Over the years, I’ve enjoyed thinking of teaching and reading literature as being a process of searching, but gradually I have come to see that there’s never an end to the search – that the seeking and exploring and rummaging among facts and ideas doesn’t make things clearer and simpler, but mistier and weirder and more wonderful and more endless. In my younger days, I guess I believed that the best ideas about a book or a poem would eventually be revealed to anyone who spent enough time searching for them. Knowledge, for me, was a finite entity that could be searched and brought under control with enough steady, watchful work. Any work of literature, even the longest and deepest, could be dealt with the way you would deal with a piece of land that needed to be mapped and made plain. Now, though, it’s clear to me that words set down on paper don’t have boundaries to their meanings. The thousands of words in a Dickens novel know no end to what they can say and signify to us. When my students and I set off on an expedition through A Tale of Two Cities, we must understand that one truth will lead to 10 more truths which will lead to 100 more truths, all in strange and distant directions, with never a finish in sight. Reading good literature is like landing on a planet with no prepared maps. You can search and search, but instead of hoping to reach a destination of some sort, better to simply appreciate what it’s like to be lost in a limitless paradise.
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