Friday, December 17, 2010


Blue Lights on the Chicago Riverphoto © 2010 Seth Anderson | more inf
When I drove across a bridge today in the early morning darkness and
saw the scenic lights shining around and across the river, I was reminded of something I’ve often noticed in my work as an English teacher. The lights below the bridge were beautiful in a seemingly nonfunctional way, as though they were works of art spread around the river for their sheer loveliness. I’m sure they all had a specific purpose, but for a few moments it felt like I was looking down at a work of stylish art someone had set up – a stunning assembly of lights for the sole purpose of bestowing grace and sophistication on the city. The lights seemed to have no function other than throwing an impression of classiness out to passers-by. I’ve noticed something similar in English class, both in the students’ writing and in the books we study. I realize that novels and students’ essays should have a specific purpose – a stated thesis and some painstaking details supporting it – but still, I sometimes see sentences that flash their stylishness the way the lights across the river did this morning. When I read a sentence like this, whether in a Dickens story or a student’s essay, it matters little what the sentence says, what its purpose is. All that matters is the graceful good looks of the words as they spread themselves across the page like lights in darkness for readers to look at. They might be thoroughly puzzling words -- the kind of inscrutable sentences Dickens and my students sometimes write -- and still I would read them over several times to better appreciate their strange charms. It’s hard to admit to the students that sometimes the sheer splendor of a piece of writing is more meaningful than its actual meaning, but it’s the truth. Like the lights along the river, written words can cast a spell, no matter what their actual purpose might be.

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