Famous Novelists on Symbolism in Their Work and Whether It Was Intentional

I read this great post on John Green's Tumblr, titled Famous Novelists on Symbolism in Their Work and Whether It Was Intentional:

"Reading is not a game of Clue; books are not a mystery that you have to solve by putting all the pieces together. That’s not the point. Find the meaning you want to find in it. That’s what we do with books because that’s what we do in life."

[John adds this:] If the point of reading is merely to understand precisely what the author intended, then reading is just this miserable one-sided conversation in which an author is droning on to you page after page after page and the reader just sits there receiving a monologue.

That’s not reading. That’s listening.

Reading is the active co-creation of a story, complete with all its symbols and abstractions. 

I thought about what John said. It set a small fire in my brain, and this is what came out:

English teachers who forced me to find symbolism and meaning in books make assigned reading in high school absolutely miserable. It was bad enough that I couldn’t just enjoy the story and spend time with the characters, but they also made me go on some kind of treasure hunt where I had to find something the teacher/school/board of education/someone-who-was-not-me decided was the “correct” thing to find.

As a result, I hated many classic works of literature, and actually resented them and the people who wrote them. I'm pretty sure that's the opposite of what any teacher would want their students to take out of any class, especially an English Literature class, but it's what happened to me.

Years later, when I was in my mid-twenties, I spent the summer rereading the books I’d hated in high school, because I figured they were classics for a reason and maybe as an adult, I'd be able to see why. I read:

Great Expectations - still hated it.

A Separate Peace - liked it, didn’t love it, but that’s a big improvement over how much I despised it when I was in school.

1984 - Loved it. Loved it, loved it, loved it.

Brave New World - Read it just after 1984. Loved it.

Romeo and Juliet - Hated this when I was 14 (who, at 14, is mature enough to appreciate it? What a huge FAIL it is to teach this to 9th graders), and was moved to tears by it as an adult. Went on a bit of a Shakespeare tear as a result, and did Julius Caesar, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, and Macbeth. Still didn’t understand all of it, but loved every second of it.

All Quiet on the Western Front - When your authoritarian Cold Warrior English teacher isn’t somehow making this book all about how fucking great Reagan is, it’s just amazing.

There were others, but you get the idea, right? I even grabbed the Cliff's and Spark Notes to get some "education" from the books when I was done reading them, but I can't recall anything the notes said, just what the book gave me when it was all done… I think that says a lot.

When I was a kid, I was already an avid reader, so these (hopefully) well-intentioned teachers couldn’t turn me off from reading in general and forever, but both of my siblings still won't pick up a book if you gave them a hundred dollars to do it. I understand that educators want to encourage students to dig into stories and see what they can find in them, and that’s a great exercise, but forcing them to find what some board of education has decided is the One Right Thing To Find does those kids (and did this kid) a huge disservice.

And not that it matters, but I'm going to reread The Great Gatsby just as soon as I finish A Clash of Kings, because it feels like the right thing to do.

Afterthought: I love teachers. I'm on record stating that my heroes are teachers, and I believe that teachers do not get the salary or respect by American society that they should get. I'm not attacking teaching or teachers at all with this post; I'm just recalling the experience I had with a small number of teachers in the 80s, who I'm sure were doing their jobs they way they thought was best for their careers and their students.


163 thoughts on “Famous Novelists on Symbolism in Their Work and Whether It Was Intentional”

  1. This post made me so happy because I thought I was completely alone in this. Though I always loved reading, doing it as an assignment and finding everything that was hidden in the words never appealed to me. I resented the other students who “got” it. A lot. I have gone back and read some of the books that were assigned during school since, and for the most part, I too had a completely different reaction to them. And now I homeschool my kids and do not want them having those same feeling about the classics as kids, so I don’t put any pressure on them – they just read it and let me know what happened and what they thought of the story, and to be perfectly honest, they take much more from the books at their ages than I ever did, and I was a couple of years older than them when I read the same books for the first time. I guess it is all in how it is presented to the student.

