Reprise… As an English teacher, I try to read more, but the problem is consciousness—not having enough. When I read just before bed, a hypnotist seems to whisper a word deeply embedded in me, and I slide into sleep.
Most of my reading is rereading—I may be in book three of The Odyssey and half-way through “Bartleby the Scrivener.” These juxtapositions make strange harmonies, but, unless I compare the two works in class, I’m the only one who hears the books singing each to each. I carry them around. They vie for attention, the decibels creeping up as one tries to drown the other.
Reading, like blogging, is another layer in my life to look through, a filter of Bartleby or Telemachus. Bartleby prefers not to do anything, and Telemachus is chock-full of self-doubt and unworthiness.
One of my son’s friends once asked me how I could stand teaching the same books year after year. I thought of saying we switch texts frequently—it’s what I usually say—but I’d be half-lying. Truth is, most teachers are reluctant to mark a new text, gather new assignments, and research relevant criticism. I love new books but have to be realistic. Do I have the time to begin again with a book to replace one students consistently find stimulating?
At its best, teaching a book you’ve studied can be like taking a friend to a movie you know and love—you feed on their first responses. They make an old book new, and the vicarious pleasure in their enjoyment makes pretending enthusiasm unnecessary.
I don’t love some of the books they love. Part of me secretly cheers when Piggy gets it in Lord of the Flies—it means only 15 pages remain—and, as much as I love Huckleberry Finn, I find myself desperate for the King and Duke to exit. They bug me.
Yet, I try not to reveal any antipathy. I’d never, as one of my former colleagues did with The Great Gatsby, begin with the premise it’s a terrible book that’s terribly overrated. Though I can’t help guiding students toward the incidents and passages I notice in these books, they have a right to their own reactions. The fun is discovering what patterns they recognize or conclusions they draw from what we uncover together. When our discoveries add up to something new, the book seems new.
And sometimes, out of the blue, a book renovates itself. Re-encountering texts teaches you—great books reward rereading. Someone reveals a new tiny detail or it simply stands out this time or a new experience arrives to light the hidden corner or a familiar room. One night I ran into Athena’s words to Telemachus in The Odyssey,
Few sons are the equals to their fathers;
most fall short, all too few surpass them.
But you, brave and adept from this day on—
Odysseus’ cunning has hardly given out in you—
there’s every hope you will reach your goal.
I thought about my children, going (or having gone) to the school where I teach, and wondered if they ever felt intimidated. I wondered whether they know how much more adept they are than I will ever be. I wondered if any adult can convince any teenager to hope if he or she doesn’t believe it.
In the middle of “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” I ran into this passage:
To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul be rid of it.
I thought of Melville’s courage in admitting the limits of pity, that the narrator’s feelings for Bartleby could go only so far before they turned about and became the narrator’s own pain and he wanted to run away. It’s not a pretty thought, but it illustrates the will required to listen to someone in trouble, to fight common sense and really listen.
Rereading sometimes requires the same determination to really listen.
My son’s friend asked a good question. How am I still teaching and rereading the same books thirty years after I started? On weekends, I look at the clock and think what period it would be—the patterns of a teacher’s life can pound like a boom box bass line.
The secret, it occurs to me, is staying awake, looking through fresh eyes (even if they are not your own) and listening for some—any—new sound.