Friday, February 8, 2013

These English teachers who imagine they are serving up delight are making it hateful

Here is an interesting discussion and set of observations from Ann Althouse. While the specific topic is the writing style of a book popular with a certain cast of mind, Beloved, I think Althouse's key observation is the difference in impact between elective reading and coerced reading. The same book, when read under circumstances of coercion, may be loathed whereas it has a completely different impact when read freely.

The discussion.
The book is a pain to read if you're not into [it]. I would never force anyone to read that book. The writing style is enough to give nightmares.
Robert Cook said:
Oh, rather like THE GREAT GATSBY, eh?
Let me answer that here on the front page, because this is important. Yes. It is like "The Great Gatsby." Neither book should be forced on anyone. It's destructive of the capacity to appreciate exactly what is most notable, the strange locutions. If you are not in the mood to get inside those sentences and luxuriate and ideate, it's a damned pain. If you've been assigned the book and so you feel like powering through it, everything that's good about it will feel like a speed bump. People hate speed bumps. These English teachers who imagine they are serving up delight are making it hateful.

I've said this already, but I don't keep repeating it as I've blogged about isolated sentences from "The Great Gatsby" in my "Gatsby" project. So let me point out one place where I made the point clearly:
My initial motivation was love. I thought of all the high school students — I remember being one — who were assigned this book and made to read the whole thing. That being the task, the really interesting sentences are speed bumps. They're completely annoying. You can't take the time to figure them out. What should be loved is hated. Later in life, I reread the book and enjoyed it, because of the worthiness of individual sentences.
The writing style of "Beloved" is, in my opinion, much, much worse than "The Great Gatsby." Chances are, a high school student will resist the project of reading this material, especially since the teacher might not emphasize the artistry of the style. It may be administered medicinally, by a teacher who wants her presumably bland and cosseted students to vicariously inhabit the condition of slavery. This is a terrible idea. Recommend "Beloved" for optional, outside reading and give the students the 19th century narratives written by Americans who were themselves enslaved. That's real and that's free of the pretensions of poetry.

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