  2. If you don’t quite feel “done” yet with Shakespeare, I highly recommend Twelfth Night (my all-time favorite of his comedies), and for some heavier reading, The Merchant of Venice (same shit, different century). Merry Wives of Windsor is a great romp as well. :-)

  3. I don’t think teachers are the problem, though I’m not sure I’d call them heroes. Schools are the problem, and throwing more money at schools is not the solution. I’m not sure what the solution is for the country as a whole.
    People don’t get 40 years seniority at a company anymore and retire on a pension. It just doesn’t happen. Manufacturing jobs have gone overseas, and much engineering has gone overseas too. What’s left? Coming up with your own idea and making your own job and service jobs are about what’s left. (One of my game night friends is a doctor. She agrees that doctoring is a customer service job.)
    Schools were first create to lessen ties between parents and children and increase patriotism. (Think Prussia.) Public schools were brought over here and mandated because Ford and Carnegie needed good factory workers. Well, Ford and Carnegie aren’t providing those factory jobs anymore.
    Managing your own company and customer service jobs require creative thinking skills. Schools don’t teach kids how to think. Schools teach kids what to think.
    The public school system is an outdated concept. It does not prepare children for the future. It prepares them for the future our parent’s had. Even so, I happily pay my property taxes to keep those kids off the streets. I’ll support government funded babysitting since our social structure still needs it.
    I don’t know what the solution is for the country, especially with people as materialistic as they are.
    The solution for my family was obvious and I instituted it as soon as I found out I was pregnant with the first kid.
    We homeschool.
    As a result, my kids love to learn. They seek out documentaries. They willingly go to lectures at the local universities with us, and they usually get almost as much out of those strange astronomy and evolutionary biology lectures as we do. They happily take coursea classes with me. They help me raise my Guide Dog puppies and they volunteer at shelters with me. They don’t complain about it.
    We can do those things, because we have time.
    As an assignment, I had my daughter pick one book from one young adult author going to Phoenix ComiCon this year. She chose Wings. She’d read the sequel and ordered the third from the library. At the panel, which was mostly adults, she interacted. We bought her the fourth book (and books from other authors in the panels) and she got the author to sign it. She was thrilled with this.
    So, when our local library offered a teen writing workshop with Carrie Vaughn, our kid wanted to go. When we ran into Carrie at Denver ComiCon today, she said she could tell Anna wanted to be there.
    As soon as the kids and I agree on a topic, we’ll be starting a company together. We still haven’t agreed on a product or service, but that’s part of the process. They’re going to learn a whole lot more from actually doing this than they would preparing for an assembly job (that doesn’t exist) in school.
    I’m looking forward this this year’s August/September literature lessons. We’re going to ChiCon 7. We can do that, because we don’t have to worry about school.

  4. I just want to say thank you for sharing, both the clip from John’s post and your response, because I may not have run across it otherwise! I’m writing down all the relevant “citation information” so that I can include pieces of this in my teaching mission/vision statement. What you and John have said, and my own experience with The Awakening by Kate Chopin, is EXACTLY why I want to be a high school English teacher. (I’m going back to get my second degree to teach, which is probably the one I should have gotten the first time, but I still would never trade my theatre degree and the experiences it gave me for anything!)
    Thankfully in my four years of high school Lit I only had one teacher (albeit for two semesters) that had the tendency to teach this way. In her defense, it was an AP class, so she was teaching “to the test”, and she gave us a lot more freedom when what we read/studied wasn’t as pertinent to that specific test.
    I was always ahead as a reader, thanks to parents who read to and with me as a very young child, and yet it wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school that my English teacher asked us to journal about what we were personally getting out of what we were reading, both assigned and recreational, and then dialogued with us in those journals about it. I hope that I never forget how awesome she was, how much I learned about life and the world in that class, and that I can somehow be that kind of teacher to my future students.

  5. I enjoyed Shakespeare in school, but I had teachers who were enthusiastic about it and *why* the story behind the plot was so important. R&J, Macbeth, King Lear, and so on – I thoroughly enjoyed them, even when I didn’t completely understand everything going on.
    However, there were plenty of other things i hated SO MUCH. Old man and the sea. IT’s an OLD GUY. He is DYING. HE IS NOT THE MESSIAH he’s just a dying old man! Scarlet Letter. 50 pages to say I FOUND A BOX. AAAAAARG. I hated them so much that I refused to read them again in college 😛 Some things are symbols. Some are not. I also hated gatsby, but I suspect it was just because everyone is thoroughly unlikeable to me.
    I had one teacher that perpetually gave me Cs because I’d present the book as I saw it. It wasn’t until I started blowing up my papers with what I considered “Flowers and bullshit” that I started getting decent grades from him. To this day, I get angry when I think about it. Other teachers I had? They loved the perspective (or at least said they did) of “Seriously? Messiah complex maybe, but really? He’s a dying old man.”

