Reading and Writing

At some point—and it happens fairly quickly—the life of an English teacher becomes more about re-reading than reading. This is a preposterous change from the life of a graduate student, when everything is reading. As a student, there may be a handful of books that one reads a twice, but those are also the books with which one spends an engaged period of time—there is an essay in the offing. If you read them twice, chances are you read them a half dozen or dozen times. By the time you start teaching, the repetition is no longer driven by your desire or directed curiosity, but by a curricular roadmap that more often than not, you have not decided.

Because of my background, my friends will often ask what I am reading, and I know that they mean, “What are you reading for the first time?” It’s a “tell me what is good” question. At this moment in my life, most of what I read, I am reading for the 7th or 8th time. Or I am reading student work. I can admit that neither fills my sails the same way that exploratory reading does. Part of the joy of exploring is not reading important books—or rather, it is discovering that the books I read were important (to me, to the world) as I read them.

There is something thrilling—yes, thrilling—in finding myself in an entirely new stream of thought, full of images and ideas that had not occurred in my mind in that specific way. I love the feeling of being in an entirely foreign mind. I brought home new avenues and new approaches to my own work from nearly every book I read as a student. And, yes, I am still a student, and I still find new ways. Early on, the novelty that most easily enchanted me was setting and plot. Novels set in strange places (Vietnam, Middle Earth, Geatland, London) and with characters who did strange things (solve crimes, fly dragons, uncover moles, turn into monsters) drew my attention and appreciation. I still appreciate a mystery, horror, or fantasy novel; Michael Chabon tethers genre to literary merit with alacrity.

But most works of literary merit tend to eschew genre elements. The strangeness is found more in how the characters think and feel, and how those thoughts and feeling serve to reveal the deeper ideas that the novel walks out into the world. The thrill comes from reading along as characters struggle with complex thoughts and feelings, and the novelist struggles to portray a world that is, more often than not, contradictory. Contradiction is the single provenance of literary fiction. Woe to the mind and heart that seeks a generously reductive answer to life’s troubles in literature. Unless one learns to love ambiguity, irony, and contradiction.

I think that the rush of all the new work I read while I was still a full time student, blunted the more mournful aspects of contradiction. As I read through libraries, it seemed as if there were a million ways to get things done. I continue to champion diversity in large part because I found comfort in the breadth of possibility. However, the habits of re-reading drive me to emphasize less possibility. This occurs because if contradiction is the provenance of literature, then what happens in the land of contradiction is too often sad. Characters are too often caught, like Odysseus, between Scylla and Charybdis—the chance of losing everything and the certainty of losing much. Where is the gain—other than hard-earned self-knowledge? Where is the dinner and conversation and new-forged friendship with people who had been, only moments ago, strangers?

I feel the loss keenly. I am dissatisfied with the too morbid outcomes that serious writers propose, and with the deathly insistence on disconnection and disappointment. And I am dissatisfied with trudging over this same ground over and over again. There must be the possibility of joy, and please, for gods’ sakes, there must be discovery. Which means new works. In “Seymour: An Introduction,” Salinger allows Seymour to give his brother, Bruno, the single best piece of writing advice—and by extension, life advice—I have ever read. It is hopeful. “Imagine the book you most want to read… Now write it.”

It is time. Finally.


In between units of my AP English class, I spent a few days with William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. Blake doesn’t fit nicely into any tradition of British Literature, but his work touches on some of the realities of life in London that other writers ignore. So before we charge into Jane Eyre, Blake.

Blake is a Christian mystic (well, maybe). He believes in a relationship with the divine that is not mediated by the official church. In fact, he sees the church as complicit in forging the manacles of repression that plague humankind. When talking about him, it’s helpful to have an idea of faith that is not infringed upon by doctrine, and so I mentioned the “prelapsarian state of humankind.” My students, high school seniors, did not know what “prelapsarian” meant. Perhaps that is not a surprise—I’ve been told that it is not surprising. No one has taught them about these ideas. Before.

I wonder about what we teach and what we do not teach. There are big sweeps in history and the more minute formulae of mathematics. Grammar in foreign languages. We get big personalities on the world stage—the great man curriculum now incorporates women too. We try to do a decent enough job with race—at least we focus energy there, even if we don’t solve the problem. The history of family life gets left out. The small scale, which is to say daily, costs of industrialism gets left out. We may talk about love, but not about sexual relations. A sense of the on the ground effects of historical movements in faith gets left out. We do the big and the particular, but not so much what gets eaten at dinner (unless you learn that in a foreign language class) or what gets talked about in the bedroom.

There is a history of the personal. It is all around us. I loved to show the first episode of Ken Burns’ Baseball, because it showed how sport was connected to leisure time, which was connected to work, which was connected to changes in industrial patterns and urban growth and a half dozen (more) other things. Teaching Blake, there are the chimney sweeps (nothing like Bert in Mary Poppins) and syphilis, and the Tyburn Tree. There is a hidden, or at least forgotten, history here. And Blake’s glowing mysticism.

My students are shy about the hidden—which is why it is hidden and remains hidden. They sit at the edge of the pond and hedge their bets. They are cautious up to a point. They will wander off topic bravely, and even venture half-baked opinions bravely, but they have a hard time connecting to what they have read. And so often, the hidden remains off limits.

Being a reader means charging in fearlessly, and letting the text in, being attentive in the most focused and furious way. One must be—at once—open to difference and self aware. In Blake’s words, to “[t]urn away no more,” to want to return, to renew. What Blake seeks is that untainted energy and inspiration, unbridled from easy suppositions or over-chartered paths—the crooked way that is at once as old as the ancient trees, and as new as this morning’s dew. Prelapsarian. If not free of sin, at least free of shame—either of one’s deepest feelings or one’s ignorance. Let me learn, the reader cries. Teach me something new.

Oh, to be giddily enthusiastic. To be unashamed of charging in, both sides of the brain blazing. I know there are more quotidian concerns–colleges, jobs–but to seek the full flight of inspiration and imagination, that should count for something. Yes? At a personal level, we give some of that away, and teach our students to stay reasonably in their lanes.

Or not. There must be time to blaze, to dare. Again. As if for the first time.