“Her vomit full of bookes and papers was.”
--Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, Book 1
Going back through a bit of Spenser this morning, I came upon these lines and, oddly enough, they brought to mind the tens of millions of students who have taken English courses in high school and college. Surely many of them enjoyed the “bookes and papers” they were required to read and write, but just as surely many of them felt, upon finally graduating, that they’d like to gag and throw up and leave it all behind. Why, I wonder, do so many English departments cram students to the point of choking with literary works and writing assignments – and what is their motivation? Do they think that shoving novels at students at the rate of 50 or more pages per night will actually benefit them? Do they actually believe that making students slog out stacks of “literary essays” every semester will produce people who enjoy writing? Why do we compel our students to run a high-speed, frenzied marathon of reading and writing in English class? Thoreau said that a great book should be read about as slowly as the author wrote it, but many English departments, as far as I can tell, have reversed his wise advice. Many of us seem more interested in rapid reading and speedy writing than in the kind of measured and carefully considered efforts that bring out the best in books and in students’ writing. If Thoreau were sitting in an English class today, he might still be savoring the first few scenes of Hamlet when the teacher announces that 50 pages of Jane Eyre is due tomorrow. As the years have passed, I have tried, with modest success, to work against this crazed devotion to haste. In my classes, we read as few books as possible as slowly as possible. I’m more interested in how carefully the students read than in how much they read. When I assign pages, I assume the students will read every sentence, every word, with total attentiveness, and that they will examine and re-examine the more bountiful sentences (of which there are many in any significant literary work). Does this mean I am failing to prepare the students for the sometimes hysterical pace of higher-level classes? No doubt – but I console myself by remembering that I am preparing them for higher-level devotion to deep reading and insightful writing – the kind of reading and writing that fosters nourishment rather than nausea.