Over the summer, I was able to spend some time with three great books: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie and, most recently, Herzog by Saul Bellow. All three, coming highly recommended by friends whose judgment have my utmost respect, shone for me. And this is not to say that I’ve actually finished all (or any) of them. Anyone familiar with my restless reading habits knows that only rarely do I ever finish a book – and never in a timely fashion.
It’s mostly due to my short attention span and as-yet-undiagnosed ADD, but a small part has something to do with an obsession with style. Not simply the style of writing — whether it be ornate prose or Hemingwayesque simplicity — but the style with which a story is told. My favourite sentences contain entire worlds within each clause and sub-clause. Ones that can make you stop, reflect, and reread them several times before moving on (Rushdie and Vlad Nabokov are, in my mind, the most successful at containing such multitudes). Clearly, this doesn’t help my reading process.
I was often embarrassed by this inability to keep up with the assigned pages in high school English classes. Had I read all of MacBeth’s Act V last night? How about the first hundred pages of A Separate Peace over the weekend? Not a chance. Though, as someone who loved the class, I could never admit it. I would lie when called on and then, egged on by my embarrassment, make up some cliche answer about character development or white/black imagery or foreshadowing.
Now, as I page through the beginning of Herzog, or any good book for that matter, I am wishing I’d never had to invent such pretense. Our schools must teach us to grasp the immeasurable joys that arise from great literature, not to give stock answers to stock questions.
Perhaps it’s because most courses present the same staid approaches to the same staid texts. I’m not saying Shakespeare isn’t great: I just feel we’ve taught him to death and the sight of his slow execution is a mindnumbingly dreadful experience. Elizabethan language is hard enough to grasp. What’s truly exciting about MacBeth or Hamlet or King Lear are the stories, the wild, unnatural, off-the-wall stories. This is what needs to be appreciated in these works: the playfulness, the excitement and the irreverence. It exists in all literature, in all books.
Maybe a new approach to reading needs to be introduced early. So that kids can appreciate things the way I rarely could. Make them enjoy the experience of reading, not feel they have to prepare a useless paper on the use of food metaphors in Shakespeare or the supurfluous man theory in Turgenev.
Let them discover the stories — shall we? — while we rediscover our own.