Ways of reading

There’s a really interesting conversation on reading and teaching literature going on over at Litlove’s blog: check out this post on Huck Finn and make sure to read the comments, and then check out this and this follow-up post on teaching literature. The Hobgoblin is writing about it too: check out these two posts, and over at Reading Matters they are discussing getting turned off of books in high school: see this and this. There seems to be a lot of interest in the topic; people are considering ways to inspire a love of reading in students instead of destroying the experience for them, as too often happens, and they are writing about academic and non-academic, or general, or “common,” ways of reading and the relationship between the two.

For me, I had a wonderful undergraduate experience of studying literature, and what I remember most is the passionate way some of my professors spoke about what we were reading. In the best classes, there was no divide between emotion and intellect; these professors modeled a way of responding to literature that was smart and academic and intellectual, but was also personal. I remember a friend with whom I shared a class saying that we weren’t taking a class in the Modern European Novel, we were taking a class in Literature and Life. And it felt that way – the professor wasn’t afraid to make connections between what we were reading and his own life and he encouraged us to make our own such connections. The critical theory class I took was a bit less personal, but we still had the feeling that what we were doing was less reading up on critical theory and more trying to gain some wisdom about the world. Now, this department had a pretty traditional, conservative approach to the discipline, one that I learned how to critique in grad school, but I am very grateful for the things I read and the things I learned – even those things, maybe especially those things, my teachers didn’t set out to teach me.

I didn’t see this passionate, emotional approach in grad school all that much. In my undergrad years, I felt that we were encouraged to read and think and write with our whole beings, but in grad school, this attitude was more embarrassing than anything else. My first impulse is to say, well, grad school is the time students get professional about the discipline, and so there’s less room for the emotional stuff. But that’s wrong – what I really think is that the way grad school can squeeze the passion out of some people is a very sad thing. The difficulty comes partly from the theoretical environment of the time – I am very interested in theory, but some kinds of theory make it difficult to talk about emotion and personal responses and the big questions of life and our personal stakes in our reading without feeling naïve. And grad school doesn’t encourage risk-taking or vulnerability; on the contrary, it can be so hard on the ego that students are left not knowing what to think or what they like anymore.

I also think our understanding of what it means to be professional shouldn’t include being emotionless and dry. Becoming a professional shouldn’t involve chopping oneself up into discrete sections – mind here, heart there; academic reading here, fun reading there (to be kept secret); dry critical prose here, personal writing there (also to be kept secret).

And, moving away from the world of academia, I think book blogs are places where people can, if they are interested, combine intellectual and personal approaches to reading. I think of my own blog as a place to explore ideas – maybe even serious, theoretical ideas – and also as a place to talk about how much I love books and how much fun it is to be a reader and how I react to books personally, and also as a place to remind myself that I do more than read and think, that I have a body that needs to go out and ride a bike regularly.

One of the things I love best about blogging is the way it brings together people from such diverse backgrounds, so we can have a conversation about books and reading that includes people with all levels of academic training, from those who stopped studying English after high school or their college Introduction to Literature course to those who have a PhD. Everyone benefits from this. From what I have seen, book conversations in academic departments can too often turn into competition and intellectual posturing and people forget their enthusiasm about books. Academics can benefit from remembering the much broader world of enthusiastic reading and writing that goes on outside the university. And I think there are lots of non-academic readers who are eager to hear about the ideas and theories academics have read and thought up. We too easily forget that we all have something to teach each other.

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Filed under Blogging, Reading, Teaching

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