In my first years of teaching high school English, I would assign my students to read a novel, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, and I would hear, “That book is racist! Why do I have to read this?” We would read passages from The Illiad or The Odyssey and students would say, “Wait – sex slaves, violence, multiple wives and lovers, revenge and gore? Why do I have to read this?” Later, we would talk about Oedipus and read Antigone, and my students would say, “This is gross! Incest? Stabbing out your own eyes? Why do I have to read this?” (Notice a pattern?)
What was my answer? “You’re right. And you’re wrong. Yes, you still have to read it.”
I tried to explain how we could not look at a work based on our own world view.Then, in my last years of teaching, an author named Thomas C. Foster wrote a book called How to Read Literature Like a Professor, and he provided a better way to explain this.
Foster has an entire chapter entitled, “Don’t Read with Your Eyes” (emphasis on the your). And he’s right. We can’t read books written decades, centuries, millennia before our time and expect them to hold the same values. In the same vein, you can’t read even modern works expecting them to hold your same values. Well, you can. But then all the stuff you read starts to sound the same.
To Kill a Mockingbird, standard in the high school canon, uses words for black Americans (even the good characters use them) we would not dream of saying today. However, you have to read the book through the eyes of the Great Depression or even the 1960s to understand the scope of the author’s purpose.
The culture in the days of The Illiad and The Odyssey had issues for other things – cowardice chief among them – yet they did not see a problem with sex slaves, regular slaves, concubines, etc. For Antigone and the whole Oedipus issue, I would tell my students, “The Greeks thought it was gross, too. Hence the eye-stabbings, hangings, wailings and misery!”
Am I saying we should just agree with ancient Greeks and be okay with multiple wives? No. I am perfectly fine with monogamy, thank you very much, but you cannot dismiss an important work of fiction based on beliefs the ancient Greeks just didn’t have. You cannot automatically rule To Kill a Mockingbird as racist and refuse to read it, when it has some of the best literature has to offer (especially to a high school student’s level of reading).
As a reader, you need to understand the context of something, understand the time period and culture, before judging it or dismissing it. By leaving your own eyes on the nightstand and reading through different lenses, you learn to appreciate literature outside of your comfort level. You even discover new layers of meaning you might not have noticed in the past. If you find yourself reading a work of literature, and wonder, “Why is this such a big deal? Why are they reacting like it’s the end of the world?” Chances are, it’s the end of their world for some reason.
For instance, when you read Pride and Prejudice, and you are confused as to why Elizabeth Bennet is so embarrassed at the ball at Bingley’s house, you need to figure out why. Our American eyes would probably think, “I like the Bennets. They actually say what’s on their minds and liven up a perfectly dull party.” Yet Jane Austen’s eyes point us to a time and culture where dancing every dance and flirting with all of the men of the regiment brought more than a roll of the eyes. Later in the novel, why would Elizabeth speak adamantly against her silly sister Lydia heading off to flirt with the officers at Brighton? You need to understand her culture and framework. Elizabeth was looking at the possibility of not only losing respectability, but also livelihood – not only for Lydia – but for the entire Bennet family (plus, you know, dealing with her conflicting feelings about dreamy Mr. Darcy). A poor reputation (namely for young women) was not only bad for the social life, but a one way ticket to poverty.
So, when do I put my own eyes back on? When should we throw in the towel on a novel despite setting aside all of our own values to see its worth? Well, honestly, whenever you decide. However, I encourage you to give it a try. Personally, I draw the line when I can no longer find anything beautiful or redeeming in a story. The only time I remember walking out of a movie was a few years ago for District 9. I kept trying to muster through the grotesque scenes and violence, but I couldn’t get past it to see the beautiful. The only novel I didn’t finish reading for a class in college? Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Trust me. It’s not worth it. Well, I say that, but I had a friend who ended up writing her senior symposium paper on this novel and defending the redeeming qualities of the scatological in fiction. I admired her for it, but it did not make me want to read the book. As a reader, you have to use your own gauge and standard, but I challenge you to widen your scope and stretch yourself.
What books pushed you beyond your comfort zone, but made you better in the long run?