Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Beneath the Canon -- electronically

I will teach a new course in the Spring term.  The course will use an Amazon Kindle as the primary technology, and I plan to ask students to read a 19th century American novel each week using the resources available via Amazon.  The point will be to choose novels that are no longer in print; the question will be how those texts relate to the usual canon of 19th century American novels.

I have been playing with my Kindle since I bought it several weeks ago.  There is a wealth of material available, and I have already bought collections and individual works by Mark Twain, Frank Norris, Louisa May Alcott, Thorstein Veblen, and Frances Harper. I have recently finished reading Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick and Norris' Vandover the Brute, each of which would offer students a chance to experience a much needed broadening of typical 19th century reading lists.

My intention for the new course will be to introduce students to writings that seem no longer to be part of the established 19th century canon.  We will explore the titles in relation to those books that remain popular and that are held up as representative of the genre and the times.  The question will be why some books are canonized and why some are not.  But rather than a conversation of the general merits and intentions of the literary tradition, I will hope to get students to engage in creating criteria and judging works based on that criteria.  And I will hope to spark a conversation about values and the way generational reading and teaching shapes what becomes a literary tradition.

All of this, of course, can also be discussed within the canon of an individual writer; for example, William Dean Howells, whose The Rise of Silas Lapham or Hazard of New Fortunes continue to get some attention while A Modern Instance, Annie Kilbourn, or Indian Summer remain virtually unknown to today's students.  Even Mark Twain has titles that are virtually exiled; for example, Recollections of Joan of Arc, Is Shakespeare Dead? or The American Claimant seem to have disappeared.  This will extend the discussions this term in my seminar (for senior English majors).  We have been exploring the idea of canonicity.  At issue is, I think, the very real separation between personal and academic reading.  Put simply, we read differently depending on the context -- school reading, especially for English majors, demands a level of analysis that is uncommon when civilians (I can think of no other way to describe non-academics or non-English majors) pick up a book.  Students admit that pretty readily. 

The question becomes how do we enhance an interest in "school" reading while preserving the level of interest and (even) enjoyment for readers.  A recent discussion of (parts of) Janice Radway's A Feeling for Books:  The Book of the Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle Class Desire got us all thinking of contrasting (read antithetical -- even enemy) approaches to reading.  One of the ideas that my students embraced is the way that non-academic reading allows for a full range of emotional reaction.  They love the feeling of getting lost in a book and allowing the text to take them over and push them to new experience.  And they say that the harsher, clinical reading that academics do is alienating at times, even when the analysis, in the end, brings them to a better understanding of the writing or a broader knowledge of literary history.In the past I have tried to address the separation of academic and personal by suggesting that students read for class using the same approach they use for their own reading.  I don't give reading quizzes.  I don't insist that the artifacts of a culture (the books that grow out of it) are the primary means of realizing the reality of a society or its internal relationships.  But it's still the teacher telling them this.  And it's still assigned reading.  So we are never quite able to suspend the rules of academic reading (and I am not sure that I would do that if I could). 

I have also resorted in this class to asking students to read three books of their own choosing and to discuss those books (why they chose them and what they got from them) in a round-table format.  It certainly has broken the form -- last week's reading moved from The Scarlet Letter to Frankenstein to Dracula to Jane Eyre to Animal Farm to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to Angela Carter, H.P. Lovecraft, Albert Camus, and David Sedaris' Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk.

So we struggle.  Have quiet moments.  And, from time to time, are able to realize the power of writing.  But students don't embrace academic reading (and I am not sure that I do at times) and are always a tad suspicious of the whole process.  So it goes.  Maybe their skepticism is for the best. And maybe the dance we do when we talk about reading keeps all of us a little more honest about intentions and results.  And maybe access to long forgotten texts will contribute to this conversation overall.  Maybe.

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