Why Study Novels in English Class?

 

When we love literature, and reading comes easily to us, we tend to assume that the purpose for studying novels is self-evident. We’d be missing out on the romance of Jane Eyre, the brilliance of Achebe, and the wit of Twain. Besides, how could one object to reading stories as a required activity for school? We may as well get credit for eating cookies or binge-watching our favorite shows.

But not all students are eager to crack open that musty Gothic work, especially when there are friends to text and movies to watch at the touch of a screen. Besides, some students find reading to be laborious, a limitation that isn’t necessarily their fault. Because reluctant readers tend to be the exception and not the rule, English teachers need to establish a clear case for the benefits of novel reading. (They should also provide tools to help students get the most out of what they read, but that’s a different discussion.) At the beginning of the school year, all students should understand the “why” of literature:

Literature is art. Just as paint and musical notes are mediums used for deep and beautiful expression, so are words. Some people are good with clay, and they make sculptures. Others have skill with the paintbrush, or with sound, and they produce paintings and music. And then some are gifted with words, and they write our literature. English class gives an opportunity to study this art.

Literature is culture. Education, including the studying of novels in English class, is the passing of a culture group’s shared foundation of knowledge and ideas on to the next generation. This knowledge is hard won—we took hundreds of years to get where we are in Western culture. It is important that a people share the same background of rich knowledge and pass it on.

A shared education and values makes communication with one another much easier. When we have a common culture, we can express complex ideas in just a few words, and the listener will understand. How much more efficient and productive that is than looking at one another with blank stares. Ignoring or losing our literary heritage would be a great loss indeed. We’d have to start from scratch. Plus, inheriting common cultural riches gives us equal opportunities; we all start from the same body of knowledge and ideas. This is real social justice.

Literature is history. When we as a country don’t immerse ourselves in the way past people thought, spoke, and made art, we are lost and shallow. We operate in a vacuum. We build our opinions and collective decision-making on thin air. We are ignoring the voices of wise, experienced people or even of sadly mistaken people, and trying to go it alone. What a loss. Our history textbooks piece together past events and attempt to identify causes from available evidence; writers produce literature right in the thick of historical events. They make history immediate, real, and personal.

Literature gives depth and wisdom. Literature helps us see the world through many points of view, and when we can look through others’ eyes, we grow wiser without having to experience whatever it was that the writer went through. It’s like a shortcut to enrichment. We become deeper thinkers who understand others and the world better. Reading and reflecting on novels will help us as writers, readers, professionals, workers, and even spouses and parents.

What should be added to this list?

Published in Literature
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  1. Hypatia Inactive
    Hypatia
    @Hypatia

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Hypatia (View Comment):
    Cuz people went on to discuss Shakespeare.

    What novel did Shakespeare write?

    No, I meant, it seemed like people were saying they didn’t want to read plays either.

    • #31
  2. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Hypatia (View Comment):
    No, I meant, it seemed like people were saying they didn’t want to read plays either.

    Well, it is more fun to perform them.

    • #32
  3. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    I like to see mix of reading material in an English class. High school students enjoy plays–Ibsen comes to mind–long poems, short stories, and long and short novels. I also think that students need to slow down and savor some novels. Moby-Dick and The Great Gatsby are wonderful to read and discuss a chapter a day. Also, the teacher I loved most in high school read out loud to us.

    • #33
  4. Peter Gøthgen Member
    Peter Gøthgen
    @PeterGothgen

    I. M. Fine (View Comment):

    Just a quick word about Shakespeare; of course he never wrote those plays to be read (let alone analyzed to death) in English classes. They were only meant to be seen…and on popular stages. My guess is he would be very puzzled today to see the classes bearing his name in the English (rather than the Theatre) departments!

    Trying to appreciate Shakespeare by reading him is like trying to appreciate food by reading the recipe.

    More to the point for students is the fact that reading comprehension is not a distinct skill.  Once you progress beyond basic decoding, comprehension is entirely based upon knowledge of the relevant content.  The only way to provide the ability to understand a wide variety of things is to have a broad knowledge base.  The solution is to read widely and to read much.  Trying to shortcut that is like using protomatter in the genesis matrix.

