Reading and school

I would guess most readers have books and authors that school has ruined for them, probably because of a disliked teacher or a bad classroom experience. For me, whenever I come across Pirandello’s play Six Characters in Search of An Author, I can’t help but think about this one teacher I had who could take the most interesting experimental play and say the most bland things about it. He’d make sure to find a positive message in the darkest, most despairing play we read, and he’d be sure to make the positive message sound as cliché as possible. I always wondered how someone so drawn to sermonizing and uplift came to teach 20th-century experimental drama.

When I took a class in the Romantic period I didn’t have a bad experience, exactly, but something about the class turned me off. Maybe it was a combination of a not-terribly inspiring teacher and a semester of poetry that I had a hard time getting into. We read a Jane Austen novel and Frankenstein, but other than that, it was the six major Romantic poets (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats) and that’s it. I suspect a lot of Romanticism classes are like this, and I felt at the time like I’d had enough. Romanticism wasn’t for me.

But in grad school I needed to take a course in the 19C, and Romanticism it was. This time, however, I learned that there’s more to Romanticism than those six major poets — we did read some of those, but that included plays as well as poetry (Shelley’s The Cenci, for example). And we read other people like the poet and novelist Charlotte Smith and the playwright Joanna Baillie. I learned that there are all kinds of interesting novelists from the time period like William Godwin and Elizabeth Inchbald. I got excited about Romanticism and read as much as I could in the area.

And now I find myself wanting to return to those six major poets again, to see if I feel differently about them out of the context of that first class I took. Authors and books often have a completely different feel to them when we read them for fun instead of for class, don’t they? Shelley for class struck me as inscrutable; Shelley for fun is a lot more exciting. Also, reading for class is often so rushed. I want to read poetry at my own pace now, rather than trying to get through as many poems as I can before class.

So I’m reading some Keats and finding it amazingly beautiful. I’ve only gotten as far as some of his early sonnets, but I am inspired to read more and more, and I’d like to get a collection of his letters also, as I’ve heard he was an excellent letter writer. I feel like I’m giving Keats a better chance to move and impress me than I ever have before. I do sometimes like to give authors a second chance, if they didn’t reach me the first time.

Here’s a piece of his poem Endymion, with a famous first line:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old, and young sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
‘Gainst the hot season; the mid forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
And endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.

Nor do we merely feel these essences
For one short hour; no, even as the trees
That whisper round a temple become soon
Dear as the temple’s self, so does the moon,
The passion poesy, glories infinite,
Haunt us till they become a cheering light
Unto our souls, and bound to us so fast,
That, whether there be shine, or gloom o’ercast,
They alway must be with us, or we die.


Filed under Books, Reading, Teaching

12 responses to “Reading and school

  1. I took a Romantic Poets class as an undergrad an really enjoyed it. One of the assignments was to memorize Tintern Abbey or something equally as lengthy by another of the poets we studied. We then had to go to the professor’s office by appointment and recite. I got an A on it, didn’t miss a word, but I no longer remember the poem. I had a class my sophomore year called Study of Fiction and we pretty much read short stories. I hated the professor and his teaching was terrible–his main method was teach by fear and since he was an ex-Marine he was very good at the fear factor. Made me terrified of James Joyce until I managed to face my fear last year and read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I hadn’t read any Joyce since his class.


  2. John

    Going to library school is kind of my make up for not taking English as an undergrad. (In retrospect, Psychology was a passable second, just.) Thanks for the Keats poem.


  3. yaeli

    Dickens was completely ruined for me by having to read “Hard Times” for ‘A’ level. We spent so long poring over the book, but nothing interesting was said about it. It very soon became a chore to pick up, let alone study. Hard Times, indeed. I haven’t read Dickens since and even looking at a Dickens novel, or a BBC adaptation, or a film based on one of Dickens’ books, makes me shudder.