  6. One of my favorite classes in high school was called The novel. Essentially you read a book from the approved list and wrote a report about it. The great thing was you could choose which book you read and the teacher was familiar enough with every book on the list (which had at least 200 books on it) to discuss the book with you. Not many classes where you could read John Steinbeck one week and Stephen King the next. It really made reading fun in high school. Of Mice and Men is still one of my favorites.

  7. Yeah, they’re dumb. Dumb kids. And to me that’s a great angle to take with 14-15 yr olds. “Look how dumb these kids are being, and look how badly it ends: don’t be a Romeo or Juliet.”
    I point out how shallow Romeo is, how the first thing he wants to do is get in her pants by promising anything he can. It’s a classic move my guys (dicks) that teenagers need to be know or be reminded of.
    One of the biggest challenges is getting past the barrier of the language and the cultural differences. If you can do that, you’ve got some good material to work with for that age group.

  8. Wow. Zelazny is a hero of mine. I never got to see him. So, cool beans that you got a chance to meet him, and ask him about that! Sorry that your teacher responded that way… sad.
    As a teacher I try my damnedest to allow myself to be wrong – especially in those types of situations (when the student does the work to prove I’m wrong). I mean that self-education and research is exactly the type of thing that we hope to inspire in young learners. And I for one am sure I’m human enough to make mistakes and/or not know everything.

  9. Sometimes I’m surprised that the symbolism treasure hunt in high school didn’t kill my interest in literature. I had some pretty great teachers who, despite looooooooooving to hunt up hidden meanings, were also pretty rad about other things.
    What I hated the most was being in the Honors English class, and later AP English and I was one of the only students that didn’t hunt for symbolism. I didn’t analyse much. And it generally made me feel really uncomfortable to speak in class because I was surrounded by other students who would go on about symbolism this and deeper meanings that. It was incredibly intimidating.

  10. Very interesting story. And you’re right. Getting people to read aloud is very important or the reason you note.
    But your criticism of Wil was, I think, mis-motivated. I believe why he thought his teacher was an asshole was because she humiliated him for being an actor and wanting to read it (and probably for similar humiliations along the way).
    I think we know the “type.” It’s the teacher who uses humiliation as a motivator, much like sport coaches who yell insults and obscenities at their young athletes to “motivate” them through anger to try harder.
    I have no problems with calling these types of teachers assholes.

  11. I stopped having my students (en masse) read Shakespeare for this very reason. I now cherry-pick some key students to take the long parts and I often take some of the key emotional scenes myself (like MacDuff when he finds out about his family), because even well spoken students have difficulty reading emotion well on a cold read.
    Shakespeare is for entertainment and enlightenment, not oral evaluation. I get my oral reading evaluation done on level-appropriate modern language texts.

  12. Here and I always interpreted that line two ways: literal, “When the battle is over, one side will have won and once side will have lost;” and, as part of the overall theme of the story, “sometimes, to gain something meaningful, you also have to lose something meaningful.” Which Macbeth clearly does, as does MacDuff, Malcom, and all of Scotland.

  13. Boo was Christ… Scout the disciples… sigh. It’s got enough in it without stretching so far as to get all that. Jeesh. Yeah, there are people who see Christ in everything. Yeah, tell your school-aged self that she was right, and her teacher was indeed seeing what he wanted to see. Keep reading and keep enjoying!

  14. When I was in 10th grade, my English teacher made us read Pride & Prejudice. I hated it. I was way too young to get it. Now, it’s my favorite book.
    Although, I still don’t think I’m going to re-read Moby Dick.

  15. That’s awesome, Jim. It really goes to show that a) there are serious dicks out there, and b) we don’t have to listen to them – in fact, it’s probably imperative that we don’t.

  16. It’s “teachers” like that that inspired me to become a teacher. Some are inspired because they see greatness. I was inspired because I saw failure and knew I could do better, and wanted to do better because I think children deserve it.

  17. Yes! There’s a video version of this Fleetwood/Stewart Macbeth, and I show this to my students now. It’s epic! No one does crazy eyes like Fleetwood, and Patrick makes a mean sandwich!