    • #34
  5. J. D. Fitzpatrick Member
    J. D. Fitzpatrick
    @JDFitzpatrick

    anonymous (View Comment):
    Why should I expect to learn more from reading made-up stories about people who never existed than from histories of things that really happened, even admitting that the histories we read are filtered through the minds of those who wrote them?

    It is difficult
    to get the news from poems
    yet men die miserably every day
    for lack
    of what is found there.

    — William Carlos Williams

    • #35
  6. J. D. Fitzpatrick Member
    J. D. Fitzpatrick
    @JDFitzpatrick

    In the criticism of poetry, we distinguish verse, the mere tinkling arrangement of rhymes and syllables, from poetry, in which form deepens a thought the way the sea on a sunny day will deepen the colors of the sky.

    So too with novels: we distinguish the novel written for the sake of a plot from the novel in which the plot serves the portrayal of the deeper aspects of human nature.

    When I say poetry or novel, I mean in each case the second category.

    In our everyday lives, our feelings lie beneath us like hulks beneath the surface of the deep. We perceive them dimly; they have little significance to us; the road along the cliff, birds, the hills around us, trivia, getting and spending, occupy us more.

    Reading a novel plunges us into the water, forces us to reorient ourselves to a strange landscape, forgotten and yet familiar, with new colors, new borders, new laws. At the heart of it we see that shipwreck of our own forgotten emotions, now the focus around which we swim, reminded of their bulk, haunted by the memory of what now lies beneath the changes of the sea.

    The following excerpts will not speak to everyone. But no other voices will do for those to whom they speak.

    • #36
  7. J. D. Fitzpatrick Member
    J. D. Fitzpatrick
    @JDFitzpatrick

     

    “Such a mean brute, such a stupid brute!” I urged, in despair.

    “Don’t be afraid of my being a blessing to him,” said Estella; “I shall not be that. Come! Here is my hand. Do we part on this, you visionary boy—or man?”

    “O Estella!” I answered, as my bitter tears fell fast on her hand, do what I would to restrain them; “even if I remained in England and could hold my head up with the rest, how could I see you Drummle’s wife?”

    “Nonsense,” she returned,—”nonsense. This will pass in no time.”

    “Never, Estella!”

    “You will get me out of your thoughts in a week.”

    “Out of my thoughts! You are part of my existence, part of myself. You have been in every line I have ever read since I first came here, the rough common boy whose poor heart you wounded even then. You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since,—on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets. You have been the embodiment of every graceful fancy that my mind has ever become acquainted with. The stones of which the strongest London buildings are made are not more real, or more impossible to be displaced by your hands, than your presence and influence have been to me, there and everywhere, and will be. Estella, to the last hour of my life, you cannot choose but remain part of my character, part of the little good in me, part of the evil. But, in this separation, I associate you only with the good; and I will faithfully hold you to that always, for you must have done me far more good than harm, let me feel now what sharp distress I may. O God bless you, God forgive you!”

    In what ecstasy of unhappiness I got these broken words out of myself, I don’t know. The rhapsody welled up within me, like blood from an inward wound, and gushed out. I held her hand to my lips some lingering moments, and so I left her. But ever afterwards, I remembered,—and soon afterwards with stronger reason,—that while Estella looked at me merely with incredulous wonder, the spectral figure of Miss Havisham, her hand still covering her heart, seemed all resolved into a ghastly stare of pity and remorse.

    All done, all gone! So much was done and gone, that when I went out at the gate, the light of the day seemed of a darker color than when I went in. For a while, I hid myself among some lanes and by-paths, and then struck off to walk all the way to London. For, I had by that time come to myself so far as to consider that I could … do nothing half so good for myself as tire myself out.

    • #37
  8. J. D. Fitzpatrick Member
    J. D. Fitzpatrick
    @JDFitzpatrick

    To see her with her white hair and her worn face kneeling at my feet gave me a shock through all my frame. I entreated her to rise, and got my arms about her to help her up; but she only pressed that hand of mine which was nearest to her grasp, and hung her head over it and wept. I had never seen her shed a tear before, and, in the hope that the relief might do her good, I bent over her without speaking. She was not kneeling now, but was down upon the ground.

    “O!” she cried, despairingly. “What have I done! What have I done!”

