Friday, April 11, 2014

Reading Right or Left

I recently had an unsatisfyingly brief conversation with a woman who's purchasing new textbooks and online resources to implement the Common Core Curriculum in our school district. I'm rather neutral in the whole Common Core debate. Having taught freshman composition at five different colleges and universities, each with a different philosophical approach to the subject, I developed a pretty flexible understanding of the "right" way to teach. Basically, there are lots of right ways to teach, and lots of wrong ways. The Common Core, at least in its general approach as I understand it, doesn't seem exactly wrong to me.

Whether it turns out to be right, only time will tell.

But as a result of that brief conversation, I started wondering how Great Literature will fare in the Common Core. From my cursory research on the matter, the answer is far from clear, if only because states and individual school districts have enormous freedom to customize the Common Core. No one really knows what will end up being taught from Great Literature and what will end up being deleted from reading lists...and thus, potentially, eventually, from our culture.

In some ways, my using the phrase Great Literature with initial capitalization is a betrayal of my moderate stand in the politics of literary criticism. Oh, yes. Literary criticism is highly political, as is most of academia. In literary criticism, we have the conservatives who claim that there is truly such a thing as Great Literature and it needs to be vigorously protected from contamination by the plebian affection for commercial trash. The conservative critic Harold Bloom, for instance, classifies Hamlet as Great Literature and Harry Potter as trash.

Of course, he hadn't actually read Harry Potter when he offered up his condemnation of it, but he won't let a little thing like total ignorance stop him from expressing his expert opinion. He has, however, written some lovely, intelligent, and insightful essays on Hamlet that I have happily quoted in academic papers. Bloom comes across as an insufferable literary snob, but he's not stupid.

On the other end of the political spectrum we find the anything-goes liberal critics. For them, all the classics are generally referred to as literature with a lower-case "l." In truth, however, the liberals are suspicious of even lower-case literature and instead prefer the term text to refer to whatever writing they analyze. The adorable marketing blurb on the back of a bottle of Newman's Own salad dressing, for example, is a text, as is the Anglo-Saxon epic  Beowulf. These two examples of writing are equal in value and interchangeable as legitimate subjects for literary study.

Obviously, liberal textual egalitarianism gives conservatives apoplectic fits. I confess to a certain delight in the red-faced sputterings of the snobs, but I also recognize that Beowulf probably deserves a bit more attention than marketing blurbs on bottles of Newman's Own...unless you're studying marketing, in which case Beowulf is pretty much useless.

Hmmm...I suppose you could shoot a commercial in which Grendel leaves a bloody mess for the queen's laundry women to clean with Oxi-Clean.

If anyone makes that commercial, I want royalties.

Anyway. Back to Great Literature.

I'm a moderate in the literature war. Great Literature is distinctively awesome, but when it comes to school reading lists, I honestly don't mind students reading popular fluff on occasion. Nick had to read The Hunger Games in 8th grade. I've not read it and am uniquely unqualified to pass judgment on its quality (ahem, Mr. Bloom, take note), but it's new and popular and only time will tell if it survives long enough to become Great Literature. Nevertheless, it sparked in Nick a desire to read that has hitherto been smothered by his love of screens and things that go bang through the Xbox.

I don't care what gateway books schools use to get kids hooked on reading, as long as they also teach those undeniably influential great books that have shaped our culture for good. Get the reading monkey on their backs, and the great stuff is easier to push.

And thus we come back to my concern: how much Great Literature will survive the Common Core? According to my source in our district, English teachers are going to have to start teaching at least some informational texts, which seems utterly wrong to me. Social studies and science teachers can and should cover how to read informational texts (this is a vitally important skill virtually ignored in my own classics-based education), but English classes are where we read literature, where the cultural creativity of our past meets young minds of the present and lays the groundwork for the cultural creativity of the future.

The language of literature isn't literal or merely informative. Its density of meaning vastly exceeds the sum of its words. Literature layers meaning, explores ambiguity and depth, reveals the complexity of life and death and what it means to love and live and breathe and change. Reading literature right can only happen when one reads literature broadly and deeply...because as soon as a poet writes a poem or a novelist writes a story, s/he joins an ongoing conversation with all the poems and stories that have come before, just as we join the ongoing conversation of humanity when we are born.

English classes are where our cultural conversation reaches back to the Bible and Sophocles and Chaucer and Dante and Cervantes and Shakespeare and Donne and Austen and Dickens and Joyce and Eliot and Hemingway and Angelou. English classes are where we start participating in that cultural conversation in active, meaningful ways.

It means something that the story of Superman repeats the story of Moses. It means something that Oedipus was destroyed by pride and unintended consequences...and so are modern politicians. It means something that JK Rowling modeled her "Tale of the Three Brothers" on Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale. It means something that so many people saw in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings an allegory of World War allegory Tolkien himself vigorously denied. It means something that James Joyce modeled arguably the greatest novel ever written on Homer's ancient epic The Odyssey.

All of literature engages in a conversation. And that's literature with a lower-case "l." The good, the's all connected. Those blurbs on the backs of Newman's Own dressing bottles? They cleverly riff on classic stories and history. The more you read of both Great Literature and lower-case literature, the more you understand the conversation. The more you read, the easier the conversation is to follow.