  18. I didn’t become a reader until after high school. During high school I did what most did, read only what we were assigned and ONLY the bare minimum of that (often times just the first couple chapters and the last one).
    Once I did become a reader, I was in love. I loved the worlds and I loved the conflicts and I loved the themes that meant something to my that-very-day world.
    Eventually I got to see how fun it was to play with symbolism and metaphor. Reading certain texts became like putting a puzzle together or untangling a dozen knotted strings. It was an intellectual challenge that I enjoyed and found that I was good at.
    Small wonder that I want to share it with my students. However, I remind myself that it wasn’t until much later in life that I came to that joy myself, so I prefer instead to try to instill that joy of reading and thinking in general to my students. Knowing that if I succeed in that, they may, later in life, find the joy of symbolism and metaphor like I did.

  19. Love this post, and think the comments are quite interesting. It’s amazing how much of an impact a teacher can have on whether a student loves or hates a book or a subject.
    My favorite lit teachers really did solicit and listen to our opinions – what did WE think things meant? what were the big decisions a character made and why did s/he make those choices? does the author seem to be offering a commentary on lifestyle, politics, or behaviors from the time that s/he was writing? and so on. The WORST were what I thought of as fill-in-the-blanks teachers, who are just as you described. There was apparently some list of agreed-upon “meanings” for each work, and if you said something other than what was on that list (no matter how strong an argument you could make for it), you were wrong. One of my teachers almost killed Lord of the Flies for me because she was obsessed with why there was pink rock on the island.
    My worst-ever lit teacher “empowered” students by letting us choose between two books for each segment within a term (we’d do 4-5 segments). This meant you could read All Quiet on the Western Front OR The Education of Little Tree. Good in theory, but in addition to taking quizzes and having class discussions, you also had to submit “learning logs” for each chapter of every book, basically a paragraph summary of the plot, which earned you the same amount of points as the quizzes did. The only thing that saved me in that class was telling him I would rather read both books and take both sets of tests than have to do a bunch of busy work to prove I was actually doing the reading. He took that as a challenge, assuming I wouldn’t do the reading – and then didn’t seem to like me very much when I wound up with the highest grade of all of the students in the class. LOL

  20. Forgot to mention…
    I recommend trying a Steinbeck binge if you can couple it with a road trip through his favorite parts of California. I read several of his novels during a family vacation one year, and part of what I loved was that I could look out the window and SEE exactly what he was writing about. My favorite Steinbeck works are East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, and Tortilla Flat. Another fun read is Travels With Charley: In Search of America, which is an autobiographical account of a cross-country trip with his poodle and does a wonderful job of capturing a snapshot of 1960 America.

  21. I have never really enjoyed Gatsby because I found myself despising all of the characters. It’s hard to love a book – no matter how fascinating the setting – when you really have no interest in whether the characters live or die.
    That said, I would absolutely love to see a Family Guy parody of Gatsby. There’s already the Peter-Lois-Quagmire triangle to draw from, and it could work with either of the men in either of the Gatsby or Tom roles. I know it’s not really the source material that they normally draw from, but it could be pretty funny nonetheless.

  22. I tried The Great Gatsby again some time ago, as I remembered it as the worst book I’d ever had to read. It was still awful for me. Because of that I haven’t tried Wuthering Heights again, which is still in a photo finish for that worst title and caused me to skip the only assigned book I didn’t read in high school (one Bronte was enough-after Wuthering Heights, I could not force myself to read Jane Eyre, the only book I Cliff noted and faked my way through). Seriously, I would have rather chewed off my arm than read that book, but I did it. And it never got good. I simply don’t get that one.
    As for your post and symbolism, I see both sides of this coin. Like Deepgame above, I think learning the craft is important, but I think shoving the lesson down our throats can be handled better.

  23. As an English teacher, I hear you. I think the greatest disservice we do to the majority of the “canon” is to teach it to adolescents. Literature should be read, discussed, and engaged with, not “taught”. That being said, I have to do literary analysis with my students both because there is more meaning to be had in literature than appears at the surface level (something young teenagers don’t really get) and those pesky state assessments–on which school funding and my JOB depend–require it (despite the fact that developmentally, a 7th grader might not even recognize that an author is using sound to evoke mood, let alone HOW he or she is doing so).

