Monday, January 18, 2010

The Business of Book Picking

"For what is the use of a golden key if it cannot open what we want it to?" --St. Augustine, "On Christian Doctrine"

Getting students who are not intellectually curious (at least not when it comes to school) to read and write about books is difficult, especially when your goal is to not just give them reading and writing material but to also get them to appreciate the literature. You must give them a book that won’t provide them a reason to not do it.

When I taught A Christmas Carol, I was surprised at the number of students who used the language as an excuse to not work hard. I think it was that particular class more than the book itself, but that semester taught me a lesson about students: any excuse not to read allows them to justify their laziness. If a book has obtuse language, a quirky narrative, or an intimidating length (even if the print is big and the chapters short), students will find a way to talk themselves out of doing the work.

Of Mice and Men has worked well for me. It has around 100 pages, accessible language, straightforward narrative, and easy to follow themes. The story does not rely upon a great deal of historical context. Because of all this, students generally enjoy it. I would love to find several novels that adhere to those standards.

A great source is high school booklists, but even some of those don’t fit the criteria I’ve set up. If I’m going to teach literature in a writing class, I don’t want to spend a lot of class time providing context. I want to jump into the text and simply provide the necessary background as we encounter it within the story.

Of course, I must still teach it well. I just want the teaching to be as downhill as possible. I’ve recently read Remains of the Day and Slaughterhouse Five. The former may be too psychological to keep most students’ interest, and the latter has an obtuse narrative. I’m also considering Heart of Darkness, The King and I, The Importance of Being Earnest, and Wit.


danielle said...

Wit, baby, Wit all the way.

Kelly said...

The language kept me from reading Heart of Darkness in AP English. How about Willa Cather, Fitzgerald, Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises is the most accessible, I think) or some American short stories, like O'Connor and Oats. I loved Vonnegut, and he's easy to read.

Misslisslee said...

I hated Heart of Darkness - and I'm a budding lit teacher. How about The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, or Ethan Frome? Gatsby worked well in a developmental English class I taught at the community college with very poorly motivated students.

The Professor said...

I have taught ALICE IN WONDERLAND (usually a big hit) and the classic fairy tales. The students love the fairy tales because, while they are easy to read, they are also bursting with topics to discuss. My students especially enjoy the fact that the original fairy tales are so much darker, scarier, and more complex than Disney and other modern fairy-tale interpreters have let on.

They are held spellbound by the jealousy of Snow White's stepmother (in some versions, her real mother), the implicit cannibalism of "Hansel and Gretel", the brutality of unrealistic beauty in "Cinderella" (the stepsisters cut off parts of their feet in fit into that glass slipper), and the sinister hints of pedophilia in Red Riding Hood's relationship with the wolf. Honestly, you can't go wrong with fairy tales. They are short, expressive, psychologically thrilling, and complex enough to serve as the focus of any course of study, not just one on writing.

As for Alice, her story serves much the same purpose as the classic fairy tales. There's wit, humor, philosophy, psychology, history, and a really compelling story, all in less than one hundred pages. I could spend a whole semester discussing that book, and my students couldn't be more entertained.