Sunday, August 31, 2008

B is for "burn[ing] through" Books

… for once again the fierce dispute,
Betwixt damnation and impassion'd clay
Must I burn through; once more humbly assay
The bitter-sweet of this Shakespearian fruit.
--Keats, “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once More”

When I read these lines again this morning, I suddenly realized that this is exactly the way I want the scholars to read the classic works of literature I assign in class. In their casual reading at home, the kids are accustomed to “sailing through” books (just as we all do when we’re reading strictly for delight), and they seem to expect the same kind of easy reading when they come to English class. They’ve grown accustomed to thinking of reading – especially fiction – as a pleasurable pastime, an activity they can do as effortlessly as breathing. As we all often do, they’ve learned to go to novels for the kind of trouble-free refreshment you get from drinking a glass of water. However, in 9th grade English class, they will have to do a very different kind of reading, one that is more like forcing down a bitter-tasting medicine than guzzling water. In works like King Lear and the poems of Keats, there’s a “bitter-sweet[ness]” that must be “burn[ed] through” if the reader wishes to reach the treasures that lie beneath. It’s like digging for gold in a mine: the labor is neither easy nor short-term. Truly great books, after all, contain truly great ideas – truths so large there’s rarely room for them on the surface of words and sentences. They most often lie hidden in the depths, accessible only to the most patient and resolute readers. “No pain, no gain” might correctly be applied to reading writers like Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Baldwin. I hope the scholars in my classes are ready to feel a few flames this year.

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