  24. I feel The Great Gatsby is brilliant, and, I (who am no one) Highly recommend it 😀 But, I am painted a bit of a bizarre person by everyone who has met me 😛
    I have kids of my own, and my oldest was not a reader for a long while. As reading is a personal passion, this hurt my feelings at first, on some strange level. Then I took it happily as a challenge.
    I bought stacks of books, of all different sorts, hoping to get her interested.
    We took turns reading, or, made up egg-timer stories (where everyone takes three minute turns telling something), I hunted down a game that we call The Shadow Game which is just a way to tell stories.
    Basically you have a GM, or narrator, who keeps the story rolling, and two dice. Each player plays as their self, and their Shadow Self. When the Narrator calls for a choice, at any point, and picks a person to roll (we go clockwise round the ‘table’ for fairness) the player has to come up with two options on what will happen next. Something they want to have happen, and something their Shadow Self wants to have happen (bearing in mind your Shadow Self always wants to get you in to mischief).
    I tried all sorts of things. Eventually, she picked up a book all on her own, and consumed it greedily. I was ecstatic. Not a book I would have guessed, but, it didn’t have to be a personal favorite.
    I realized then that trying to force her was going to be a self defeating process.
    opening the doors of a library and letting them explore can be all it takes.
    I had great experiences with English teachers, teachers who asked me what I thought about what I read, or what I took away from the story, and some, one in particular, that used the… this is what you need to find and take away from this, method.
    It was awful. Being forced in anyway, for anything, is vile. I loathed the woman, simply for that reason. How dare she tell me how I should feel about what I read, and what meaning it should have for me.
    My grandpa taught me at an early age that anything in life is going to have a different meaning for everyone. There may be some strikingly similar, but, ultimately, always different.
    I am not a cookie cutter person, and, I think it’s easy for some teachers to eventually slip into the belief that kids are. School then becomes a production factory, just, planting stickers or parts and shipping them down the line.
    The best way to encourage someone to read for themselves? Let them see you reading, and watch you love it :)
    And, I’m gonna wrap up what became some tangential rant about something very far from the point, because, really, I’ve run out of steam 😀
    Enjoy your read, Sir :)

  25. For those that love “1984” and “A Brave New World” may I suggest that you read “We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Zamyatin’s work influenced Orwell and Huxley.

  26. Wil, I’m just about done reading The Great Gatsby (for the first time) and I’d be curious to know your thoughts on the novel. Can you share them when you finish the book? Thanks!

  27. I don’t recall any horrendous incidents from high school of being forced to read anything. I’ve also read anything from a young age, although initially I read WWII histories. My mother always told everyone that eventually I would “graduate” from that into other topics and she was correct. I’ve read tons of other things so far and look forward to reading forever.
    I do remember writing an English paper on Hemmingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” where my thesis was that he had stolen the plans for a soviet submarine and was using the book as a code to sneak them to the western powers. I don’t recall the grade I got but after reading all those other papers she did tell me it was amusing.
    My father was a teacher, although he taught science and biology. And I worked as a math teacher at one point. So I have some perspective on both sides of the chalk. It’s not an easy row. And one of my good friends was a college English professor who regularly regaled us with stories. Although he did use many scifi/fantasy books and even films/tv shows as source material during his time teaching.
    I’ve increased my appreciation of story telling though (tabletop or face-to-face) RPGs. Granted writing an adventure is much different from a tv show, movie or novel, story-telling is in some terms even more important. And when you can shift it into a cooperative effort it gets even more inspiring.
    And thanks, Wil, for bringing together a group of people whose comments don’t make me want to firebomb humanity (as so many comment sections do).

  28. The only Shakespeare I really enjoy is King Lear. I never got into 1984 whereas I loved Brave New World.
    What didn’t help when a classmate did a presentation on 1984 it always started with a variation of “it is science fiction, but”. Always. I love(d) SF. It made me biased against the book.

  29. Kudos Wil, you have just summed up my high school English experiences perfectly. Sadly this followed me into University and I ended up getting kicked out of an English class for asking why a story simply can’t be a story, why does it have to be pre this or post that. A good story can simply be. Happily for me, they couldn’t knock out my love of reading, which I am hoping to pass onto my 2 year old son.
    I did go back and reread some of my old high school and university books and while I loved some of them, most of them have been ruined for me.
    I seem to remember Bill Denbrough in Steven King’s It making a similar statement and getting kicked out of his class. Funny that.

  30. I failed English every single year in high school. Primarily because I never agreed with the teachers as to symbolism or meaning in a piece of literature or poetry. Writing, like music, painting or sculpture, is an art. Art is meant to evoke emotions, and if what I get from a piece of art is different to what you get from a piece of art then it’s not a case of you being wrong, or me being wrong. We’re both right. As long as you can express what you found in a piece of work, and are able to back it up with relevant information from the work, then you should be given a pass mark. Even if what you think is different to what the teacher thinks.
    Luckily where I went to school you didn’t need to pass English to graduate, and the criticism from my teachers has not stopped me from reading. I spend thousands of dollars a year on my book addiction.

