A continuation of my thoughts in this post about reading for “what the book really means”.
Persons attempting to find a “text” in this book will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a “subtext” in this book will be banished; persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise “understand” it will be exiled to a desert island in the company only of other explainers.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR
― Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow
Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR
—Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
A friend, inspired by my post about What the Book Really Means shared the first of these quotes with me on Facebook. And in turn it reminded me of the second, the original, from Mark Twain.
Oh I know why she shared it. It is apt indeed. But… the English major in me disagrees with both notices, even while I laugh at the grain of truth in them both.
On the one hand, I understand what the notice is getting at: it’s a story, read it and enjoy it as a story. Don’t beat it to death.
On the other hand, part of the way I enjoy some stories is to read them closely and to write about them. I love analysis. I can’t not analyze, explicate, interpret, explain and understand. For me reading is (often but not always) an intellectual endeavor and I don’t check my brain at the door.
Maybe Twain and Berry are right and I should be shot or exiled to a desert island with other explainers (and depending on what kind of explainers they are that sounds like heaven or hell)? But I don’t completely disagree with them, or at least with what I think is their intent. I agree a bit more with Twain than Berry. It’s easier to avoid talking about morals and motives. I would have a hard time avoiding the word “plot”. But Berry’s list almost makes me want to find a boat to seek out that desert island where all the other explainers live.
It is true that schools do often teach kids to over-analyze texts. It goes too far. I hate this pedagogical approach which acts like we’re not really teaching literature unless we’re picking it all apart. And yet. I kind of love picking it apart.
Last week, two days after publishing my rant about deconstructing children’s literature, I published an essay on my blog, a 3000 word analysis of a couple of passage from a favorite novel (Who Lives Who Dies Who Tells Your Story). The Sarantine Mosaic s a novel I’ve read multiple times. For fun. And the deepest appreciation I can pay to that novel (besides making all my friends read it) is to write about it. For fun. Yes, I write literary analysis for fun. I don’t expect everyone else to find it fun, but I do.
And, flatteringly, the author of the novel, Guy Gavriel Kay himself, responded to my blog post via Twitter expressing gratitude for my close reading and saying that to a writer a thoughtful reading feels like a gift from the reader.
So how is it that some authors, Twain and Berry, seem to think that any attempt to explicate or analyze their books is an assault on common decency, and others like Kay seem to think it a great tribute to their art? It could just be a matter of personality. Some authors like the attention and others don’t. Or it could be that Twain and Berry are thinking of a different kind of treatment than the one I gave to Kay’s novel, a tortured reading instead of a close reading. It could be that I’m comparing apples to oranges.
This literary analysis stuff is complicated. Am I for it or against it? One day I’m ranting about people who torture texts and the next day I’m publishing literary analysis. Am I illogical and inconsistent or are they two different things?
Holding it up to the light
Let’s go back to Billy Collins’s Introduction to Poetry. What is the difference between holding a poem up to the light and torturing it?
How are we to read literature and how are we to teach literature? This isn’t an easy question to tease out an answer to. And maybe this is why so many people hate poetry. Another mom confessed to me today as we talked through the forest looking at plants: I used to love poetry before they taught it in school. Now I hate it, but I’m trying to love it again for the kids’ sake.
I tremble in fear because I don’t want to lead anyone into hating poetry. Ever. And yet that seems a common side effect of teaching poetry. How do we teach it without torturing it?
Sally Thomas, writing on Facebook, had an insight to offer. She suggested that when we talk about literature we aren’t trying to get at “what” a poem means but instead we’re exploring “how” it means. “because there’s no one monolithic WHAT. But you look at the words on the page, and you think about them and all the layers of meaning they might body over — and then you start to hear the resonances speak to you. And that’s HOW it means.”
Engage with the Imagination and form relations and connections
In the same conversation Jennifer Macintosh added that “[Charlotte Mason] would insist that a child takes what he needs from a reading, forming relations with ideas, and allow the space needed for those ideas to grow into connections naturally, organically. The reader engages with the imagination (bringing humanity and wonder to the story) not the intellect (seeking to find hidden meanings and nuances). One becomes a part of the person, the other is left in the dustbin of memory.”
I love what she says about engaging with the imagination rather than the intellect. Though I would amend it a bit. I wouldn’t reject the intellectual engagement completely, I would instead insist that the imaginative engagement is the primary response and that intellectual engagement follows from it. Our first response to art is, or should be, delight and wonder and that delight and wonder leads us down many possible paths.