    “If you mean, Miss Havisham, what have you done to injure me, let me answer. Very little. I should have loved her under any circumstances. Is she married?”

    “Yes.”

    It was a needless question, for a new desolation in the desolate house had told me so.

    “What have I done! What have I done!” She wrung her hands, and crushed her white hair, and returned to this cry over and over again. “What have I done!”

    I knew not how to answer, or how to comfort her. That she had done a grievous thing in taking an impressionable child to mould into the form that her wild resentment, spurned affection, and wounded pride found vengeance in, I knew full well. But that, in shutting out the light of day, she had shut out infinitely more; that, in seclusion, she had secluded herself from a thousand natural and healing influences; that, her mind, brooding solitary, had grown diseased, as all minds do and must and will that reverse the appointed order of their Maker, I knew equally well. And could I look upon her without compassion, seeing her punishment in the ruin she was, in her profound unfitness for this earth on which she was placed, in the vanity of sorrow which had become a master mania, like the vanity of penitence, the vanity of remorse, the vanity of unworthiness, and other monstrous vanities that have been curses in this world?

    • #38
  9. J. D. Fitzpatrick Member
    J. D. Fitzpatrick
    @JDFitzpatrick

    The point is not that the emotions described in the novel are desirable or undesirable, although many people will find value in such moralizing.

    The point is that they are a part of our human experience, a part of our own nature. Reading about them, meditating on them, adds dimensions to our understanding of humanity. Our mere sorrow is thin as a teardrop; it takes a novel or play to deepen the sorrow by giving it a tragic quality, and over the course of the novel, to show it in relation to our other emotions, many of them brighter, all of them, again, an essential part of us.

     

    • #39
  10. The Cloaked Gaijin Member
    The Cloaked Gaijin
    @TheCloakedGaijin

    sawatdeeka (View Comment):
    Well, here’s the thing. I’m not sure one can be solidly educated without some background in great books.

    Well, here’s the thing. 

    The math teacher thinks that a person cannot be solidly educated without knowing algebra, geometry, trigonometry, etc.

    The science teachers think a person cannot be solidly educated without knowing physics, chemistry, astrology, geology, biology, meteorology, etc.

    The history teacher thinks that a person cannot be solidly educated without knowing most major and many minor events since the dawn of civilization.

    The fine arts teachers think that a person cannot be solidly educated without art and music.

    The computer teacher thinks a person cannot be solidly educated without knowing a lot about the rapidly changing field of computers.

    The practical arts teachers think a person cannot be solidly educated without knowing how to work with one’s hands.

    The religion teachers think that a person cannot be solidly educated without in-depth knowledge of major religions.

    However, everyone only has enough time to study a limited number of things in a lifetime.

    After basic reading, writing, and mathematics, why not let a person study what is enjoyable as long as they do not ignore certain subjects completely?  Love of education is often the greatest tool of all.

    • #40
  11. The Cloaked Gaijin Member
    The Cloaked Gaijin
    @TheCloakedGaijin

    Love of literature also seems to be genetic.

    The people in my family were reasonable smart, but hardly any of them liked reading.  One exception was my grandmother.  She probably read a book or so a week for her entire life, and she died just before the age of 98.  She loved literature and music.  My dad seemed to inherit her love of music, and his brother inherited her love of literature.  His brother majored in English and married someone with similar interests.  Thus, my uncle’s children loved to read.  I was the opposite.  I think I inherited a love of puzzles, art, basic science, and history from other parts of the family.

    I think one of the exceptions to this genetic determination is when a child is super smart.  Such a person learns to read quite young and becomes a very active reader for his or her entire life.  I’ve heard stories of children learning to read around age 3 or so.  When I was going up, a typical person did not begin to learn how to read until entering first grade at around age 6.  That was me.  I found a photo of me playing chess at age 2.  No wonder I don’t remember learning that game, but I certainly remember learning how to read.

    A problem with literature teachers or teachers of any subject that requires building upon prior learning such as math or foreign languages is that they probably got into that topic because they found it to be fun.  However, their job is to teach many people who do not find such a topic fun.  It’s sort of like the reason why hall-of-fame baseball players do not usually make good managers or coaches.  Such people have a natural ability for a certain skill which can be difficult to teach to someone else.