  31. While I agree with you to some extent, I have found that on occasion, I gain a better appreciation of a literary work when discussing the possible symbolism in class. I, too, am an avid reader, and like to read books at face value, trying not to look for hidden meanings that might not even be there. That being said, I find that guided discussions that teachers conducted when I was in high school aided in my enjoyment of certain novels, such as Lord of the Flies. Instead of a gruesome story of boys killing each other, I began to see the fragility of humanity and how easily one can return to their base instincts.
    I have found that I have not been forced to think a certain way, but only shown that there is a different way to see the world, which has translated into all aspects of my life. I took a philosophy class last semester (college student), and when my best friend recently made me see Madagascar 3, all I could think during one scene was “Holy shit, it’s the fucking Allegory of the Cave!!” Without the teachers I have had, I wouldn’t be living such an awesome geek-out filled life.

  32. I felt much the same about literature classes when I was in school – I even wrote a classic angsty teenage poem comparing a literature class to carrion birds tearing apart a carcass :)
    But in university I studied art history, and because we had awesome tutors, what we actually got was a masterclass in every kind of critical/analytical “reading” – of art, literature, music, philosophy. As a result, I saw a new side of criticism (and realised how terribly and unfairly maligned that word is)
    We learned to connect the threads between all the influences and histories that went up to make a book, artwork or piece of music – the concerns and inspirations in the author’s world at the time, the works that went before and to which the piece was a reaction or comment.
    More than that, they taught us to cut loose our literal brains and play with the associations the piece threw out – to read it like it was a message from the universe or the author’s subconscious, and let it spark new avenues of ideas, images and beautiful unfolding patterns. There’s no place for “grownup” snarkiness or pedantic practicality in that side of criticism, you have to feel it and let the ideas carry you away.
    At first, while analysis was a conscious process, it stripped the artworks and stories of all their immersive beauty – I was too busy analysing to “fall into” the world. Over time, as the process became unconscious and automatic, I found myself looking at a painting or reading a book on two levels – the unadulterated joy of the story as it was, and the cloud of associations, symbols, references, in-jokes and tricks that were woven into it.
    Which is a longwinded way of saying…literature study doesn’t have to *take away* magic :)

  33. I was in the lucky position to be taught literature (German literature that is, as I’m from Germany) by a teacher who understood that stylistic devices are just tools, which might help you get a better access to literature. His main princible was that you had to find your own meaning in literature. As long as you could give plausible reasons for your way of reaching a conclusion it didn’t matter if that conclusion was the “official” understanding of a certain text or if it was a very novel approach of understanding this special piece of literature.
    I’ve always been an avid reader, but he made me love literature even more.
    He managed to make every class fun and made us not fear exams.
    He convinced the school to let us read contemporary books normally not on the book list, like Patrick Süßkind’s “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”.
    And he claimed taking our class to the movies to see “Pretty Woman” was a legitimate excursion when the subject of fairy tales was on our curriculum.

  34. I see you had the same high school English teachers I did, Wil. For some reason, the folks who wrote my English curriculum had a thing about Death so I read a lot of Silvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, etc. Oh and Madame Bovary. No wonder teenage depression is a growing issue.
    Anyway, by junior year, I’d had it with Find the Secret Meaning (But Only If It Matches This List) and I kept raising my hand to talk about the different meanings I’d taken from the books. I was such a pain in the ass and my teacher eventually stopped calling on me.
    I also got in trouble for laughing during class while reading Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”. I so desperately needed comedy by that point.

  35. I loved Romeo and Juliet from when I first read it in 8th grade. Why? Because I figured out in the opening scene that they were talking about rude gestures, fighting, and sex, and insulting each other. Shakespeare was pretty awesome from that point on.

  36. I loved my 10th grade English teacher because he taught the story, not the meaning behind it. His teaching of the Odyssey as a badass action-movie style tale of a mushroom-cloud-laying motherfucker traveling all around the world kicking ass, scoring with chicks, and then coming home to beat the shit out of some assholes who were bothering his wife and kid scored many points among the teenage male audience, and instilled an interest in epic poetry that continues to this day.
    The teenage girls, however, were unanimous in believing that it was bullshit that Odysseus could go around the world scoring with nymphs and sorceresses, but Penelope was expected to sit at home waiting for him for 20 years.

