Addressing the Canon


Now, I'm not a canonist, by any stretch of the imagination. I do not think everything starts and ends with a select group of works by a mostly male constituency (nor do I think that being mostly male invalidates those works from consideration as classics, nor should we lower our standards of what is considered first class literature to accommodate the disadvantaged. Great work is great work and is done by people of all races and sexes throughout all of time. We need merely find it.) However, Mr. Kairos raised an interesting question on his blog today that I copy in its entirety because I want to reflect upon several things at length.

Is it better to assign books in high school that will inspire a love of reading or that form a part of the canon? In looking over the list, I realize I have read less than 1/3 of it. Some of it was not read but assigned, some read and assigned, and some not assigned but read anyway. About another 1/3 I tried to read and just wasn't inspired to finish. ("Heart of Darkness" was assigned, and attempted in high school, then attempted a couple of times since. "Apocalypse Now" is much more accessible, and the Secret Sharer is better written.)

I read constantly, voraciously, and find that I was not capable, at 14 or 15, of understanding many of these books in any meaningful way. I'm 32 and still too inexperienced for some of them. And, frankly, some of them just aren't all that great, either as writing or as ideas. Thomas Hardy is just overwritten.

Now, some issues are worthy of addressing in detail, but let's start with a couple that are not. "Thomas Hardy is just overwritten." I have to say that I could not disagree more. Thomas Hardy, particularly in the later novels, but most especially in his poetry employed a deft and apt touch, saying as much as needed said without saying more. Sometimes the mode in which he said it is foreign to eyes and ears that want to run with every idea and dispense with it within ten seconds of consideration--but Hardy wrote for a reader who was ready and willing to read. Overwriting is a serious charge, and it is, in fact, simply a matter of opinion. In this area Mr. Kairos and I disagree. With Hardy, as with James and Conrad, it is the journey, not the arrival that matters. The writing is for one who wishes to linger over scenes and over writing, not for someone who wants to get to the end of the story and find out what happened. Indeed, with any of the three, if that is your aim, you are wasting your time in reading them. When you get to the end of The Golden Bowl or even a short work like "Daisy Miller," or "Turn of the Screw" you ask yourself, when summarizing--so is that all that really happened? Think about it--summarized Turn of the Screw: A man presents to a group of interested listeners the story of a governess who goes to attend two children who may or may not have secret converse with a particularly nasty spirit. In attempting to resolve the mystery the governess may or may not have precipitated a tragic end. This is not a story packed with incident and event. And yet... it is one of the finest stories of its type ever written--precisely because it is in thinking about what has gone on that the terror grows and with it the horrifying possibilities. Enough on that point--we disagree on Hardy.

"The Secret Sharer" is shorter, somewhat more intense, but certainly not superior to "Heart of Darkness." It did not have the cachet to get butchered into the psychedelic and infinitely interesting (on numerous levels) Apocalypse Now, nor did it go on to influence the likes of V.S. Naipaul to produce a magnificent indictment of activity in Modern Africa like A Bend in the River. Accessible, does not necessarily make it better--sometimes the taste of the fruit you must work for lingers longer. However, I will be the first to say that at a high-school, perhaps even at undergraduate College level, Mr. Kairos is correct--"The Secret Sharer" is probably a more reasonable approach to Conrad. Students at those ages simply don't have sufficient maturity to be able to absorb much of what is going on in "Heart of Darkness". When an understanding doesn't come from within, then it simply looks like a cookie-cutter template impressed from outside. Students erroneously start to look for "hidden meanings," when, in fact, the vast majority of works of literature are made to be nearly transparent. (We are not talking about certain authors--T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein (if you even want to go there), or Samuel Beckett--although Beckett has basically a single chord with multiple and ultimately tiresome riffs). Okay, so two disagreements, but here more in kind than in substance.