Wonder about a sunset can lead you to the psalms and adoration of the Creator, or it can lead you to poetry (either recollecting a favorite poem or composing one of your own) or some other form of art (painting, photography, music, dance), or it can lead you to the wonder of a scientist: “How does that work?” And all those are valid responses, none of them is a “wrong” way to approach the art, though wonder is the first response and the others follow after it. Some of these responses we’d classify as more “intellectual” than others. But the intellect is at the service of wonder rather than the wonder being squashed by jumping to the intellectual queries of what and why and how too soon.
Likewise, children, really all people, experience poetry and other arts in the same way as we experience a sunset: art can lead to an encounter with the divine, it can lead to more art, or it can lead to wondering how exactly the artist accomplished it. So one end of wonder is intellectual inquiry as a child asks: “What does that word mean? What is this saying? How does this work?” But the source of the inquiry is the child’s delight and relation with the poem or artwork or sunset rather than the teacher’s agenda or a curriculum’s dictates.
Meant to give pleasure
The critic Helen Vendler says that “like all arts, lyric is meant to give pleasure— imaginative, linguistic, intellectual, and moral. If one hasn’t enjoyed a poem and been moved by it, one hasn’t really experienced it as an artwork.” I like Vendler’s formulation that categorizes the imaginative, linguistic, intellectual, and moral as kinds of pleasure which we experience. And I think this idea of pleasure as the primary meaning of art is what so often gets lost in the classroom. We are so very locked into a mode of thinking about education that insists that unless we can quantify and measure the learning it didn’t really happen. Unless we are somehow directing the child’s interaction it doesn’t really count.
What if instead of trying to make sure the students understand poetry, we simply gave them opportunities to appreciate it? What if we just read it and let it soak in without talking about it at all? What if we just watch Shakespeare with them without making lots of lesson plans? Does it count?
My long term goals for my children’s education are that they be intelligent, engaged readers who think deeply about what they read, who enjoy reading and discussing literature. I want their very persons to be formed by their relationships with the great minds they will encounter in great books. But being able to discuss books intelligently is a long term goal which I am not at all worried we will get to in time. Right now in the elementary level my primary goal is that they enjoy great books. That they develop relationships with them. I want them to know and love Shakespeare, not to be able to analyze Shakespeare. I am delighted when Bella muses about the fool in As You Like It and suddenly realizes that Rosalind was played by boy— a boy pretending to be a girl pretending to be a boy. I love it just as much when two year-old Lucy begs for Merry Wives of Windsor. What I want for them now is simply to see Shakespeare as a source of delight and entertainment, to not be intimidated by him. If they come to love him now, they will eventually want to get to know him better, to delve into what exactly he’s getting at there and why does this keep happening and all the questions that arise when one sees a favorite play again and again.
Falling in love with literature should be just like falling in love with a person. You want to know all about them, who they are, what their past is. You don’t get there through interrogation but by way of discovery in the context of an unfolding relationship. And relationships take time. The pedagogy which assigns book reports to early elementary school kids reminds me of speed dating: now go, you only have ten minutes to decide if this person is boyfriend material or not. I truly believe that if we trusted kids more and just spent more time reading good books and poems and plays with them that eventually they would grow up into the kind of people who can read and write about it intelligently. If we spent more time simply delighting in Shakespeare and not worrying about parsing the meaning of every word, maybe kids would realize that he’s funny and sad and bewildering and delightful and would want to come to terms with all those hard words he keeps throwing at them not because it’s going to be on a test but because they just really like this Will guy and hope maybe it’s going somewhere.
So read Huck Finn because it’s a ripping adventure story. Read it because the moments when Huck and Jim lay on the raft and muse about life are heartbreakingly beautiful and profound. Read it because it’s funny and sarcastic and biting. And then stop. Let the kids figure it out on their own. If they want to. Give them space for questions and comments but don’t worry if they don’t have any. No, they don’t need to write about it. If you must, have the children narrate parts of it to you, Charlotte Mason style. Let them (don’t force them to) draw a picture, make a song or a map or a poem or a comic, act it out with toys, or tell the story in their own words. Don’t try to force their imaginative encounter, just give it space to happen. But it’s also ok to just stop and trust the book and trust the child to find his own way into that relationship. (And sometimes they’re not quite ready yet and that’s ok too.)