Sunday, September 26, 2010

"Tis the Good Reader That Makes the Good Book": How Can English Teachers Dislike/Hate Any Book?

A friend over on the English Companion Ning reminded me of Ralph Waldo Emerson's remarks in an email yesterday resulting from a discussion on that site: "So what books do you DISLIKE?" I have not joined in that conversation for several reasons but mainly because I can't think of any books I completely dislike or hate, as a number of posters have remarked about titles they have named.

My goal is to be a good reader in the Emersonian sense: "Tis the good reader that makes the good book; a good head cannot read amiss; in every book he finds passages which seem confidences or asides hidden from all else and unmistakably meant for his ear." Over the years I've purposed to find something valuable in every book I read. As an English teacher this is what I expect from students. I tell students to ask: "What can this book offer me? and How can I find something valuable in this book?" I also remind students that as twenty-first Century readers we might not initially comprehend the context in which the author writes but that doesn't mean we can't find value in the text.

In his fantastic little book How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Thomas C. Forester offers this to those who really desire to get something from the books they read: "Most professional students of literature learn to take in the foreground detail while seeing what the detail reveals. Like the symbolic imagination, this is a function of being able to distance oneself from the story, to look beyond the purely affective level of plot, drama, characters. Experience has proved to them that life and books fall into similar patterns...Literature is full of patterns, and your reading experience will be much more rewarding when you can step back from the work,  even while you're reading it, and look for those patterns" (xvi).

I suspect some of the teachers with lists of books they dislike would benefit from reading Forester's little instruction book. As readers our students approach literature on the affective level, expecting the book to fulfill all their needs. But for teachers to do so makes me wonder whether we've taken reader response theory a bit too far or perhaps don't really understand it to begin with.

As one trained in the New Criticism approach to reading texts, I've gratefully embraced the development of literary theories that offer additional lenses through which I can see texts, particularly New Historicism and Gender theories. These lenses have helped me distance myself, as Forester advises, so that I can see patterns, whether the pattern is a quest or something else.

I love Daniel Pennac's "The Rights of the Reader." We have many, and I encourage students to practice these rights. I recognize that at a given moment in time, I may not be feeling a particular book, the student may not have the skills or maturity necessary for certain books, and a book that doesn't work for me now is one I can return to later. I acknowledge the English teacher's right to say some books just don't work from me as well as others. Today, however, I'm thinking about the rights of the book. Here are a few I suggest books claim:

1. The right to be respected regardless of personal taste, particularly by those professionals granted the privilege of protecting literacy.
2. The right to exist in the moment of publication without altering for the next century.
3. The right to speak to a specific audience rather than to the masses.
4. The right to get it (particularly gender) right in the mind of the author while recognizing it may be wrong in the mind of the reader.

One of the maligned authors in the EC discussion offers this from one of his vilified novels: "We have a few old mouth-to-mouth tales; we exhume from old trunks and boxes and drawers letters without salutation or signature,  in which men and women who once lived  and breathed are now merely initials or nicknames out of some now incomprehensible affection which sound to us like Sanskrit or Chocktaw." (80)

I've long thought of William Faulkner's words in this passage from Absalom, Absalom! as a description of stories and their relevance to our lives. This Sunday morning they read more like a commentary on a profession who has forgotten Emerson's admonition: "Tis the good reader that makes the good book." Is it any wonder, then, that so many English teachers find no value in some of the most important works in our literary cannon?