  37. Totally with you, but I have to put in a caveat. I had an AWESOME professor in college who explained the actual meanings behind the poetry of Dryden and others at that time; this was social-political stuff going on at the time that was assumed by the poets and writers to be common knowledge and so “code” was used and needed explaining. I know you know that this sort of thing is different, but I don’t want people to be scared off from someone explaining stuff that, you know, actually IS information you need to make sense of this stuff. Of course, the only people taking the course I was taking would be English majors, so, you know, probably not THAT relevant, but I’ve already typed all this, so there you go. 😛
    Also, I liked Great Expectations when I read it. I didn’t LOVE it, but I liked it just fine. Now I’m not sure whether I want to re-read it to see if I still like it or hate it now, too, or not! Great; book angst. I’d be more upset if my to-be-read list wasn’t so long that I’ll probably be ninety before I have to actually confront this issue. Or dead, because I seriously doubt I’ll make it to ninety. (It took me way too long to appreciate that taking care of my body would mean keeping my brain functional longer. Oops.)
    Also, if you have never read Shoeless Joe (the book Field of Dreams was based on), read it. It is way, way better than the movie, and I loved the movie till I read the book. I bet you would like it. (I guess if you don’t, I’ll owe you a beer!)

  38. A zillion comments in, but I hope you get to read this:
    When I was in college I actually took a class on Sci-Fi literature. One of the books we read was by Gregory Benford, and the professor got Mr. Benford to come in and talk about the book. We had spent a week going over all of the political references and discussion of social systems that goes on in the book, so of course the professor asked him about it.
    Mr. Benford asked us all to turn to a certain page in the book, and he asked a student he picked out to read a sentance that started in the middle of that page. It turns out that this sentance goes for nearly 3 pages – and is astonishing. After the passage was finished, Mr. Benford said, “I wrote this book to see if I could write a sentance like that.”
    Of course, the class bursts out laughing and the professor turns beet-red. Mr. Benford then continued to defend that choice for the rest of the lecture.
    After Mr. Benford left, our professor took a moment to regain his composure and then said, “But here is what Mr. Benford REALLY meant…”
    I have never forgotten that and from that moment on have always brought my own interpretation to everything I read. As a result of this I re-read books often, not because the book is different but because I am.

  39. In college I had an assignment to read and do an hour-long presentation on Gunter Grass’ “Cat and Mouse” for a German Literature class I was taking. I read the book in both German and English to make sure I wasn’t missing anything, and I was fascinated by it. It’s about a teenage boy growing up in WWII Germany who gets through his youth and subsequent military service by being an oddball character, a non-conformist in a society that demanded conformity. I interpreted that as a defense mechanism to guard himself from being totally indoctrinated by the Nazi crap around him. So I base my presentation of the book on this theory and and the professor cuts me off, saying simply “That’s not exactly right.” I was so thrown off by this I couldn’t continue and he basically hijacked my presentation and told me and the class his interpretation of it, which was, of course, by its very nature, the correct one! Needless to say, I was humiliated. I had found meaning in the story only to be told it was wrong. That’s probably the worst thing an educator could ever do, shutting someone down in front of a class that way and implying that individual interpretations are meaningless. I sure as hell don’t read a book as if it were lecturing me. I believe what goes on in my mind reading it is as important as what went on in the author’s mind writing it. How boring (and scary) it would be if everyone had the same experience from reading the same book. Thanks for sharing the quote, Wil. I feel vindicated!

  40. I don’t have anything new to add, really. Also a reader, also failed a class through refusal to read dreck assigned reading with accompanying analysis. Basically just want to add a kudos and thanks for saying so.

  41. My tenth grade teacher tried to instill in us the idea that readers made better writers (and writers made better readers). She made the material so much fun that I tore through “Cyrano de Bergerac” and “A Tale of Two Cities” and… I can’t remember what else she made us read.
    But she also let us supplement the required reading by turning in book reports on anything we wanted, which resulted in several reports on various Star Wars (the Thrawn trilogy had just been released) and Star Trek novels. I even willingly slogged through “Les Miserables”, for my final book report.
    Contrast that to my first year of college, where I had to take a “writing” course, that basically required me to read several obscure and insanely boring short stories/novels and then write several pages, anaylizing each… Culminating in a final paper that had to be no less than 18 pages.
    The class was so torturous that by the end of the quarter I dreaded writing anything more than a two-sentence email.

