of Books and Brit. Lit.
By: Kate Karman

September always makes me think of books. I don’t know if it’s the age-old association with school or just the change in the weather and the fun of sitting inside listening to the rain and reading a good book, but the start of fall makes me want to read.

I’m a nut about reading Whole, Unabridged Books. It’s a point of honor with me. I don’t feel like I can say, “Yes, I read Les Miserables,” when what I really read only contained half of the author’s original words. (I have, in fact, read half of Victor Hugo’s original words in Les Miserables… but they were the first half of the book that I haven’t finished yet.) Besides, I would always wonder what I missed if I read an abridgement.

Yes, it’s more work to read unabridged Dickens. (Did you realize that Dickens was paid by the word? Oy!) But you will get a truer picture of his writing if you read all of it.

Now, here’s where I’m going to get a bit controversial: literature textbooks. I have never been fond of literature textbooks. I always found them whetting my appetite for a particular author or book and then never following through. Or the text wouldn’t have enough in the excerpt for me to decide whether or not I liked the story.

I especially find it disconcerting to be told how a certain author writes without being able to see it for myself. I had always been told that Mark Twain had a distinct worldview that influenced his writing greatly. But I didn’t see it for myself until I stumbled on The Mysterious Stranger and was pulled up short at the end when his metaphysics and epistemology turned out to be almost directly opposed to mine. But you don’t see that in a literature text that introduces you to Twain with a chapter from the middle of Huckleberry Finn.

Don’t get me wrong – literature textbooks have their place. They provide a good outline or skeleton to start with. They help you figure out what to look for in your survey of literature, where to go next and who to read. But I don’t believe they should ever stand alone as a literature course.

A year or so ago I decided to walk through British Literature on my own. I would use a couple different Brit. Lit. textbooks as outlines to help me figure out where to go next, but for the most part, I was going to read Entire Works instead of excerpts.

I started with Beowulf. Huh, I thought when I was part-way through it, this is kind of bizarre. But I stuck with it and finished it. And I loved it. I loved it so much, I found a different translation and read that one, too. The next thing on my list to read was Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I stalled out half-way through that one. In my mind, I officially categorized it as Too Weird For Me. And that’s where my excursion into Brit. Lit. ended for almost a year.

I just picked Sir Gawain up again. I was bound and determined to read the Whole Thing this time. It wasn’t until I finished it and saw the whole picture that I decided I really liked it. It was still weird. But I liked the moral it taught, the story it had to tell, the way it subtly emphasized its point. I loved it.

I would not have loved it if I had read an excerpt out of it from the Brit. Lit. textbook.

In high school, a friend and I convinced our mothers to let us ditch the textbook and do literature together by reading “classics” and getting together to discuss them. This turned out to be one of the best things for us as we first had to decide what to read and then had to come up with the discussion questions ourselves. I think we ended up being much more detailed and in-depth than most of the questions in a high school literature textbook. We were really excited about what we were doing, and we did it wholeheartedly.

One thing I learned from our literary club was how to read for understanding and pleasure at the same time. Since I knew I would be responsible for coming up with at least part of our discussion questions, I learned to take notes while I was reading, to pay special attention to what was going on, to ask myself questions like “Why do I like this bit and not that bit?” and “How does Dickens’s view of the French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities differ from Baroness Orczy’s in The Scarlet Pimpernel? And why?” And I learned I could ask questions without having to come up with The Right Answer in the textbook. There was no textbook. I had to answer myself instead of trying to come up with what the textbook wanted.

My friend and I still encourage each other to read good books, occasionally picking true classics (according to Mark Twain’s definition, which is “something that everyone wants to have read, but no one wants to read”) to read together and discuss.

Sure, it’s going to take longer for me to study Brit. Lit. if I read whole works instead of excerpts. Sure, it’s more work to come up with discussion questions myself instead of relying on ones in a textbook. But who says I have to cover all of British Literature in 9 months? And who says I have to read every single book that is mentioned in the textbook?

What are you trying to do when you study literature with your children, make it through a textbook or teach them to read, enjoy and understand great works of literature?


© 2006 by Kate Karman.

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