Tag Archives: literature

It’s never too late for a literature virgin

What a fine thing that I never studied English literature beyond high school. It was a slog just to get through that, and after tenth grade I refused to take honors English, because there, not only was one told what to read and write and by when, but there was a greater quantity of both!

And so when I went to university, formal English Lit had made very little impression on me. All that lingered was a few Shakespeare soliloquies and the definition (and spelling) of soliloquy. In college I had a few friends who were majoring in English, but I really couldn’t understand why, at the time. It turned out that one became an actor and the other an English teacher. So I really can’t blame them. And I understand now that they were ready and willing at that young age, while it took me another twenty years to want to take college English. I even managed to side-step the college first year “writing requirement” class—usually English—by taking a German class with a once-a-month off-the-top-of-your-head one hour essay on one’s choice of a list of topics. My favorite kind! I’m sure you couldn’t get away with that now.

It’s not that I didn’t like to read or write. On the contrary, I did so voraciously, since my love for the Word survived those few years of formal study intact. I’d go to the college bookstore and pick things out of stacks for courses I wasn’t takingnot being required to read them made them even more attractive. I went to second hand bookstores, book fairs and tables, wandered outside of my major’s zone in the library stacks. I read with attention, to enjoy and learn, not to highlight, memorize, critique or dissect. I sometimes neglected my lab write ups, stayed up too late reading other things, and spend too much on books. On holidays I started to pay more attention to my parents’ library, beyond stringing the titles together to make funny sentences, and asked Dad for recommendations.

It was a happy alternative to the kind of analysis English majors have to do. Seems now to me that most are too young then to have much of the life experience to really see what’s there, what themes one lives and conflicts arise worthy of literary interpretation. They should just be absorbing, offering commentary only when they feel like it.

I still enjoy a sense of wonder, sometimes warming, sometimes joyful, sometimes piercing, in reading. Especially when I rediscover thoughts penned decades (Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan), centuries (George Eliot’s Romola), even millennia (Plato’s Republic) ago that are so timely, fresh, and relevant they could have been written yesterday. When I think of this generation missing that because of much readier and more entrapping entertainments, I want to stand on a high school cafeteria table and exhort everyone to Repent and Return to the Word!

My ignorance has often led me in interesting directions. Other than following up on recommendations that arise from a great conversation or a previous book, one of my favorite methods for finding new material is to randomly peruse the library stack. Bookstores are great, but expensive, and are intent on moving the product, so have to get a bit “in your face” with displays of the newest stuff, the best sellers. I guess there’s some validity to choosing from best seller lists, a bit more than in the realm of grocery shopping or Christmas gifts, but I’ve never been keen on trusting Most People, even Most Readers.

I’m not really against studying English literature–all this is meant to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Somewhat. One ought to do formal studies carefully, especially when young, preserving one’s sense of wonder, one’s right to enjoy and learn from and share independent of course requirements.

It occurs to me that this sounds lie the warning on-fire believers give to seminary students–don’t let the love become merely academic. Also of the envy “believers from birth” feel at the wonder they see in those encountering the Word for the first time.

Maybe there’s hope in that thought—that some day there will be a longing, a Word-shaped vacuum waiting to be filled, in this generation as they grow older and sense a gnawing emptiness in a lifestyle of regurgitation of online content where nothing turns out to be new under the sun. Might they rediscover of how smart writers of old were, how beautiful their language and enjoyable to decipher, and how enriching for the soul, for the mind, for the community to become a self-motivated student of those literary arts once again?


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Home tutoring notes

This semester I’m tutoring a high school student in English language arts and geometry while she’s on temporary sick leave. After finishing up with geometry today, which we do using an online curriculum, I took out and leafed through the English text I’d been given by the high school. Saw the unit goals, literary terms to know, ways in which the student was expected to closely read the short stories conveniently printed therein and analyze for tone, characterization, dramatic elements, allusion, point of view, and so on. Bad memories. I confessed to her my view that the least important part of growing in literacy is the formal, analytical, gradable stuff that was therein. Told her that if for some reason her school shut down for a year, she would still grow as a writer by reading, reading, reading good literature, and writing what she wanted to write, just keeping on, practicing what she felt were the best styles and gleaning vocabulary and knowledge along the way. Told her though I loved to read and write myself, that was due to my upbringing, not my formal education, because for the most part I’d hated English class, except for the parts where we memorized Shakespeare or I was told I had written something unique and would I share it. So as a teacher, I wanted to make sure I didn’t create or reinforce a distaste for reading good literature, or even studying it, by over analysis.

I told her about the time I’d been about her age and was hanging out with my dad at Uncle Calvin’s fishing camp, and that big, burly backwoods river guide’s eyes became moist as he and my father recited the poetry they’d memorized in their youth. I told her how I wanted to pass that on, and how my kids would have that look of quiet delight when they recited a Kipling or Frost poem.

