Reading Classics: Challenges and Ideas

I am not likely to meet a goal/deadline: I wanted to finish reading Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes by the end of October. It’s got really pretty, literary writing, but I’ve had to sometimes force myself through certain parts when I get bored or lose focus. This got me thinking about the struggle to read something because you have to or feel you should. I’m planning to teach something that takes inspiration in part from Bradbury’s novel, plus it’s a classic work by a canonical author which I’ve never read. The thing that’s causing me some trouble here is I suspect that I want the story and the style to work better together; for me at least, I’d like to be able to enjoy the two things together, but it’s been hard so far to do that. Mostly, I’ve only been able to focus on one or the other. If I, who have lots of academic literary training have a hard time with something that’s supposed to be a classic, then what must students sometimes feel when asked to read things like this, or things even less familiar in terms of language and/or cultural background?

For commonly assigned longer readings, like Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or Canterbury Tales, I have found that students have often already read at least excerpts, and thus get bored, or they find the material and style too difficult, and give up on actually doing the reading. I noticed pretty quickly that when I included Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight on syllabi for World Lit and Brit Lit 1 surveys that a lot of students had had to read at least some of those texts in previous classes. One problem is that it’s difficult to introduce some of the more intricate issues and interesting problems of either one of these two texts when about half the class knows the story but the other half does not. Issue two is that in most surveys, reading the entirety of multiple longer poems like this can be difficult to get students to actually read, as opposed to the Shmoop, CliffNotes. Grade Saver, etc. summaries. Some of that kind of thing is inevitable, but when students get tired of struggling with the style, that makes considering some of the features of the actual poetry more difficult, and those are some of the things that most survey students are not as likely to have encountered before.

This is something I can relate to from Something Wicked This Way Comes because the style is so much the point of the book, more so than with an average novel at any rate. I have to admit I looked at some of the supplementary materials in the edition I have and found out enough that I can already summarize the entire plot without having read half the novel yet. On one hand, now that I know the story I can focus a bit more on the style and more literary elements like foreshadow etc, but on the other I won’t be able to follow the gradual building of the characters and the world as naturally.

Something I’ve been considering doing is switching to some lesser known texts that cover many of the same literary and cultural elements as the commonly taught ones. For example, instead of Beowulf, The Battle of Maldon contains a lot of the same warrior culture stuff and literary elements, and has the added bonus of being relevant to actual history as well as the Vikings. One assignment I personally would enjoy would be to have students write their own endings and/or introductions to the story since we know the history for guidance but enough of the text is missing that students could get creative.

Instead of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I think selections from a sister text like Pearl might be an interesting option. As with the Old English texts, there remains a lot of cultural and historical and poetic room for exploration and interest. I taught excerpts of Pearl in a Middle English language and culture course one summer, and I was surprised a little at how much some of the students took to Pearl. I have not really looked, but I have to wonder if there is a passable translation readily and freely available for students to use. I know for a fact such things exist for The Battle of Maldon, so I have some hope for Pearl. Maldon is short enough that it can be done in its entirety, and wouldn’t be too much of a burden on someone’s attention or interest if it turns out this just is not something they can get into; for Pearl, I would imagine that the opening sequence and the conclusion would provide enough for students to work with and appreciate, but likewise not be overly difficult to get through if again it turns out this is just not something a given person gets into.

This brings me to another related idea; when you are told something is canon, classic, or traditional, it can give the impression that you must like it to demonstrate you are a person of intelligence and/or taste. I would like to figure a way to allow students to dislike something as long as they can explain why in more depth than “Boring”, “Too hard”, “Too long”, etc. I hesitate to use examples of my own personal taste because then students are apt to go with the strategy of “cater to Prof’s personal interests”. However, I do think the general idea has some merit. I don’t especially care for Leaves of Grass, but I can explain why in terms of technical details of poetry. I also cannot stand a lot of traditional chivalric romances, particularly those in the Arthurian tradition. A lot of Crétiene de Troyes’ works annoy me in a fairly visceral way and I absolutely cannot stand Le Morte d’ Arthur for their overly melodramatic and soap-opera-esque characters and plot-lines. Nevertheless, these things do have cultural and historical interest to them, and a lot of people are likely familiar with some of the basics but not as much with the original stories or versions.

To the original question of what to do about classic works and the perceived need to read them, there seems to be a bit of a stalemate: one the one hand, students should have at least some basic familiarity with the literary canon in order to consider where current trends (literary, historical, cultural, etc) might have come from and they might actually discover a surprising interest, but on the other the majority of the time, reading such things can be burdensome when forced, making it far less likely a person would be able to appreciate anything about a particular text. This is why I’m thinking of changing a few things out to see if it makes any difference. As for Bradbury, I will finish it in part because it would be professionally useful for me since I am planning to teach a novel with direct literary debts to this canonical original. Whether or not I end up enjoying the original is still unclear, but we’ll just have to see.