    • #41
  12. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    J. D. Fitzpatrick (View Comment):
    In the criticism of poetry, we distinguish verse, the mere tinkling arrangement of rhymes and syllables, from poetry, in which form deepens a thought the way the sea on a sunny day will deepen the colors of the sky.

    So too with novels: we distinguish the novel written for the sake of a plot from the novel in which the plot serves the portrayal of the deeper aspects of human nature.

    When I say poetry or novel, I mean in each case the second category.

    This is the type of thing that makes me play shoulder golf with people. No, that does not distinguish verse from poetry. It distinguishes good poetry from bad poetry in some individual’s estimation. By the broadest definitions used today, poetry does not have to be verse, but verse is always poetry. Now, it may be bad poetry, but it’s still poetry. No, you are not allowed to redefine words like “poetry” to be the subset of poems that you feel is meaningful. That would be like someone saying “White people aren’t really people, because they have no souls.”

    Ditto on novels. Yes, there are good and bad novels, but the worst novel out there is still a novel. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is a novel. It’s an execrable piece of writing, but it’s still a novel.

    Poetry comes from a Greek term that means “made thing.” There is no judgement of how well made the thing is in its definition. Why do people do this with poetry and writing? Would someone say, “Oh, that’s not a real building, because it doesn’t meet my standards of artistic merit”? Would someone say, “That’s not a sailing vessel,” even though it floats on the water from place to place using wind power through sails, just because they don’t like the lines of the vessel?

    Now, they might say, “That’s not a ship,” and they might be right. Ship has a specific definition among sailing vessels, and it might be a snow or brig or barque or schooner instead of a ship. Just as we can look at a poem and say, “This is not a sonnet,” because it is a villanelle. They might say, “That’s not a sonnet,” because it has no pivot or because it has eighteen lines or because it uses eight-syllable lines instead of the heroic line of the language or because it is a new or undefined rhyme scheme. It may be a beautiful and powerful poem, but not a sonnet, which has a specific definition. But if it meets all the technical specifications to be a sonnet, it is a sonnet, no matter how bad a poem.

    Words have meanings. In order to communicate, those meanings must be shared. If every word you use suffers from a personal meaning, nobody will know what you’re talking about.

    Now, go away before I taunt you again!

    • #42
  13. Whistle Pig Member
    Whistle Pig
    @

    The Cloaked Gaijin (View Comment):
    Literature is pain and punishment — for those of us who did not or do not enjoy it.

    [snip]

    I think it’s a big problem with boys and arguably the dominance of female English teachers. I would have enjoyed reading some history or science I think, but I never had much interest in reading fiction. Why am I supposed to learn about fake stuff? That never made sense to me. I might as well be learning about astrology or that weird phrenology head bump science.

    Get boys to read — something. If you hate reading, more forced reading is just going to make you hate the activity of reading even more, but you can’t afford to hate reading. It’s required in life. It would be like having a school teach boys to hate breathing, eating, or sleeping.

    Finally, many of us, especially boys do not have a deep poetic, spiritual, or empathic side. This point really can’t be overemphasized. It would be like a group of color-blind students being asked to comment on the book of thrilling red-green artwork — for an entire year.

    I think students should simply take solid classes that interest them. A person can learn more about literature, math, history, foreign languages, art, computers, physical education, or some other class later, assuming that the schools have not forced the student to hate such a subject.

    I empathize.  I hated my high school English classes.  Boring.  Even though I have always loved to read.  In college, I put off my mandatory literature course as long as I could, finally taking a course on short stories in the penultimate term of my senior year.  I loved it.  Most certainly a large part of that was an excellent professor.  But I had no opportunity to take another literature class – my last term was already planned out with courses required for graduation.  I’ve slowly over the years added the classics to my reading, but I always miss the opportunity to discuss them with others.

    I think the real problem you are addressing is not the idea of a core curriculum that exposes students to introductory materials in a broad range of subjects, but the pain of bad teachers who turn off some of their students.  I think this is real – I think of my 4th grade art teacher who inspired in me a 25-year dislike of art – but it is also life.  Some teachers are good, some are bad, who you get is the luck of the draw.  It would be a shame to deny yourself the joy of literature because of bad teachers in your past.