And so, I assigned her some small formal analysis activities, and gave her a book of poems so she could choose one to memorize. I promised to bring some books from my library for her to try (and ask her school teacher if there was a course reading list), and encouraged her to get some audiobooks to do her crafts by. I said some things, we’ll analyze, and you’ll work at learning the terminology for intelligent conversation about literature. But other times, I’ll just ask you what you thought of a book, and you can practice talk from your heart about books, making personal connections. I told her I wasn’t sure why the teacher had said the class was skipping the short story writing assignment, but that we might do some such writing anyway.

The assignment she was working on when I met with her first was an argumentative essay about the value of a college education. She was to read three articles provided by her textbook, which had been published, I pointed out, by the College Board, which makes bucks every time it sells a test, grades a test, and submits a student’s test results to a college. Important to get a feel for likely biases in the material, I said. I asked her to interview a few people informally who might have different views on the question, and develop some nuances to her argument, rather than oversimplifying the issue. It was a tall order, as she’s not an avid reader or writer, and hasn’t thought about these things much at her age. But I think she’s up to it.


Posted by on January 7, 2015 in Education


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Read aloud time: may we never outgrow it

Read aloud time: may we never outgrow it
reading aloud to children

Daddy read aloud time

I used to read aloud to my kids often, and they all have cherished memories of the books we have shared. But as they became more independent readers and I busier, read aloud times gradually fell by the wayside. Yet reading to my kids is one of my favorite activities, for the atmosphere it creates as the kids listen, work with their hands (on drawing, crafts, or quiet toys), and experience great literature and interesting nonfiction.The curriculum plan I use features a fairly large dose of read alouds, but I was slacking off and assigning these as individual reading, along with the other literature they were expected to read. But often, despite the high quality of the reading selections, my kids slide back into easy stuff and don’t get hooked by the more challenging material on the read-aloud list. So I’ve worked a read aloud time back into our day, and I am so glad.

Having my son and daughter settle down with some quiet hand work is crucial. Lately I’ve been having them draw portraits of historical figures from prints, color and label maps, and work on simple embroidery. Lego is okay too if they put it on a blanket and don’t paw through the parts too much. Meanwhile I read about American history (A History of US series by Joy Hakim) and The Landmark History of the American People by Daniel Boorstin, along with other shorter books that focus on important events and people). I am learning as much as my children, because I grew up in Nova Scotia, Canada, never having studied US history, and homeschooled my first two without bothering to cover it (we focused on ancient times). Thus I have no trouble conveying my real interest. Now and then I have them narrate back key parts, repeat and define important terms, and find places on the wall map. I don’t let them write, look at other books, talk or even whisper with each other, but they can get up and move about quietly to get a drink or something if they remain in earshot. Usually after a daily read aloud portion, they’ll ask me to keep going. When my voice is just about gone, we all take an active recess before getting back to other work. We are all used to the routine now, and it really suits us all in these cooler, darker months. Sometimes we pick it up willingly on weekends, which I can’t say of math or grammar.

I also remember times when my kids balked at having to sit down and listen. It usually was during play-outdoors weather, before we’d established hand work as a means of helping them calm down and focus, and when I had neglected to give any warnings (“Reading in ten minutes–everyone finish what you’re doing and bring something to do.”) or choices (“Do you want to hear a long adventure poem, or a bunch of short ones about nature?”). I might just say something like, “Bring your drawing stuff in the living room and I’ll just read the first chapter, and you decide whether you want to hear more.” I read in my most captivating manner, and rarely fail to hook them. Even on books they tried, and say they “hate.” If we don’t like a book, we talk about why, or learn to put up with weak aspects to benefit from the strengths of the piece. I sometimes have them draw scenes from stories.

We especially enjoy poetry read-alouds. My children were brought up on Sandra Boynton and the like, bouncing along to the rhythm on my knee. Later I had them choose poems to memorize, including Frost, Rosetti, and Kipling. We’ve enjoyed just about everything from Favorite Poems Old and New, the Poetry for Young People series, poems recited by Tolkien characters, and ballads such as “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Occasionally I’ll emerge from the bathroom with my old copy of Immortal Poems of the English Language and read what I’ve found to whomever will listen.

I must confess, I never liked “Language Arts” or English classes. I loved reading, but hated graded school readers with comprehension questions at the end, writing book reports, and reading from the approved list of Canadian literature. The only valuable English class assignment I remember was to memorize and recite passages from Shakespeare (some of which my youngest also picked up from Calvin and Hobbes a few years ago!). Everything I learned about reading, writing, poetry and related topics, I learned from my book-loving parents. They read every chance they could, and brought home piles of bought and library books for us. They are both writers, too. As for poetry, I’ll never forget the time my father and his brother got to reciting poems they’d memorized in school (in a small Newfoundland town in the 1950s). My uncle, a tall, imposing man who ran a hunting and fishing camp and guiding service, actually had tears in his eyes. I’d never seen anything like it.

So read the best stuff you can find, don’t over-analyze, let your listeners receive and respond  in their own way to what they hear. Entice them with treats, give them choices, help them focus, and off you go.


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Anne LaMott quote

“It’s hard to be depressed when activists in pink feather boas are kissing you.”

Anne Lamott, Grace (Eventually)

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Posted by on October 5, 2012 in Writers & Books


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