Now to the points on which we agree. Students are very naturally ready for certain works at certain ages. The works and the ages vary by student. Some may never be ready for Joseph Conrad, some may never get anything from Jane Austen, no matter how much you point out the cutting satire and wit. A "canon" of books makes assumptions about the capabilities of students that are simply unfair to many. I would answer Mr. Kairos's initial question, "Is it better to assign books in high school that will inspire a love of reading or that form a part of the canon?" this way: yes. The two are not necessarily contradictory. Much depends on how they are taught. If they are presented in the way we were taught, then there is a tension. A teacher is insisting upon students finding some "meaning" which is known to the teachers and not the students. You get points for cleverness and finding all sorts of clues, but that leaves out about eighty percent of the student population which just isn't interested in playing those kinds of games. They have no time for it. I remember reading Canto I of The Faerie Queen as part of the advanced placement English Course in high school. Yes it was required, yes it was canon. But you know what? The teacher found something to interest us. Yes, it appealed to the most base level, but I can recite it today. The Red Cross Knight observes someone whom he thinks is the faire Una (Church of England) but who is really foul and insidious Duessa (Whore of Babylon/Catholic Church) "in wanton lust and lewd embrace" with another knight. Our teacher left us to discover that little gem ourselves, but he hinted throughout of its existence. While it may not be the basis for a great discussion of literature, it sure got us reading. (No, I do not recommend that you try this at home, nor in your schools). My point is merely that the canon is not boring, it is only boring when you are forced to read it as a series of more or less interesting puzzles or games in which the author is always attempting to keep hidden from you his or her real intent. What thorough nonsense! Almost everyone I know of who calls themselves a writer of any kind expresses the desire to communicate--to enrich, sometimes, but communicate clearly what they are trying to say. Most do not try to draw obscure and hidden veils of meaning over what they have written.

I guess this is a long-winded way of saying that what Kairos implies--teaching literature should be about inspiring students to love to read--is absolutely correct. Now, I think that should include as many genres and disciplines as possible. I think students should be told from very early on to read a poem aloud and listen to its music--not to puzzle over its significance, which will come with reading and rereading because you love the sound of the words. "Prufrock" means something to me not because I puzzled out all of Eliot's intent (as if that would ever be possible), but because I loved the sound of it and read it time and time and time again. Do I know what Eliot intended or meant when he wrote, "In the room women come and go/talking of Michelangelo?" Probably not, but by reading the poem for the sheer beauty of it, I have developed a meaning for it. The teaching of reading should be about helping students develop skills such as contextualization for definition, and simply learning to use tools such as dictionaries and encyclopedias to help when necessary. It should not be about puzzling out, or even necessarily identifying "symbols." Certainly these are good things to talk about in class, and they enrich the reading. But what is more horrifying than seeing a question like, "Write a paragraph about the symbolism of mirrors in Macbeth." Is there any? If so what? Would Shakespeare even have called them mirrors? I remember writing a three page essay on the word mirror and whether Shakespeare would have been likely to call them that and whether one can have a mirror as a symbol if the author didn't know the word. (See, I was great at deconstructing tests and wearing my teachers down. Then as now, I could go on.)

The joy of reading is multiplied by being given the tools, interesting things to read and tests that focus not so much on deep hidden things in the text, but on base-level understandings. Can you read a sentence by Henry James and then restate the thought in your own words. Here's an example of two types of question:

"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day thou art more lovely and more temperate rough winds do shake the darling buds of May and summer's lease hath all too short a date. . ."

Question 1: In the context of the sonnet what is the symbolism of "the darling buds of May" and why did Shakespeare use that rather than some other image?

Question 2: What is Shakespeare saying and to whom do you think he is talking? What evidence is there?

The second questions seem simplistic compared to the first, but they get at the point of having written the poem in the first place. Maybe the darling buds have some secret deep meaning, but sometimes in our desire to get students to think critically, we leap over the first fence--figure out what the author is saying on a literal level and what cues you have to tell you this is true.

No, the canon is not sacred, neither is it necessarily dull, boring, and uninteresting. For example, Dante, particularly without really good explanatory notes, may mean absolutely nothing to a modern reader. So you get the excellent poetry--have students read a canto, and then you go to Niven and Pournelle's Inferno to give modern relevance, if necessary. And actually, much of this is not a teacher's duty, it is the duty of the parents to assist and help in the learning. Teachers are already taxed to the limits and beyond with idiotic testing that provides spurious and superficial "accountability" and basically teaches students to be able to respond well under pressure. Without doubt, a magnificent skill, but hardly the point of an entire educational system. For most thirteen year-old boys one trip to the locker-room at the beginning of school proves more than enough education in that particular skill.

So, apart from a few quibbles that may be a result of that magical difference in age, if I have parsed Mr. Kairos's message correctly and inferred the notion properly, we are in complete accord. Teaching literature should be about teaching one how to enjoy reading and how to continue to enjoy the experience. How one goes about this is dependent on the individual teacher and on a lot of work directly with students. Sometimes one substitutes modern works for works from the canon. What should never be done is to assume that a work is without interest because it isn't modern. Most kids, even today, have enough of the idealist and the romantic in them to truly enjoy great works from the canon. Not all, perhaps not even very many, but to neglect to teach some works of classic literature (even if not canonical) is surely a disservice to our youth.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on September 25, 2002 5:59 PM.

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