    • #43
  14. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Whistle Pig (View Comment):
    I’ve slowly over the years added the classics to my reading, but I always miss the opportunity to discuss them with others.

    Time to start a Ricochet Book Club?

    • #44
  15. Whistle Pig Member
    Whistle Pig
    @

    J. D. Fitzpatrick (View Comment):
    In the criticism of poetry, we distinguish verse, the mere tinkling arrangement of rhymes and syllables, from poetry, in which form deepens a thought the way the sea on a sunny day will deepen the colors of the sky.

    So too with novels: we distinguish the novel written for the sake of a plot from the novel in which the plot serves the portrayal of the deeper aspects of human nature.

    When I say poetry or novel, I mean in each case the second category.

    In our everyday lives, our feelings lie beneath us like hulks beneath the surface of the deep. We perceive them dimly; they have little significance to us; the road along the cliff, birds, the hills around us, trivia, getting and spending, occupy us more.

    Reading a novel plunges us into the water, forces us to reorient ourselves to a strange landscape, forgotten and yet familiar, with new colors, new borders, new laws. At the heart of it we see that shipwreck of our own forgotten emotions, now the focus around which we swim, reminded of their bulk, haunted by the memory of what now lies beneath the changes of the sea.

    The following excerpts will not speak to everyone. But no other voices will do for those to whom they speak.

    Beautifully put.  Thank you.

    • #45
  16. Whistle Pig Member
    Whistle Pig
    @

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Whistle Pig (View Comment):
    I’ve slowly over the years added the classics to my reading, but I always miss the opportunity to discuss them with others.

    Time to start a Ricochet Book Club?

    Absolutely brilliant idea.

    • #46
  17. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty
    @BasilFawlty

    Whistle Pig (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Whistle Pig (View Comment):
    I’ve slowly over the years added the classics to my reading, but I always miss the opportunity to discuss them with others.

    Time to start a Ricochet Book Club?

    Absolutely brilliant idea.

    There is (was?) a Ricochet Book Club over at Goodreads.

    https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/74917-ricochet-book-club

    • #47
  18. Doug Kimball Thatcher
    Doug Kimball
    @DougKimball

    Perhaps fiction is important precisely because it is such a versatile form; it can be poetic, dramatic, heroic, comic/tragic, moralistic, historic and philosophic all at once, or it can be none of those things.  I think though, that the best novels are all of those things while pretending to be none of them.  Great novels are the Swiss Army knives of literature.  We all have our likes and dislikes; but in the end, I think we can all agree on the above.  In fact, if you were to apply an objective test gauging novels on poetry, drama, heroic, comic/tragic, moral vision, history and philosophy, on an A-F 4 point scale, the great ones would rise to the top.  Updike, for example, thought to be one of the elite writers of the 20th century, would score, other than his first novel, Rabbit Run, highly in all regards except drama.  Updike’s other books were flat or derivative where drama was concerned, and as a result, some approach, but none reach, greatness.  Ayn Rand’s books overplay philosophy and confuse philosophy with morality, and are about as poetic as the Wall Street Journal.  No classics there.  Crichton’s serviceable but ordinary prose denigrates an admirable body of work to just “good.”  Stephen King’s prose is good, but not great, though some of his novels, “The Shining” and “Pet Cemetery”, are so clever, they approach greatness; others, not so much.   Vonnegut’s quirky works are worthy, but may at times overplay their nihilism just as Rand overplayed her objectivism,leaving the work with a dated, narrow feel.   Russell Banks’ “Continental Drift”  is worthy, if only there were some lightness to occasionally pierce the darkness of his vision.  Dennis Lehane, who got his start writing generic sleuth books, has written some pretty good books; “Mystic River” and “Shutter Island” come to mind as nice offerings, though again, a kind of nihilism drags them down to good from great.  Still, as a writer, he shows promise.  Louise Erdrich is an estimable poet and it shows in the beauty of her fiction, but as yet, she’s not been able to concentrate sufficient drama in her work, weighted down as it is by a sense of generational tragedy, to elevate her novels to universal greatness.  I’m still waiting for the great novel of the late 20-early 21st century book to arrive.  I’ve not seen it yet.