  42. *laughs* I will never forget the look I got from my 9th grade English teacher when I asked her where the book was that Edgar Allen Poe wrote which explained what he meant when he wrote The Raven.

  43. Thanks for posting this. I always felt so stupid in english literature classes in HS and freshman year in college. Why couldn’t I see what i was ‘supposed’ to see? You’ve given me a new perspective. Who’s to say my interpretations were wrong? And I totally agree on Great Expectations still sucking and 1984 and Shakespeare being awesome post HS. Romeo and Juliet may not be my fav, but you can’t deny how powerful and beautiful it is, folks.

  44. My son seemed to love reading through grade school and middle school. Then he got to high school and had a summer reading assignment. Over three summers he read “The Secret Life of Bees”, “Three Cups of Tea”, and “Wuthering Heights”. Exactly the kind of books teenage boys are excited to read. He just graduated from high school and hates to read. I’m not going to entirely blame it on the reading assignments in high school, but the English department certainly didn’t do anything to foster a love of reading in boys.

  45. Wil, this is a brilliant idea. I barely remember the books we were “required” to read in high school, because by the time they became a class assignment, I had already devoured them and was bored to tears with the entire process. The class reading of Romeo & Juliet was sheer torture, but particularly so when you take into account the fact that I attended a public school in rural Mississippi. Many of my classmates couldn’t pronounce their own names… they should have been arrested for their butchery of Shakespearean English.
    I think a re-read of several classics is now in order for my summer. Thanks for the inspiration!

  46. As a (former) high school English teacher, I can understand where you’re coming from, but thought I would jump in and offer my perspective from the teacher side of the fence. One of our objectives/competencies/benchmarks/whatever they call them in your state is to teach students to essentially identify symbolism and develop understanding based on the use of literary devices (figurative language such as symbolism, metaphor, etc, and various stylistic devices like onomatopeia, word choice, rhythm, etc.). At least where I taught, we HAD to cover it.
    That being said, for their major research project, I tried to make things less awful by giving them a list of 100 works of British literature ranging from the old Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, and assorted Shakespeare to the works of Jonathan Swift and Jane Austen and ended the list with more modern works (The Island of Doctor Moreau, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Watchmen and V for Vendetta, and the first volume of Sandman).
    They were allowed to formulate their own thesis, typically along one of three lines:
    1) Literary: How does the work help us understand this work or some other? How do the metaphor and symbolism and style help convey the meaning of the story or this type of story? It’s a literature class. I have to give them the option to talk about literature as literature. (“Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a perfect example of a Gothic story because…”)
    2) The Author: What does this work tell us about the author’s beliefs especially in regard to a modern issue. Politicians constantly talk about how the founding fathers would or would not feel about a certain hot button issue. It is important for students to learn how these arguments are made so they can separate the good from the bad, read the source material, and form their own opinions when others create puppets of our ancestors. (EX: “Based on ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale,’ I believe Geoffrey Chaucer would be against the Personhood amendment”)
    3) The World: What can we assume about the world in which the author lived based on this work? Much of what we know about the past is based on what they left behind. Literature is created mostly to entertain the majority population. Who the good guys are and who the bad guys are tells us a lot about a people’s values and gives us insight into their daily lives. (“Jane Austen’s Pride and Predjudice shows that the best hope a woman had in England during the 1800s was to marry into as rich a family as possible regardless of feeling or attraction.”)
    Finally, I gave a speech similar to this one at the beginning of every writing assignment. “Remember, there is no right answer to this essay. In college, you will sometimes have different views from your professors, and if they are good professors, that won’t be an issue. I’ve had students write papers that have completely changed the way I view certain books because they caught something I missed. This assignment does not exist to show me you’ve learned the correct interpretation of (insert name of work here). I’m giving you this assignment so you can show that you know how to form your own opinions based on evidence and not gut reaction and that you can present your argument in such a way that a reasonable person might agree with you. This assignment exists to help you articulate your beliefs and opinions in as clear and persuasive a means as possible, because the right words at the right time can change the world.”
    It wasn’t perfect. They still had to look for symbolism where there may not have been any, but at least they had choice, which helps, and they were encouraged to seek their own answers and not just parrot what they thought I wanted to hear.”

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