On teaching literature (1)

March 19, 2014

I’ve been retired for about three years now, and I still miss teaching literature to school students. I have been thinking about what, exactly, it has all meant for me.

I hoovered books up as a child; I read my sisters’ library books as well as my own, often went daily to get new books, and by the age of eleven was allowed (by special dispensation) to access the adults’ library, as I’d exhausted the children’s section. In those innocent years, reading was about plot, the excitement of the story, and wanting to find out how it ended. And there was a gut response – liking, enjoyment, rushing off for the next book by a particular author.

At a certain point I discovered re-reading, and what that can bring: not being plot-driven, because I knew how the story ended, I could read in a different way and notice things I’d missed out on first time around. When I came to teach, I discovered that many students never re-read books and couldn’t imagine why on earth one might want to; those who did re-read shared the same new joys as I did, and through teaching literature, often for examination, I was able to introduce students to the joys of second and third and n-th time around.

This is where I reach the core of teaching and learning, in the world of literature. You have to look in close detail; you have to seek out things you might no otherwise notice and you have to analyse and make judgements about plot, character and themes in a text. You have to look closely at how a writer uses language, how s/he can manipulate the reader, how any novel is, in fact and obviously, a construct from start to finish, made up by the writer (a fiction, for etymologists out there), who makes choices all along the way about plot and character and language.

From all of this I always felt, and I think students agreed, one enjoyed a deeper and richer encounter with a text. And yet there was always a lurking suspicion that all the analysis, the deconstruction and interrogation of a text, took away from its magic, the spontaneity of enjoyment per se, the potential for escape in a good read… however you put it. There is truth in this, and, for me, the gains outweigh the losses. I’m sure I have never read a novel with those innocent child’s eyes since I began to study literature. When I taught analysis of poetry, there was usually the opportunity at the end of a lesson, to re-read a poem one final time and try and allow it to be just the poem, pulling it together after all the analysis.

In the end, I feel that the study of literature provides a toolkit which one can retain through one’s life, which allows one to get more from one’s reading, if one wants to, and allows one to share more of the enjoyment with others.

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