I have written in the past about how literature makes us smarter—by which I mean (alluding to Howard Gardner’s notion of multiple intelligences) smarter intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. When we emerge from a masterwork, we are more attuned to nuance, more sensitive to vibrations, more alive. In today’s post I explore this idea a bit further.
My sense is that, while the reading experience has beneficial long term effects—we store wisdom so that a character or scene or phrasing may come to us years later at a time when we need it—we also lose something as time elapses. Although in some ways literature is like food stored for hibernation, in other ways it is like a dream: as the day progresses, we forget how a work has set us aglow and we relapse into familiar routine.
I notice this especially when I teach a work. There are novels and poems that I have taught so many times that I have a pretty good sense of how a class will unfold. I know what passages I am likely to turn to, what conversations are likely to arise.
But if I don’t reread the work, something vital is missing. I don’t know if the students can tell that I’m relying on memory. After all, they have nothing to compare the class to. But I can tell that the tincture of the class is not as vivid as it could be, that a resonance is missing.
Since I regularly teach novels, the necessity of reading what I teach is a time-consuming business. Of course, I’m not asking for sympathy here: in what other profession can one curl up with Tom Jones or Jane Eyre in the middle of the day and legitimately claim that one is working? I am very privileged and wouldn’t want to do anything else. But it does mean that, while those with other jobs have time to watch television, visit with friends, or engage in hobbies, I am often preparing for class.
To be sure, there are teachers who rely on memory. There’s a humorous example of one such professor in Woody Allen’s short story “The Kugelmass Episode.” Through means of a special invention, Kugelmass is able to enter the book of his choice, and since he is in love with Emma Bovary, he inserts himself into the Flaubert classic. This means, however, that he shows up as a character in the book.
The scene I have in mind involves a lit professor who hasn’t reread Madame Bovary in years, even though he regularly teaches it. When his students start asking him about the Kugelmass character, he wonders what kind of drugs they are taking.
(My favorite professorial response in the story is another one, that of the lit teacher who does in fact reread it. When he comes across Kugelmass, he sighs contentedly, “Ah, the mark of a classic. Every time you read it, you find something new.”)
Anyway, I appear to be making a couple of points. First, if you are a lit teacher preparing to teach a work, reread it, no matter how many times you’ve read it in the past. If you can’t read it in its entirety (I know many of you are spending hours grading student essays), at least read enough of it that you reenter it and experience its rhythms. You will carry that wisdom with you into class.
And it really is true that, every time you reread a great work, you find something new. High school teachers who teach Romeo and Juliet on a regular basis might find themselves caught up in the romance one year and impatient with what appears a shallow and even dangerous infatuation another year. Or one scene may take on a new prominence, another start to fade. The words don’t change but we do, our students do, and the world does.
Even if you’re not teaching, don’t hesitate to return to a work you’ve read in the past if it suddenly pops into your head. You may find that you are giving yourself a reinfusion of exactly the kind of wisdom you need at that point in your life.
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