One of my former colleagues used to teach The Great Gatsby as one of the most overrated books in history. When I asked whether he worried about spoiling the book for students, he said one shouldn’t kowtow to others’ opinions, and teachers need to regard books as whetting stones to sharpen students’ evaluative skills. If he sincerely hated the book, he asked, wouldn’t it be dishonest to insist on their appreciating it?
Sometimes students ask which books I hate, and I say my job depends on people liking books—it doesn’t pay to put down anything anyone else might enjoy. They roll their eyes. Other English teachers aren’t so diplomatic, they say. A student always names some teacher who doesn’t like any of the assigned texts and tells them so.
Okay, so my answer is self-serving. I’m trying to tell the truth, though. Even great books contain clumsy moments, and some parade tiresome characters that—especially the fourth or fifth or fifteenth time around—wear readers’ patience. Some works colleagues and students enjoy don’t do much for me. Our tastes are different, I figure, or they see what I can’t.
I don’t enjoy conversations about “bad books” the way others do. Incisive observations are wonderful, but it’s hard for me to love sneering, especially in young people. Students who insist this or that literary masterpiece is worthless launch into well-rehearsed tirades, and I listen patiently—I agree with some of their critique—but some can’t seem to find anything else to discuss. I fight the temptation to turn the equation around and ask where the trouble lies, in the book or in the reader?
Academic legend has it a literature professor asked just one question on a semester final: “Which book in this course did you dislike, and what personal failing in you does your answer reflect?” I’ve wanted to re-enact that final.
Our culture’s pathological addiction to judgment complicates my job. Creating rheostats from my students’ on-off switches (or like-unlike buttons) may be my biggest challenge. We express feelings of comfort or discomfort—that’s natural—but I hope reading is more than thumbs up or down. You should know a book well and interpret its contents in light of the author’s aims as you criticize it. Your response should be as ranging as it is penetrating.
A few years ago a colleague and I taught two sections of the same course containing the same book. He was open about not having read the novel before the other teacher (me) proposed it, and he didn’t disguise his disappointment in it. His class loathed it, railing against it with particular glee until their locker conversations poisoned my discussions. I started playing desperate games of “Now you see me now you don’t.” Since the characters were flat, I’d try to teach the book as a parable; since the plot wasn’t exciting enough, I’d stress how unconventional its structure was; since the ideas were too obvious, I’d address the genre of which the book was a part; since nothing in it was worth writing about, I’d approach it through fun activities only peripherally connected to analyzing the book’s content. I was, in other words, a complete apologist, begging them to examine something they’d already rejected.
I failed. Miserably.
The experience was so exhausting, in fact, I became determined never to teach the novel again. But, as students before seemed to enjoy it, and as its themes and approach seemed tailored to a course I teach, I decided—reluctantly—to try. The class showed the same sensitivity to the book’s flaws, and I encouraged them to identify and discuss its problems. At one point a student even reported how much my colleague hates the book, and I tried to examine those objections without compromising the 50 pages remaining. At every stage, I stemmed their negativity, stopped them short of dismissal.
Perhaps that’s not fair. Discouraging independent thinking is the last thing I teacher should want to do, and dislike is a legitimate response to literature. In this case, my teaching was also dishonest. Having been alerted to the book’s problems, I see little else now. My justification, however, is that many students are too good at censure and need to practice appreciation more.
Appreciating isn’t at all the same thing as liking, nor is enjoyment the same as enlightenment. I could consider myself a success if my students appreciate books that aren’t their taste or, for that matter, my taste. From my perspective, if you can see what others value, it’s possible to understand your objections and learn something about the book… and you. Maybe I’m pretending, but I like being a diplomat. My disguise will be worth it if, hiding my opinions, students feel free to develop their own.