     

     

     

    • #48
  19. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    Peter Gøthgen (View Comment):
    More to the point for students is the fact that reading comprehension is not a distinct skill. Once you progress beyond basic decoding, comprehension is entirely based upon knowledge of the relevant content. The only way to provide the ability to understand a wide variety of things is to have a broad knowledge base. The solution is to read widely and to read much.

    Yes, and yes!  Willingham fan?

    • #49
  20. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    The Cloaked Gaijin (View Comment):
    In the criticism of poetry, we distinguish verse, the mere tinkling arrangement of rhymes and syllables, from poetry, in which form deepens a thought the way the sea on a sunny day will deepen the colors of the sky.

    So too with novels: we distinguish the novel written for the sake of a plot from the novel in which the plot serves the portrayal of the deeper aspects of human nature.

    When I say poetry or novel, I mean in each case the second category.

    Good distinctions. Although there’s subjectivity in the determination of which is which, that lends itself to good discussion.  I would say “verse” would be didactic or inspirational rhymes you find online, sometimes poorly written with irregular rhythm and no real rhyme scheme.

    • #50
  21. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    The Cloaked Gaijin (View Comment):

    sawatdeeka (View Comment):
    Well, here’s the thing. I’m not sure one can be solidly educated without some background in great books.

    Well, here’s the thing.

    The math teacher thinks that a person cannot be solidly educated without knowing algebra, geometry, trigonometry, etc.

    The science teachers think a person cannot be solidly educated without knowing physics, chemistry, astrology, geology, biology, meteorology, etc.

    The history teacher thinks that a person cannot be solidly educated without knowing most major and many minor events since the dawn of civilization.

    The fine arts teachers think that a person cannot be solidly educated without art and music.

    The computer teacher thinks a person cannot be solidly educated without knowing a lot about the rapidly changing field of computers.

    The practical arts teachers think a person cannot be solidly educated without knowing how to work with one’s hands.

    The religion teachers think that a person cannot be solidly educated without in-depth knowledge of major religions.

    However, everyone only has enough time to study a limited number of things in a lifetime.

    After basic reading, writing, and mathematics, why not let a person study what is enjoyable as long as they do not ignore certain subjects completely? Love of education is often the greatest tool of all.

    I would agree with all these subject matter specialists. You need all of this to have a well-rounded education. And, I had to study years of math when it was often unpleasant to me. I don’t hate it now, but it still intimidates me. I’m glad I was made to stick with it through senior year. It was good discipline and a healthy challenge.

    I also agree that where possible, there should be some element of choice on what to study. However, there should still be a necessary core, with perhaps choices within that. For example, at my girls’ high school, there are literature requirements, but a long list of choices, alongside the more conventional ones: Adventure lit., Montana lit., Outdoor lit., etc.

    • #51
  22. Doug Kimball Thatcher
    Doug Kimball
    @DougKimball

    Doug Kimball (View Comment):
    Perhaps fiction is important precisely because it is such a versatile form; it can be poetic, dramatic, heroic, comic/tragic, moralistic, historic and philosophic all at once, or it can be none of those things. I think though, that the best novels are all of those things while pretending to be none of them. Great novels are the Swiss Army knives of literature. We all have our likes and dislikes; but in the end, I think we can all agree on the above. In fact, if you were to apply an objective test gauging novels on poetry, drama, heroic, comic/tragic, moral vision, history and philosophy, on an A-F 4 point scale, the great ones would rise to the top. Updike, for example, thought to be one of the elite writers of the 20th century, would score, other than his first novel, Rabbit Run, highly in all regards except drama. Updike’s other books were flat or derivative where drama was concerned, and as a result, some approach, but none reach, greatness. Ayn Rand’s books overplay philosophy and confuse philosophy with morality, and are about as poetic as the Wall Street Journal. No classics there. Crichton’s serviceable but ordinary prose denigrates an admirable body of work to just “good.” Stephen King’s prose is good, but not great, though some of his novels, “The Shining” and “Pet Cemetery”, are so clever, they approach greatness; others, not so much. Vonnegut’s quirky works are worthy, but may at times overplay their nihilism just as Rand overplayed her objectivism,leaving the work with a dated, narrow feel. Russell Banks’ “Continental Drift” is worthy, if only there were some lightness to occasionally pierce the darkness of his vision. Dennis Lehane, who got his start writing generic sleuth books, has written some pretty good books; “Mystic River” and “Shutter Island” come to mind as nice offerings, though again, a kind of nihilism drags them down to good from great. Still, as a writer, he shows promise. Louise Erdrich is an estimable poet and it shows in the beauty of her fiction, but as yet, she’s not been able to concentrate sufficient drama in her work, weighted down as it is by a sense of generational tragedy, to elevate her novels to universal greatness. I’m still waiting for the great novel of the late 20-early 21st century book to arrive. I’ve not seen it yet.

