Thursday, 25 August 2011

How literature should be studied

What I do with books might suggest what English teachers might try to do with their literature classes.

The issue of principle or theory at stake is whether ‘just reading’ is enough and if not, what’s needed beyond what we see people doing with books on the bus or tube.

There are certain obvious things to be said.

(1) Life’s too short and not all books deserve more than a quick reading.

(2) In my experience, the main thing that needs to be done with a huge proportion of kids in secondary schools is simply getting them to read more fluently and get through more books. They don’t read well enough and they don’t choose to read. Leaving school unable to read well is far more serious than missing out on literary appreciation or analysis.

For myself, I've evolved a procedure to meet my own needs as a reader, though I'm very irregular in practising it, most of my procedures aren’t maintained for long and none are completely satisfactory. In addition, what I do these days is probably influenced by needs arising from failing memory -- I simply don’t remember what I've read as I used to.

Here’s the sort of thing I've been doing recently while reading Kafka’s Castle (re-reading, I think, but I'm not sure). Every so often I break off and write notes on ‘what strikes me’ -- that’s as good a formulation as any, and a measure of vagueness is desirable in specifying procedures, especially when a teacher is proposing them to kids, so as not to foreclose interesting variations one may not have thought of.

Note that I'm not studying the novel, as for an exam or to write an article, though I think my notes would be useful, though insufficient, for either purpose. I'm reading for pleasure and find that making notes enables me to get more out of the book.

Here’s the sort of thing I write:

  • Amalia dominating the household of Olga and Barnabas—what’s that about? goes nowhere...
  • Constant physical difficulty in moving: encumbered, deep snow etc—as in bad dreams.
  • The ‘gentlemen’ and Castle officials: temperamental, secretive, dissembling—hiding, pretending to be someone else.
  • What did K. come for? Who is he? Does he have a past? Above all, why does he stay and not simply go back?
  • interminable delays—waiting for a result for years, until old age.
  • The officials are human, have appetites, break rules—and behave like children or animals—‘the continued shouting in the dark stalls’.
  • The Castle isn’t a castle in fact but just an untidy settlement of ‘hovels’.
  • Ambiguity about whether a bureau is actually in the Castle, or a servant is really a Castle servant. Semi-official messengers etc, gradations and subtleties, uncertainties of status. ‘X is not a real messenger,’ etc.
  • People age quickly—a lifetime’s ageing in a couple of years.
  • The servants dictating into the air and the clerks without being asked or even glanced at taking it all down.
  • Extreme disparity between absurd claims for the ‘authorities’’ efficiency, infallibility and sensitivity—as believed for instance by the landlord and landlady—and the accounts of their extreme childishness and selfishness.
  • The stuff of bad dreams or nightmares: being trapped in vulnerable situations; losing time -- morning becomes late afternoon unnoticed; going to sleep in evening and finding it's afternoon on waking up surrounded by people.
  • Claustrophobia: getting into small spaces: the clerks behind the counter at the castle. Sleeping under the bar, constantly being crowded by people.
  • The officials spend a lot of time asleep. So does K. but is still constantly tired.
So what is the sort of thing I note and what use does it seem to be? Not so much impressions as things that are there, in the novel, features or aspects that give it the character it has. I note things, in the sense of notice. Things on the whole other than plot, character and structure; more themes, images, pervasive representations.

Because I lack a musical education I feel deprived of any means of getting a grip on classical music when I listen to it. I couldn’t write notes like those above because I don’t have the language. More seriously -- or, rather, an aspect of the same thing -- I don’t have the concepts; I lack the names and therefore the things -- I don’t know what it is I'm hearing. I can’t identity bits, parts, elements, aspects; I can’t make the necessary distinctions and fix them in memory so as to recognise repetitions and variations; because I don’t identify the elements my ability to memory is impeded. Without a functioning memory I can’t get a grasp of structure.

In noting the features of the novel I render myself able at the end to say what was in the novel, in a way I find harder when I haven’t made notes, and that’s without re-reading the notes. It’s not the writing down that makes the difference; it’s the registering you have to do in order to have the content that can be written down.

So in English, reading literature: I would argue they don’t need theory, not in the first place -- just a way of grasping what’s there, noting and registering it. They should come away with a sense of what the book was, what was going on it it. Explaining what was going on with the help of categories like gender, post-colonialism or psychoanalysis seems to me secondary, something to be brought in later, after they’ve given the text a good going-over with whatever resources they have to hand. Your help in enhancing those resources, allowing different features to become apparent in the text, will be best appreciated when they’ve got as far as they can under their own steam.

What I'm arguing for at a more general level is that English teachers take seriously something that John Dixon was onto in the mid-1970s, in his final, added chapter in the third (1975) edition of Growth through English: that simply, as it were, picking things out and naming them, putting them into language in the first place, was the primary act of abstraction on which all the higher operations like generalising and explaining were dependent, and should be the first concern of English (which meant in the early years, up to about year 9 I imagine, a focus on ‘enacting and narrating’ -- 117). There’s something out there: the basic intellectual move is, in the face of that something, to set up something ‘in here’, in the mind, in language, a symbolic something you can work with (for instance, through reasoning) as opposed to the actuality that you can’t work with, or not in the same ways.

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