I recently sparked a bit of a kerfuffle on my stamping blog when I quoted the first line of TS Eliot's The Waste Land. I encouraged people to think of a loved one going through a tough time and to send them a card this month. I closed the post by saying that, after all, "April is the cruelest month." Several people took offense, and one went so far as to accuse me of promoting negativity.


That's why we need to keep reading Great Literature. If we strip all texts down to their literal meaning (April sucks, for instance), we get information devoid of context. Nuance, creativity, individuality, and spirit are lost in the literal. The conversation gets derailed when we're not speaking the same cultural language, a language rich in history and imagery and words with more than one meaning and expressed in contexts that matter. The more deeply we understand the connectedness of words and images and thoughts, the more deeply we understand our world and each other. Reading our cultural masterworks teaches that connectedness in profound and vital ways, ways that informational texts (for all their undeniable value in some areas of thought) simply can't teach.

At least, that's what I think.


And now it's your turn. What do you think? Should school reading lists for English classes include Great Literature, or is Great Literature ceasing to be relevant in our fast-paced, high-tech world? Are English classes the proper place to teach students how to read informational texts? Should we replace To Kill a Mockingbird with Time Magazine or Has Great Literature had an effect on how you think, what you think, what you feel about life?

Note: You can find links to all the photos in this post (and many more!) on my Books Pinterest Board.


  1. Honestly, I just wish my schools had more books to read! I have a 6th grader and an 8th grader. My 6th grader has not read any books/novels, other than what she brings for her own time. Instead the class uses those Time and/or Scholastic 4-page newsletter things - and those are 80% non-fiction. My 8th grader does 1 book a year. They both read a lot at home, but not the classics, despite my attempt. I'm hoping once my oldest goes to high school next year there will be more (honestly, for my schooling experience, I don't think I had complete novels to read until high school - but each month was a new book).

    I enjoy reading, but I always get stumped with the Shakespeare-like writing (where it is more poetry than prose). Any suggestions for how to read those types? I have tried multiple times to read Shakespeare, Beowulf, Iliad, and others, but my brain gets lost within minutes.

    1. Karen, your comment makes me so sad! The school district isn't doing its job if your children have so few books to read. My middle-schooler has had fewer books assigned than he did in 6th grade, but he's told to read novels of his choosing...and reads Harry Potter. He's my son.

      As for reading classics with more poetic language, I have two ideas. First, check out movies of Shakespeare's plays at the library, and watch them before reading the play. Immersion in the language through auditory processing will help as you read the plays in your head. As for Beowulf and the Iliad, which translation you're reading will make a huge difference. Check out a few different ones from the library and test them out. I also recommend reading them aloud...remembering not to pause at the end of a line of verse just because it's the end. Pay more attention to punctuation than to line breaks. Beowulf is a great one to start with because it's not all that long. Crossley-Holland did my favorite verse translation of Beowulf...and oldie but a goodie! Hope that helps!

  2. Susan, I love Great Literature and I love other literature, even the texts on the back of food packaging! I have tried reading the classics with my eldest daughter (11 years old), but I find the language is difficult to translate to her at this age. We perservere, and she is getting a good variety of reading, but the classics are hard going sometimes. On the other hand, when I finally relented and allowed her to read The Hunger Games trilogy this year, she has DEVOURED all three books in record time (I read them first, and I really enjoyed them). And John Grisham's young lawyer series. And Twilight (except for the last book, which I told her she has to wait until she's 15 to read). We read Harry Potter together over five years (from age 5 to age 10), it was my second reading and I loved it all over again. I think if we include too many of the classics in the school curriculum we run the risk of discouraging reading. That doesn't mean we completely ignore the classics, just not provide ONLY the classics. If the schools can find a good book in modern language, that provokes thought and encourages reading, then that may result in a better outcome. I remember my brother, who didn't read anything at all if he could help it, discovering Stephen King when he was about 12. The fact that he suddenly started reading (and he still does to this day) overruled my Mum's objections to the subject matter. ;-) Using anything other than a book in the school as core "reading" is ridiculous - Time Magazine does not replace a book, but it may be useful as a research reference.

    Has Great Literature had an effect on me? Yes. As an example, I read the Odessey and Illiad when I was a child. They sparked my imagination and curiosity, and had a definite impact on the fact that I continued to study History right through to university. When I was in high school, I started at the "A" authors and worked my way through to "Z" in the library. It resulted in my reading all types of books, and it was so much FUN. I spent a lot of my time reading as a child... I still do. :-)

    1. Michelle, I love the idea of starting at A and working to Z! How wonderful!!!

      I'm not a fan of Stephen King myself, but whatever works. ;-)

    2. His taste in music wasn't great, either, lol! I'm pleased to say that his literature and his music have evolved greatly in the past 30 years. ;-)

  3. I wish I read more. It's so important. All 3 of my kids are avid readers, especially my oldest daughter, Shannon. She consumes books. Consumes them. John constantly is reading something - whether it's a classic or catalog or a newspaper. He gets so deeply involved in what he's reading that he may have the book on his mind for days after finishing it. He recently read Endurance - the book about Shackleton who took his band of men to the Antarctic. John got physically cold while reading that book. I have seen the man sobbing when reading a book that touches his heart. I think Great Works need to be included in education. We will definitely lose something very important if we lose them.


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!