    Wait!  The Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian is a great work, in totality.  Tolkien’s Ring series and the Potter books were much beloved and reached  a certain greatness, though both achieved true greatness on screen.  Lonesome Dove is also a great book, I think, though the first 150 or so pages could have used a good editor.  “Bonfire of the Vanities” had an auspicious start but fell short when Wolf continued to torture his protagonist long after his legs and wings were gone.   But I will tip my hat to O’Brian.

    • #52
  23. Lois Lane Coolidge
    Lois Lane
    @LoisLane

    One year I became a long-term substitute for a teacher out on maternity leave in a high school English classroom.

    I was shocked when I was told no books were taught by teachers. Students were put into book groups instead–there were 7 or 8 groups in the room–and told to read and teach each other “because that got them more engaged.”

    I had never heard of most of these books they were reading, but I was told they were chosen because they were thought to be “culturally appropriate” for the student body, which was mostly blue collar minority.  (I’m sure some of the books were great.  I just wasn’t prepared to help because I hadn’t read them.)

    No lectures or background information or anything else was to be provided by the teacher who was allowed only to walk around the class with a stop watch that told when to move from “student-centered book time” to “grammar drills” that allowed students to do endless worksheets to pass standardized tests.

    The administration walked around the halls to make sure that students (and teachers) were “on task.”

    So.. yeah.  That was horrible.  I couldn’t imagine 8 weeks of that misery, but I wasn’t supposed to teach anything about books.

    What did I do?

    I made up a unit on Shakespeare.

    We read the Scottish play, for which I gave them lots of background in a (forbidden) lecture.

    I changed the reading circles that focused on books they weren’t reading anyway into little acting sessions where they went through scripts together to look “on task” for vice principals looking into our classroom windows.

    I actually knew this play, so I could interact with students in small groups and guide them when they got stuck.

    I had pictures to go with scripts so that weird words didn’t trip them up.

    I sprinkled in fun things about the Bard like he left his wife only his second best mattress in his will when he died.

    We clumped around the classroom like pirates learning iambic pentameter.

    I can’t say every kid in that class loved my Shakespeare experiment because that would be an out-and-out lie, but I had one girl tell me when I was packing up to leave that she had learned more in that short period than she had in all of the rest of the four years she’d been in high school.  She was worried when she went to college that she wouldn’t know “things” everyone else knew.  (I was worried for her, too.)

    She had never been taught anything at all before my class about Shakespeare, and she was a senior. 

    There was an opening for a teacher in that school.  I did not apply.  I found the administration’s approach to those kids patronizing and racist.  Yes.  Racist.  And I think that word is bandied about too much in our society.

    It made me heart sick.

    • #53
  24. YouCantMeanThat Coolidge
    YouCantMeanThat
    @michaeleschmidt

    Doug Kimball (View Comment):
    Tolkien’s Ring series and the Potter books were much beloved and reached a certain greatness, though both achieved true greatness on screen.

    Pretty impressive stuff until you uncorked this wild pitch. Even with modern special effects, with the sole exception of the nature of Quidditch, the images that walked the theater of my own imagination pretty much beat the snot out of what I saw on the screen — not to mention the dumbing down that was required to make the greater format fit into the lesser. (Tom Bombadil, anyone?)

