Thursday, May 1, 2014

On White Whales and How the Math Doesn't Add up in English

I recently posted about the importance of the cultural conversations taking place in English classrooms across America, and how those conversations stretch back to the oral literature of ancient times and will stretch forward as well, unless the Common Core and other "revolutionary" curriculum changes ditch the classics in favor of informational texts and Newman's Own salad dressing bottles.

I'm happy to report, however, that as of this morning, the cultural conversation is alive and well, at least on NPR in my Mazda CX-9 this morning.

As an NPR junkie, I listen to Morning Edition as I drive children to school, and this morning, a reporter referred to a South American drug lord as law enforcement's white whale.

No explanation. No clarification. Just...dude's a white whale.

I know this isn't exactly an obscure cultural reference, and perhaps it's overly optimistic of me to be thrilled by this, but follow my though process for a moment.

I knew exactly what the reporter meant by white whale...even though I've never read Moby Dick.

Those of us who are decidedly well read know a great deal more than we've actually read. In the process of reading, we form indirect relationships with texts we haven't experienced directly ourselves. We learn their stories, their characters, their plots...without cracking their spines.

There are lots of reasons for this. Movies, television, and other visual arts play their part, and obviously teachers summarize classics for us as part of that cultural conversation. Even if you never read Ulysses, you probably heard about it in a unit on the novel or saw it at the top of lists of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

If you never read Moby Dick, you might have bumped casually into that white whale as I did, in 10th-grade English in background lectures on the 19th-century American novel and in a social studies unit on economics and whaling. I also recently listened to a fascinating and highly detailed piece on NPR about an illustrated, comic-book version of the novel.

We might get to know these partial acquaintances better one day. For instance, I read Lolita several years after learning the story of Humbert Humbert. On the other hand, we might not ever bother reading some of's too short, and I know enough to get by with for now. If I need to know more, I know where to find it. I currently have no plans to tackle Moby Dick, Titus Andronicus, Grapes of Wrath, or Absalom, Absalom! on this side of paradise.

But that's okay.

Because I've already read so much, so widely, so deeply, so enthusiastically and intelligently and happily, the sum total of my knowledge of literature exceeds (perhaps greatly!) the sum total of works I've read. The math doesn't add up.

Isn't that a wonderful thought?


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