    Gogol was ruined when I took a Gogol class at university – our lecturer seemed to think that all of Gogol’s work was about one thing and one thing only – Gogol’s repressed homosexuality (to be honest, I think it was more about the teacher’s repressed homosexuality). Any attempt to examine any other theme resulted in poor marks.

    On the other hand, the good teachers I’ve had have managed to leave a lasting legacy of excitement about the authors/poets they taught.

    Maybe I should try to get over the Dickensophobia.


  4. I also took a class in Romanticism and was turned off;
    I loved Keats, but wasn’t wild abt Wordsworth, and I
    really disliked Blake. Our teacher was a Blake scholar
    and we spent almost a third of the class on his
    poetry, which I found unreadable. Keats though–
    even that class couldn’t ruin him for me.


  5. Moby Dick and The Scarlet Letter are books ruined for me by dismal teachers and strange classroom contexts. Lately I’ve been thinking I really should reread Moby Dick, if only I can expunge the memory of Professor Jacques from my mind…


  6. I’ve avoided re-reading Crime and Punishment for years because it was the first Russian novel I read as a freshman in college. And in the interest of full disclosure: I never really finished it the first time around. Perhaps this winter I’ll try again. In the meantime, I’ll be taking a Romanticism class this fall (and hopefully it will be a good one!).


  7. Stefanie — memorizing Tintern Abbey is quite an accomplishment! And what a beautiful poem. I’ve forgotten poems I’ve memorized too, but they sort of come back to me when I re-read them and I find some phrases and the rhythms of the poem stay with me. John — it sounds like you’re having a great time in library school! Yaeli — now it’s really too bad that Dickens was spoiled for you — he can be such a fun writer! I haven’t tried Hard Times myself, but I can imagine that a bad teacher might make that title quite meaningful. Lucette — isn’t Keats wonderful? I’m so looking forward to reading more. Courtney — I suspect it would be worth the effort to forget your terrible professor to read both of those books! I bet a lot of people have had The Scarlet Letter ruined for them. Sarah — I love Crime and Punishment! I bet if you try to read it now, you’ll like it much more.


  8. I had an english teacher who would stuff Willa Cather (Nebraska author) down our throats–or try to. I didn’t read her until I was well out of college, and have to say she’s pretty good. I need to read more as a matter of fact, but had I read her then, I bet I would have hated her. I also have a thing about The Picture of Dorian Grey…someday I will read that one. I’d like to read some of the work of the Romantics eventually too. Some things are definitely better appreciated as adults.


  9. I’m absolutely with Yaeli – I’ve never been able to read Dickens since we did Hard Times in school. And I have to say that I’ve never quite finished Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park which I half read on an A level course I abandoned years and years ago, after university but before I returned to research. If you can ruin Jane Austen, that’s pretty impressive in a way. I do admire you so much for returning to these works! I’m sure I might like these books too, if I could transcend the past!!


  10. hepzibah

    Yes — I completely agree with you, and that’s why I am rereading everything since high school, reading is completely different when it’s for fun, as you said, but still its sad not to discuss with anyone…reading is best when you can discuss with others, so many times I put aside a novel read and yet think little about it…so I guess I need to do more of this.


  11. Cam

    Faulkner was the author most “ruined” by a college prof for me. Several of his novels read during a compressed summer session. Taught by a man who must have hated students, who constantly reminded us that we were going to State U, not Reputable Quasi-Ivy League school. Maybe one day I’ll try Faulkner again.


  12. Danielle — you’re right that some things are better appreciated as adults! And that’s too bad that you got turned off of Cather like that — I’m glad you read her later — isn’t she good?

    Litlove — well you have the pleasure of discovering Dickens one of these days, if you decide you want to! And Mansfield Park.

    Hepzibah — yes, I enjoy books more when I can discuss them with people — blogging is great for that because it’s discussion that’s outside of class!

    Cam — oh do try Faulkner again! He’s great, in my opinion. Reading him during a summer session would be quite difficult — you need time for him.


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