    Which leads me to the element thus far missing in this discussion — the Beethoven dictum:  Literature, like music, is felt viscerally, or it is not felt at all. A Beethoven symphony — or a Les Miserables — reaches inside me, grabs my guts, and squeezes… No amount of nagging by Miss Facius (for two freaking years of high school!), bless her heart, was going to get me to buy into much of turgid prose or of — God help me — poi-tree. Whilst I read the (adult) science fiction shelf in the library from one end to the other. And much of the literature of WWII. And huge amounts of (largely) historical fiction and non fiction… You can’t make the horse drink; nor can you prevent him from doing so…

    (Mr. Kimball, do the works of the first Thomas Wolfe fit your criteria? If so, what say you?)

    • #54
  25. Lois Lane Coolidge
    Lois Lane
    @LoisLane

    YouCantMeanThat (View Comment):
    Which leads me to the element thus far missing in this discussion — the Beethoven dictum: Literature, like music, is felt viscerally, or it is not felt at all. A Beethoven symphony — or a Les Miserables — reaches inside me, grabs my guts, and squeezes…

    When I taught Victor Hugo to students who were learning English, I taught with the musical.  We did it in scenes/songs.  We read only small bits of the book.  The play and novel diverge, but we danced in the classroom, and that worked.

    I have often wondered if any of those kids went to see the movie version when it came out a few years back.   I would teach like that way again, though I’ve never had the opportunity present itself.

    Sometimes you know you can only open windows to great works of art, but we should try different mediums at times because… well… of some of what people have said in this dialogue.

    All of this makes me remember why I once loved teaching high school English, though I gave that up some time ago….

    You see, the school where we listened to Les Mis over the classroom sound system told me that there would be a much larger stress on expository essays in the future… Less fiction because children need to know how to read instruction booklets in the real world.

    (I’m not making this stuff up, people.  That’s public secondary education now.)

    • #55
  26. fidelio102 Inactive
    fidelio102
    @fidelio102

    Just to console anyone who feels left out, I am British, I am 74 years old, I have never read Jane Eyre, I do not intend to read it and I have never felt disadvantaged by not having read it.

    • #56
  27. Kay of MT Inactive
    Kay of MT
    @KayofMT

    fidelio102 (View Comment):
    Just to console anyone who feels left out, I am British, I am 74 years old, I have never read Jane Eyre, I do not intend to read it and I have never felt disadvantaged by not having read it.

    Don’t feel badly, I have read Jane Eyre, but have never read Jane Austen’s books. Don’t think either of us missed much. Oh, and I am 79, birthday in 3 months.

    • #57
  28. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Kay of MT (View Comment):

    fidelio102 (View Comment):
    Just to console anyone who feels left out, I am British, I am 74 years old, I have never read Jane Eyre, I do not intend to read it and I have never felt disadvantaged by not having read it.

    Don’t feel badly, I have read Jane Eyre, but have never read Jane Austen’s books. Don’t think either of us missed much. Oh, and I am 79, birthday in 3 months.

    Kay, I’ve been searching for the oldest Ricocheter, and I may have found her:  you.  Darn, I thought I was the oldest. I am 79, birthday in 9 months.

    Kent

    • #58
  29. Trink Coolidge
    Trink
    @Trink

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Kay of MT (View Comment):

    fidelio102 (View Comment):
    Just to console anyone who feels left out, I am British, I am 74 years old, I have never read Jane Eyre, I do not intend to read it and I have never felt disadvantaged by not having read it.

    Don’t feel badly, I have read Jane Eyre, but have never read Jane Austen’s books. Don’t think either of us missed much. Oh, and I am 79, birthday in 3 months.

    Kay, I’ve been searching for the oldest Ricocheter, and I may have found her: you. Darn, I thought I was the oldest. I am 79, birthday in 9 months.

    Kent

    Bless you both.  I thought maybe I was the ceiling here at 71 at the end of the month.  Your sharp minds give me hope :)

    • #59
  30. Kay of MT Inactive
    Kay of MT
    @KayofMT

    KentForrester (View Comment):
    Kay, I’ve been searching for the oldest Ricocheter, and I may have found her: you. Darn, I thought I was the oldest. I am 79, birthday in 9 months.

    Kent

    I told you in a different post my Birthday was in March and I was older than you. I still think there are a couple older than we are, they usually write history about the old west, or south west.

    • #60
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