists to create memories so true and important that we allow them to become part of ourselves, shaping our future actions because we remember that once someone we admired did this, and someone we hated and feared did that.
Literature matters only to the degree that it shapes and changes human behavior by making the audience wish to be better because they read it.
It becomes importantly bad only to the degree that it entices the audience to revel in actions and memories that debase the culture that embraces it.
Next to that, questions of how one literary work influences other literary works, or how the manner of writing measures up to the tastes of some elite group are so trivial that you marvel that someone who went to college could ever think they mattered more.
(Orson Scott Card, July 29, 2007, “Uncle Orson Reviews Everything”)
This was, admittedly, a very foolish and risky thing to do. My professor, after all, was a bonehead literary elitist. But given the subject matter of Mr. Pip I figured that, in spite of the jab, she had to be fair enough to see that the quote was actually supporting the lesson taught by the book she’d assigned me to read. If she had a soul at all - she had to see reason, right?
On the last day of class when my portfolio was returned, I pulled out my essay to see that it didn’t appear to even have been touched. There was no crease by the staple, at least. Only the cover page had any response to it. Next to the quote by Orson Scott Card was written, “Not true. This is a very silly remark. See if you can figure out why?”
I left class that day absolutely fuming. Even now, two years later and well out of this woman’s grasp, I still get frustrated thinking about it. I hated her for being such an elitist that she’d forgotten why people should read to begin with.
If you ask people why they read, I would imagine that very few people would tell you that they enjoy reading because they enjoy high faluting literary commentaries. That may be part of the reason. This essay, after all, is a commentary on literature. I don’t think literary analysis is bad at all - I think it’s what helps to keep a book alive and relevant. But if you talk to most readers about their favorite books, the analysis will only matter to them if they have connected to the book individually as well. If that book, as Card says, “shapes and changes human behavior by making the audience wish to be better because they read it.”
I’ve realized this even more now that I’m on the other side as a teacher myself. For the past two years I have been the one to present students with books they will be forced to read and then graded on. I’ve fought to make sure that I find books and plays that I love and have tried to pass that on to my students. Because I teach a combined English and History class, I also try to find books that will make particular connections that can link to their immediate reality. Studying To Kill a Mockingbird and Asian philosophy together, for example, provides a nice discussion on how to live your life in a way that is at peace with difficult decisions. It is rewarding to have class discussions where students do what the state educational system wants them to do - demonstrate understanding of important themes and symbols in literature. But the greatest compliment I receive as a teacher is something that could never be measured - it’s when I hear a student say they love a book I’ve assigned them to read. To hear a class refer to Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird), Reuven Malter (The Chosen), Jonas (The Giver) or Napoleon (Animal Farm) as examples of people they do or don’t want to be like. And these are all people (and a pig) who never technically walked the earth.
I remember being in second grade and coming to class every day with a pile of books as tall as I could carry. I would read one chapter from the book on the top of the pile and then put that book on the bottom and take the next one down and so on to maximize the number of books I could read at a time. I remember falling asleep with my mother’s copy of Anne of Green Gables when I was young, flipping through the pages long before I could read the words on them, aching to be old enough to read it. I remember getting my drivers license and going to the library for my first drive alone. I remember staying up until way past my bedtime reading books by flashlight. I remember the first time I read Jane Eyre. I remember finishing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and immediately starting the book again because I wasn’t ready to say good-bye yet. The first piece of furniture I ever bought for myself was - what else? - a bookshelf. I remember packing my emergency kit when I was young and agonizing over which book I loved most to save if I had no time to save them all.
That is why we read, isn’t it? Because we want to fall in love. Because stories matter. They take us away, they bring us back, they touch our souls and enlighten our minds. At their best, stories inspire us to be better than we could have been on our own steam.
I look across my bedroom and see Mr. Pip on one of my bookshelves now, situated in alphabetical order between The Turn of the Screw and Ella Enchanted, two completely different works of fiction. One I read to work out my brain and for the pleasure of words perfectly formed, one I read for the pleasure of a simple story well told. I wonder where Mr. Pip sits on the shelves of the office of this old professor of mine. I wonder - hope, really - that she has a book that she reads every year just because she wouldn’t feel complete if she didn’t. I hope, too, that she read a book this year not as a teacher preparing for students but as a human being that needs to be connected to other human beings - even if they are fictional.