Every so often a person on Twitter asks to the masses what are some books they hate that they were assigned to read in their high school English classes. Harold Boom would cry if he saw the results of these polls: people appear to really, really hate canonical texts. People will mention anything from earlier texts like Beowulf and any of Shakespeare’s beloved plays to modern classics like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, just to name a few. A few reasons are cited when justifying why people didn’t enjoy studying these texts. Lots of people have rightfully pointed out that literature curricula in the Anglosphere tends to center the voices of white men. Oftentimes, students only get to discover wonderful minority authors such as Toni Morrison and James Baldwin after attending college and enrolling in minority literature courses. That this continues to be an issue is shameful; students should get the opportunity to see themselves reflected in great literature and to hear other diverse voices. A second reason that is highly linked to this first one (and one that ought to be more obvious to educators and curricula creators) is the fact that instructors present important books to young students out of context, without regard for how these materials revolutionized literature at the time and how they influenced later authors. Even when instructors do so, it often is in the form of notes written in formal language that don’t suscite enthusiasm from teenagers whose minds are wandering elsewhere. It is only natural that someone, for instance, would not recall fondly their reading of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying if all they learned in the classroom is that Faulker is…well, good.
I was lucky to have a much more rewarding experience during my high school English classes than most. During my senior year, our teacher not only contextualized any text she taught at the moment (anything from Shakespeare and Dickens to Edward Albee and Anne Tyler) but also brought secondary pedagogical tools such as movie adaptations, historical artifacts and photographs, and (most importantly) let students interrogate and discuss the quality of the texts she presented. I recognize that this approach to teaching literature might still be somewhat of an oddity in English classes. Furthermore, as people graduate high school and college exploring texts to this extent proves difficult, tedious and frankly unnecessary. Literature scholars often fail to realize that their love for literature and their intellectual and material resources are not universally available. For many, reading novels, poems and plays is a hobby along the same lines as baking or stamp-collecting. Is there a way to change this?
Many have theorized on how to make culture more publicly available with varying results. Some say that the state ought to help in this matter: design better curricula, train educators better, and make libraries, museums and theaters widely and easily accessible. Although I strongly agree with these proposals, here I plan to advice individuals for whom literary texts are a chore on how to see them differently.
First, while one does not need create an intricate lesson plan before reading a text, it is advisable to check out the author’s biography and some minimal information on how the book came to be published and distributed. The former will help with understanding the author’s points and the latter is crucial in an age where misinformation and flawed arguments abound.
Secondly, it is important to contextualize your material in its historical era and its literary current. An example could be Nathalie Sarraute’s collection of stories Tropisms, published in 1939. Tropisms is seen as one of the foundational texts of the French nouveau roman, a movement that emphasized internal psychology over realistic depictions of events. Knowing this isn’t enough — let’s ask ourselves why did authors like Nathalie Sarraute gravitate towards this kind of writing. A deeper look at the literary history of France will show that they were reacting against a number of things: the despair of World War II manifested through existentialism on one hand, and the idea that novels must have a linear, realistic plot on the other. With the advent of cinema, writers started to envision a different audience — one that searched for far more than entertainment as in the days of Balzac and Tolstoy.
Reading with this information typically makes the experience smoother and more enjoyable. A passage from Sarraute’s previously mentioned Tropisms comes to life:
C’est aux environs de Londres, dans un cottage aux rideaux de percale, avec la petite pelouse par derrière, ensoleillée et toute mouillée de pluie. / La grande porte-fênetre du studio, entourée de glycines, s’ouvre sur cette pelouse. / Un chat est assis tout droit, les yeux fermés, sur la pierre chaude. / Une demoiselle aux cheveux blancs, aux joues roses un peu violacées, lit devant la porte une magazine anglaise. / Elle est assise là, toute raide, toute digne, toute sûre d’elle et des autres, dans son petit univers. Elle sait que dans quelques minutes on va sonner la cloche pour le thé. (107–108).
Sarraute’s text displays many of the characteristics we heard about when contextualizing it. Abstraction and feelings triumph over concreteness and a straightforward plot. In fact, Sarraute is even challenging what it means to compose prose, as this passage describing a quiet lonely English lady waiting for tea time resembles a poem in its content more than it does a short story.
Finally, one could think about what the text might hide and need the reader to decipher by themselves. Although authors often have specific reads of their own material, once a text is released it no longer belongs exclusively to them. In this case, for example, we could ask what Sarraute’s fascination with a very English lady might say about the way the French see the English. We could also ask how an English writer might write a similar passage about an older French lady and imagine what either audience might think about that.
One of the magical things about literary texts is that they rarely reveal their intent explicitly. Like a puzzle, they require a reader to piece together the parts; sometimes, different readers end up with different puzzles. They also skillfully combine feelings and thoughts. Good writing will touch the soul but also challenge the ways we think in one way or another. It is because of this that we will always need people to keep engaging with the written word.