Revisiting the Classics
It's been three months since I've written something for The Bookshelf Blog. In that time, I've finished another semester of teaching literature at Florida State. I submitted my grades earlier this week, and I am done, done, done.
For the past few semesters, I’ve felt kind of stuck in my class assignment. It’s been the same class over and over six times: Introduction to the Short Story. I like short stories, and if I had total control over the reading assignments, I would just assign a few of my favorite collections and structure my class around discussing the disparate productions of just a few authors. (If I had to put a list together right now, it would include Mosses from an Old Manse by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Gorilla, My Love by Toni Cade Bambara, No One Belongs Here More than You by Miranda July, and Electricity and Other Dreams by Micah Dean Hicks.) But this particular class is limited to an unwieldy anthology of 100+ stories, many of them great, but not what I would use to create a cohesive, thought-provoking class.
And so I have to improvise.
The first time I taught it, I had no idea what I was doing. I paired things that made sense to me like “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” but I also assigned a bunch of stories I had never read. Which was a mistake, but really sort of a felix culpa because my students were able to bring out connections between various texts that I had never considered on my own, like the theme of constructing another person’s identity common in “Loulou; or the Domestic Life of the Language” by Margaret Atwood and “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I had assigned “Loulou” in my feminism unit, which was fine, but the next time I taught the class, I paired it with Marquez because they’re essentially perfect corollaries, taking different but complementary stances on the question of how we understand other people and, thereby, ourselves.
I generally find it’s best to understand the context of what we’re reading. The “horizon of expectation” theorized by Hans Robert Jauss is the idea that every reader comes to a given text with a different set of expectations based on prior knowledge and experience gained from interaction with other texts. The further a reader is from the original audience or context (in time, space, culture, etc.), the harder it will be to understand the author’s “intended” meaning. I have a lot of opinions about the value of an author’s intended meaning, but I think these decontextualized pairings can be fascinating. I would never naturally have read Marquez and Atwood together, but putting them in dialogue with one another on the theme of personal identity helped me to understand both of them in a way neither could have produced on its own.
Several months ago now, I heard a young customer scoff at a book we have on our Classics shelf called On Augustine, a guide to and analysis of the work of St. Augustine of Hippo. “So it’s not even the real book?” she said to her friend, “It’s just a book about the book? Who would buy that?”
I thought about it for a minute and finally said to Annie, still kind of perplexed, “Is there such thing as a book that isn’t just about other books?” And I don’t think there is. Books talk to one another. Are you listening?