Tuesday, January 17, 2012


“We now have multiple authors rather than single solitary geniuses. We now acknowledge the existence of multiple versions of important works rather than just one text per work. Instead of a single real or ideal reader, we have multiple readers all over the place-classrooms full of individual readers in our college and high school literature courses, journals and books full of readers in our academic libraries, auditoriums full of readers at our conferences. And all of these readers are constructing interpretations as fast as they read. As one might imagine, when it is a complex work that is being read, the interpretations differ from one another as much as the readers do. It is not possible that only one of the interpretations is correct and all the others are wrong.”
-- Jack Stillinger, “Multiple Readers, Multiple Texts, Multiple Keats”

Professor Jack Stillinger of the University of Illinois is one of my heroes, for he stands for the same rebellious approach to reading literature that I have learned to love. He believes that all readers bring their different minds and hearts to the books they read, and that these readers, all of them, have wholehearted thoughts and feelings about what they read, and that these thoughts and feelings should be respected by other readers, especially teachers. To take some sentences from A Tale of Two Cities and say that I, the teacher, and only I, can tell the true story of what those sentences mean, makes about as much sense as saying only a teacher can understand the sky. Hundreds of thousands of readers have read Dickens’ novel, and each one was stirred in a special way, and each one walked away from the book with some fresh and special feeling in her or his heart. I have always thought it strange that certain people presume to understand books better than others, which seems as silly as saying the meanings of swirling ripples in a river are open only to certain superior somebodies. All of us, my young students included, have the right to see what perhaps only we see in the books we read, and no one should want to dissuade us, or deter us from following the trails of our own irreplaceable impressions. Professor Stillinger sees that truth, which surely has made his students feel fairly well-off in his classroom.

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