No. 24: On the Challenge of Learning to Truly Read Literature

What a lot of people don’t realize is how much you can miss when reading a book from the 18th century without realizing it. For example, how much is one “Crown” worth? When Squire Allworthy gives a crown to a beggar, how much money does that actually represent? A lot? A little? If you were reading a book written in the present day, and you were told one of the characters in the story spent $500 on a pair of Nikes, what would you infer from that piece of information about what kind of individual that character was? On that alone you’d probably be able to guess a lot of things about how precisely that character fits into the Society he lives in, wouldn’t you?

Now imagine that that I told you a woman in 1770 had a wardrobe worth £500, what would you infer from that?

Or say that you’re reading Goethe’s novella, “The Man of 50 Years Old”, and you get the wonderful ice skating scene, one of the best things that Goethe ever wrote. What can you infer from the fact that these characters enjoy ice skating?

Like I said you can miss out on a lot without even realizing it, if you don’t know for example that the total annual income of a middle class English family in the 18th century wasn’t more than a couple hundred pounds, or if you don’t know that the hugely fashionable sentimental poet Gottlieb Klopstock was the one who first made ice skating popular when Goethe was a young man.

Students entering college today are really poorly prepared to actually read a work of literature from 200 years ago even, much moreso than anyone generally acknowledges. And what happens is you give them a book like Tristram Shandy to read, and they end up really struggling with it and not really able to “get” it. They end up walking away from the experience telling themselves that all that old stuff is for the birds, it’s not as great as everyone says.

It takes a surprising amount of work to be able to genuinely read a novel from the 17th or 18th century, years and years of work in fact, before you even begin to try you should probably read other books like this one (which is excellent btw) first. You can’t even read one novel by itself, you have to read several off each other before you can start to get the hang of things, and you can’t just stop at reading just novels either, you have to read essays, and poetry, and drama, and contemporary works of scholarship and criticism, like Hume’s “History of England” or Johnson’s “Lives Of The Most Eminent English Poets”, you even have to read philosophy.

In order to conceptualize the sort of reading most 17, 18, and 19 year olds in the United States have done by the time they enter college, I like to use the term “The High School Canon”:

  1. Victorian Novelists: Frankenstein, Pride and Prejudice, something by Dickens, probably A Tale of Two Cities, maybe something by the Brontes. I could see maybe something like Ivanhoe being possible, but I get the impression that Scott is maybe too politically “problematic” these days. Stuff like Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus too probably doesn’t make the cut.
  2. “The Great American Novels”: Here you’re looking at The Scarlet Letter, Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, though I feel that’s probably pushing it these days, something by Steinbeck, probably Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby, To Kill A Mockingbird, anything else? I remember reading In Cold Blood in AP English senior year… Hm, I’m not sure if Hemingway is really read at all, I’m probably still missing an obvious one.
  3. “Dystopian” Science Fiction: 1984, Animal Farm, A Clockwork Orange, Fahrenheit 451, A Brave New World
  4. The Dead White European Guys: I’m curious to know if my experience with this category was typical of how things are across the country. In 10th grade I remember we read no more than a few excerpted pages of The Odyssey out of a textbook as part of a unit on Greek mythology, which I remember centered primarily around watching the Disney movie Hercules. And I remember reading two Shakespeare plays, Romeo and Juliet in 9th grade (accompanied by a screening of “Romeo + Juliet” of course…), and Macbeth in 11th grade. I feel as if there has to be more though, can that really be it? I want to believe that my particular school was an outlier.
  5. “Precocious” Independent Reading: Generally the kids who considered themselves really with it, who were the most atheist and liberal and college-bound (including me I’m sorry to say) would try and read other stuff they thought sounded impressive, so maybe some Nietzsche, Sartre, Joyce, Marx, I remember one kid who just thought Kerouac was coolest guy there ever was.
  6. Fashionable Contemporary Fiction: And of course, last but not least, this is probably what students are spending the most time reading, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Tolkien, Dune, that kind of thing.

I mean, that’s not an exhaustive list by any means, but you get the general picture I hope, of what literary works the majority of high schoolers have been exposed to before entering college. I imagine there may be individual exceptions, things here and there someone will undoubtedly point out as having read in Mr. Whoever’s class junior year, but generally speaking, this is the overarching trend to things.

A 18 or 19 year old kid going into English class Freshman year is going to be completely out of his depth reading serious literature, let alone philosophy. At my University first and second year students were given the CPR to read in some of their required introductory humanities and social sciences sequences. It’s all just a waste of everybody’s time frankly, why even waste student’s money forcing them to buy copies of something like that? Students simply aren’t able to read, they haven’t at that point developed the skill of reading far enough to have even the faintest clue as to what they’re actually reading. The first assigned book of my college career was The Republic, and I don’t remember a single word of it.

There are English majors today who won’t leave college even being able to recognize the names of many significant English literary figures. A book like like Pope’s Iliad isn’t even in print anymore as far as I’ve been able to tell. We genuinely are in danger of losing track of the history of literature because we aren’t teaching it anymore, you can definitely see it starting to happen.