The Twin Cities Book Festival on Saturday was a good time. It was heartening to see so very many bookish people out and about in the same location. There was a bookfair with local bookstores, publishers, and authors selling their wares. There were also several friends of the library groups there, the Loft Literary Center and Minnesota Public Radio. It was crowded and overwhelming and as a result I didn’t buy any books, but just walking around was fun enough for me.
The festival is put on by my local literary review magazine, Rain Taxi. By local I mean they edit and produce the magazine here because I believe they are a national publication. And let me just say how awesome they are. They review fiction, nonfiction, poetry, plays and graphic novels in high quality essays. Even better, they tend to review books that don’t get much attention in the big media outlets and review magazines. So if you are looking for an excellent literary magazine, do check them out.
In addition to the bookfair there was a children’s area with kid things to do. It was sequestered behind curtains so all I could hear was the fun band they had going when we went by. For the adults there were panels of speakers and individual authors. We attended a panel on classics and a talk and reading by Nicholson Baker. First, the panel.
The panel looked at the role of literature in high school and how it is taught there and talked about whether the classics should be taught or more current, “relevant” work should be taught instead. The panel consisted of an English professor from Harvard, a writer born in Kingston Jamaica who now lives in the Twin Cities and teaches literature at a local university, another Minnesota author who teaches creative writing at a local university, and the author of the recent book Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School. I thought it was interesting there were no high school teachers on the panel, but all the participants seemed to have occasion to work with teens in one way or another.
They all concluded that it is important to teach the classics to high school students because they are unlikely to be exposed to them on their own. Trying to sex up Jane Austen or dumb down Moby Dick is the wrong way to go about things. As Alison McGhee, one of the writers, suggested, to teach teenagers the classics as though they couldn’t possibly understand past times and places is distrustful of their intellects. They can do it, they just might need a little help. She said one of the great things about classics is that they are classics because they are not fixed in time, we still read them because they still speak to us. She said reading a book together, especially one that might be hard, creates an experience that can affect a student for the rest of his life. She held up a photo of her now 18-year-old son’s back. From shoulder to waist it was covered in a tattoo done in a lovely sepia-colored text. The text? His favorite part of Paradise Lost, a poem he would not have read on his own but was challenged with in a high school class and he loved it so much he permanently inscribed part of it on his skin. It’s pretty powerful when you think about it.
Stepehn Burt, the professor from Harvard, put forth the idea that there are two kinds of classics. There is the institutional classic that gets put into the canon and there is the reader’s classic. He said the reader’s classic is the book that gets passed from hand to hand, the OMG you have to read this book, the book that feels dangerous and subversive. Many of the institutional classics started off as a reader’s classic, but once they get accepted into the canon they lose their subversive appeal.
Marlon James, the writer from Jamaica and only person of color on the panel, had some especially interesting things to say. When he was in high school he said education was still very colonial and he spent his years reading books by dead white men. He said he developed a resentment to the canon because it did not reflect his reality; he was unable to separate Shakespeare from imperialism. But at the same time he fell in love with literature. In spite of his educational experience he doesn’t think teachers should take pains to make the classics agreeable to students.
James said he has had students tell him they hate a certain book because they could not relate, they did not see themselves or their cultural experience in the book. At this he rolled his eyes and said, “empathy is not the book’s job, it’s the reader’s.” Oh I loved that! Something to say to the next person who says she didn’t like a book because she couldn’t relate to or like any of the characters. James suggested what matters when teaching classics is that the book sparks a desire to think.
Kevin Smokler pretty much agreed with everyone else. One thing he said that I really liked was that we should teach and advocate for great books as though they were coffee shops, not cathedrals. Meaning, we should be able to argue about them and do all sorts of things to them instead of setting them up as eternal and sacred and therefore untouchable.
It was an enjoyable discussion. The question came up about what classic novel they didn’t like and all of them said The Scarlet Letter. None of them really said why they didn’t like it. I haven’t read it since high school but I recall it being a rather twisted book and I liked it very much. But every book its reader, right?
This has ended up going long so I’ll save Nicholson Baker for tomorrow.