Tuesday, May 29, 2012


At some point in the life of every perspective English major, they have to take a class on Literary Theory. For some, it's an eye-opening experience, one that strengthens how they view different works of literature and encourages them to see the written word through people's experiences. For others, it's a hellish four months akin to a verbal inquisition, in which--at the behest of the professor--students plum the depths of literature, over-analyzing to the point of meaninglessness and leveling ridiculous charges at otherwise wonderful authors. For some, it livens their love of books; for others, it kills that love.

For what it's worth, the most unproductive four years of my life in terms of reading--how many books I read for pleasure, how many new authors I encountered--occurred after my introduction to Lit Theory. Not that the class discouraged reading in any way--in fact, it was taught by a favorite professor of mine--but it put the value of literature squarely in "meaning" over "pleasure." Books, this class seemed to argue, were meant to be analyzed and dissected; any books that couldn't be broken down into parts greater than its sum wasn't worth the time. This meant that some of my favorite authors, some of the world's best storytellers, would never be considered "quality" literature, a message that had been delivered a few years earlier when Stephen King was given a National Book Award medal for lifetime achievement; the ruckus that followed this news, led by self-appointed literary gatekeeper Harold Bloom, let it be known that there was no place in capital-l Literature for entertaining books. (I later read some of Harold Bloom's work and was assured that King's work will last much longer than his.)

So I continued through college unable to enjoy a single book; the closest I came to basking in the warmth of a good book was a three-month reading of 100 Years of Solitude, which I enjoyed immensely (and still consider to be the closest I've ever come to reading perfection), and a four-month reading of Gravity's Rainbow which, for all the hard work and interpretation, turned out to be a rewarding experience. (Hopefully, there will be more on Pynchon and his effect on me, which bordered on obsessive, in a later blog post.)

What eventually snapped me out of this funk--what got me reading again, what draw me back to the hitching-post that was "enjoying" literature--was the job I got immediately out of college: high school English teacher. Now, instead of sitting in the desks and taking notes, I was the one lecturing, giving notes, and planning lessons. For the first year, I did nothing but analyze--a reasonable start, considering it was all I had been taught to do. But then came my second-year American Lit Honors, a class filled to the brim with students who were creative in all the ways I used to be. They loved poetry and fiction-writing. They accepted Anne Bradstreet's poetry just as easily as Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic prose, read it with the same mix of awe and confusion. They asked if they could swear in the stories they wrote, and I said they could, as long as it was for a purpose. They wrote more than 200 six-word stories, inspired by Ernest Hemingway's sad tale of unused baby-shoes, even though their assignment was to only write one each. They tried to create Facebook profiles for Gatsby and his friends, though our school's filter doomed this project to failure almost from the get-go. They wrote personal manifestos inspired by the work of Thoreau, finished stories outlined in Nathaniel Hawthorne's legendary notebook, and made their own creation stories inspired by the Native American literature we read in class. Every project I threw at them came back wonderfully successful; I'd never enjoyed reading writing assignments this much before, and the students themselves responded with what I can only describe as--gasp!--engagement. (Was it just wishful thinking--a teacher's own delusion--or did some of these students actually enjoy this?!)

By the end of my second year of teaching, these forty kids had thoroughly and completely staked to death the vampire that was Lit Theory--it was gone. My focus shifted to getting more creative writing into my curriculum, and I began reading copious amounts of books in my spare time; at the end of 2011, which is also midway through my third year of teaching, I'd read more than 25,000 pages...and any high school teacher worth their salt, especially ones at the start of their careers, will tell you that finding the time to read even a quarter of this amount is next to impossible.

But Lit Theory hadn't died just yet. In fact, it came back with a vengeance...but this time, it did so in a good way. The more books I read, the more introspective I became. Every book seemed to bring forward some kind of personal and emotional reaction in me. A book about the downfall of moderates in the modern Republican Party--a lengthy, wonkish tome of a book--reminded me of listening to talk radio with my father when I was younger; it was my education in how our government worked--or at least was supposed to--and began my love of politics. A book about hiking a thousand-mile, interstate trail out West caught me in the middle of my own infatuation with walking, and I began to think about all the reasons why I was suddenly crossing county lines and facing down coyotes on Saturday mornings. Every book I opened, every page I turned, held something beyond the ink and paper for me...and suddenly, I was back in that college classroom, head slumped in my hand, listening to a lecture.

Reader-response theory: the belief that we bring our own personal experiences to every book we read, and those experiences influences how a book is read and interpreted. I was never a believer in this theory--in fact, I remember mocking it ironically in one of the class' weekly papers--but then again, I was young and untested in the world.

So here I am, a full-time high school English teacher who loathes literary theory in the classroom while embracing it in my own personal life. Maybe the time will come when both shall merge once again--a lessening of myself in the books I read, a diversifying of how I teach and analyze books in the classroom--but until then, I'm happy to sit back and fill the screen with my own long, personal ramblings about the books that have shown me who I am. Because it's never just about books. It's about journeys. And life.

(Photo taken by the author. It is of Paul's Bookstore on State Street in Madison, WI, one of the best independent bookstores in the whole Midwest.)