Saturday, April 18, 2009

`How to Rectify These Aversions'

During a brief, unexpected gap in the school day I took a textbook off the shelf, the fetchingly titled Elements of Literature, Fourth Course. Like most textbooks it was fat, overpriced and heavily illustrated, with numerous sidebars and other chopped-up bits of textual distraction. The contents, too, were predictably dubious, selected mostly according to sexual, racial and ethnic quotas (Malcolm X?). The usual sub-literary genre writers were also represented – Louis L’Amour, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Anne Rice. The book reminds me of the programming on “Classic Rock” radio stations. There’s no context, no sense of history or chronology, only fragments floating in a void loosely labeled “Literature.”

The book’s token inclusions based on literary merit included Julius Caesar, a poem by Emily Dickinson, Chekhov’s “The Bet” (in the Constance Garnett translation – the copyright lapsed long ago), Bernard Malamud’s “The First Seven Years,” and Borges’ “The Book of Sand.” In the last, the narrator trades a Wyclif black-letter Bible and his pension check for an infinite book, a volume without a first page or last. This story about infinity runs less than four pages. The narrator becomes a “prisoner of the Book” – an anxiety all dedicated readers share – and considers setting fire to it, “but I feared that the burning of the infinite book might be similarly infinite, and suffocate the planet in smoke.”

Instead, he takes the book to the National Library in Buenos Aires, which houses 900,000 books, and sneaks into the basement. He hides it “on one of the library’s damp shelves; I tried not to notice how high up, or how far from the door.” The infinite, in Borges, is a source of wonder and terror. Most of his best tales are metaphysical horror stories (“The Aleph, “The Library of Babel”). Instead of leaving the horror alone and letting it resonate, however, the textbook editors append questions and observations to the story “to facilitate discussion.” One, under the rubric “Writer’s Notebook,” suggests:

“Think of a time when, like the narrator in Borges’ story, you made a decision that involved a problem or an issue.”

Much of the thrill in reading Borges is the sense of epistemological vertigo he instills. An infinite book? A book that subsumes the universe? Why must the editors turn the frisson of pure storytelling into a lesson into dull pop psychology? Literary sabotage is nothing new. Guy Davenport, born in 1927, writes in “On Reading” (included in The Hunter Gracchus):

“Students often tell me that an author was ruined for them by a high-school English class; we all know what they mean. Shakespeare was almost closed to me by the world’s dullest teacher, and there are many writers whom I would probably enjoy reading except that they were recommended to me by suspect enthusiasts. I wish I knew how to rectify these aversions.”


Levi Stahl said...

This reminds me of walking down the halls of my high school and hearing Mr. Harrison, who taught junior year English lit, reading aloud from Moby-Dick in grand style. He retired before I got to take him, and Moby-Dick was replaced on the syllabus by The Great Gatsby.

I love Moby-Dick, but it's hard for me to imagine having been able even to begin to grasp it in high school, so the substitution of Fitzgerald's jeweled perfection for its messy glories is, I think, defensible. Still, I wish I'd gotten to see (and hear) what Mr. Harrison would have made of Melville.

{As for that textbook: agreed that that question is a horror, but I imagine that at least a minority of students grasps the vertiginous glories of "The Book of Sand" despite.}

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

(Fortunately?) My high school memories are still fresh and I can honestly say that my AP Language and AP Literature teachers changed my life. I can never again read or write arbitrarily.

I'm lucky to have had a positive experience void of "suspect enthusiasts" - though I understand the aversion to authors suggested or assigned by teachers, who in retrospect you realize have execrable taste.

Also: "Think of a time when, like the narrator in Borges’ story, you made a decision that involved a problem or an issue."
Possibly the most vague prompt of all time.

elberry said...

From Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell:

"The first thing a student of magic learns is that there are books about magic and books of magic. And the second thing he learns is that a perfectly respectable example of the former may be had for two or three guineas at a good bookseller, and that the value of the latter is above rubies."


My schoolteachers were jaded and often just bad. i had a great first year tutor at uni who could 'open' Chekhov with a simple question, i'd go from thinking he was trivial & incomprehensible to a genius with that one question.

Buce said...

Not to quarrel with your general tenor, but Malcolm X is in its own way quite a remarkable read.

I do love Moby Dick, though. I read it mostly in a bathtub.

Rosin said...

I am one of the teachers of English who pursued (and pursue) the subject in part because my own teachers of English were far less inspiring than the works themselves, and I wanted (and want) to do better on behalf of both students and literature. Still, I am constantly aware of the dangers of what Billy Collins calls tying literature to a chair and beating it with a hose. I hope that keeps me honest, creative, and respectful.

Re: Elements of Literature. Although I dislike and disdain textbooks (except for the relatively unadulterated Norton Anthology sort), Elements' American Literature version -- fifth course, perhaps -- is relatively good in the genre. I do despise the dopey prompt you saw plopped next to Borges, while still acknowledging that it is possible to give students an entre to literature that is (admittedly inferior to but) reasonable, even if it is qualitatively different from the experience in literature that Patrick and we fellow mature readers can have. I wouldn't use that question, but I have seen others in a similar vein that can spark a modicum of real thought and maybe even wonder in a teenager.

Finally: I'm with Buce on Malcolm X (and am curious about the level of wrinkliness one incurs after spending a Moby-Dick-span of time in the tub). Some literature engages the power of wonder more than others -- Malcolm X is no Borges -- but there are other powers worth engaging. I hope to give my students variety, and present it with imagination and intelligence, and never forget that there are other worlds to conquer. Today might not be the best time to attack those worlds (e.g., Moby-Dick); I neither forget they exist nor give up planning to scale their battlements later.