Widgets The Good Place (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and writing)

"Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice. - Benedict Spinoza."

Books should change your life
     Reading to live

Archaic Torso of Apollo

by Ranier Marie Rilke

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

You must change your life. That’s the message of the art most worth our time. A book that does not deliver that message to you--that at least some aspect of how you think and feel and therefore of who you are must now be different--was a book that wasted your time, the essence of your life.

I quit going to the book discussion group I started some years ago because the talk so often reminded me of the talk at a wine tasting party--attempts to display a sophisticated knowledge of things that matter not at all. What I wanted to talk about was what does this book compel me to think, and in what ways does it lead me to change my mind?

Such a view of what literature was for once had advocates in high places, but I don’t hear about it much in contemporary talk about literature and education.
Bruce Fleming writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education says that literature teachers are harming students by ignoring ways of reading that lead to such changes:

Reading literature can change their lives — and ours. The thing is, we don’t quite understand how this process works — nor will we ever understand. Certainly we can’t predict it past a certain point. That’s why reading literature can’t be a discipline. I, a straight white American male, can see myself in a black character or a female one, understand a point made by a dead Russian or a living Albanian, meditate on an abstract point made by an anonymous author. But that equally means that an X reader (say, black, gay, Albanian) need not read an X author (or character?) to get something from a work. Reading literature doesn’t require us to check our list of identifying adjectives to see if we’ll understand. Instead, we just have to dive in. Maybe we’ll sink, maybe we’ll swim. Nobody can tell beforehand.

In turning the teaching of literature into a professional discipline (dominated by idealogues who have came to view their work as transformational and then transgressive), we’ve lost the important thing:

The academic study of literature nowadays isn’t, by and large, about how literature can help students come to terms with love, and life, and death, and mistakes, and victories, and pettiness, and nobility of spirit, and the million other things that make us human and fill our lives. It’s, well, academic, about syllabi and hiring decisions, how works relate to each other, and how the author is oppressing whomever through the work.

Fleming has a good point. Unfortunately, nearly everyone has quit listening to what professors of English have to say about the teaching of literature. It no longer matters. At the secondary level, the National Council of Teachers of English has recently released a curriculum map in which reading literature has all but vanished from the high schools of their imagined future.

Of course, literature remains far too powerful to simply abandon. And its power makes it controversial--too controversial to be agreed upon in a national curriculum. It will return, I expect, when it is safe to restore it.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

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