Why do English classes want us to keep reading dead people

The National Book Critics Circle Finalists were announced over the weekend, and I’m ashamed to admit that, while I did purchase one book on the list as a Christmas gift, I’ve heard of only a minority of these titles and have read exactly zero.

I’ve never been all that interested in new releases; if it’s still in hard cover at the bookstore, I’m probably not going to even look at it. I’m the type of person that doesn’t like to buy books online even, because I like to pick them up, hold them, before I make a final decision. And hard covers just never feel right.

But still, none of that seems to give me, a literary person, an excuse to have read none of these books and therefore be in no position to comment upon their worthiness (or otherwise). And I wonder: Is this a symptom of having spent too many years with English curriculums that seem to set an inverse ratio between date of publication and quality? That seem to ignore a book until there is a body of literature surrounding and cushioning it?

It isn’t until college, I suspect, that most people start to receive a more balanced canon, but while most universities have courses on Shakespeare or American Literature of the 1800s or Modernism, it can be difficult to find classes devoted entirely to, say, literature of the past five or ten years. So why is it that, as a system, we turn the readers of today and tomorrow away from the writers of today and tomorrow? There is value, to be sure, in understanding which authors and trends, which pieces of history, got us to where we are today. It is important to understand how books and authors speak to one another across the years. But without the link to contemporary writing–and I don’t mean contemporary as thirty or forty years ago but rather as two, as three–we’re creating readers who only know how to look backward.


  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    I wonder if it takes a while to determine how a book really stands up. I usually teach a mix of older and more contemporary books, but, as an undergrad, I was not exposed to much newish stuff. Then again, maybe there wasn’t time to fit much newish stuff in. I’m not sure what the balance should be. And I still struggle with this as a reader and writer, worrying that I’m not reading enough new stuff or that I still haven’t read Moby Dick or *insert the classic here.*

    • Marcus says:

      I think you’re right in essence, about how it takes a while to know if something any good. But shouldn’t it be readers who make that decision? And especially for young/emerging writers, shouldn’t we be continually pushing the envelope? The stuff that’s written now is influenced by the stuff that came out 15 years ago, and so on; at what point does a writer decide, F this, I’m done following, I’m going to take the lead? [What if I’m designing microchips? I’m going to have a lesson on vacuum tubes early on, but I’m sure as hell not coming back to study them in my senior year or while I’m getting my masters. What makes writers so special? Of course the answer is obvious. Right?]

      And why the hell are writers who haven’t published in big magazines yet always referred to as “emerging”?

      • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

        But the cool thing about reading is that we don’t get any more or less from a book based on the writer being alive. I don’t think it makes the slightest bit of difference. I can learn plenty from dead Faulkner or Virginia Woolf, and plenty from living Dybek or Hempel.

  • Asa says:

    Great questions to ponder Kathryn. I think it might be a case of wanting to teach how things were first done, to give the students a true understand where the literature came from and then only have enough time left in the quarter/semester to show how it’s done in progressive work. This is true for disciplines other than just English. I run into the same problem when I teach physics. I have to do all the dead guys’ discoveries before I can show how it’s revolutionized what my students currently encounter in their lives. As a side note: one of the English instructors at SFCC invited Saul Williams to come to our campus because she asked the students which living poet they most admired. It was a fantastic evening and the students applied what they’d learned from dead poets to what Williams does in his work.

    • Kathryn Houghton Kathryn says:

      I think that’s the key: applying the old to the new. Because we aren’t writing in the 1850s or the 1920s or whatever–but, as Sam says, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things to learn from those books. But I think it’s this exact step that is missing from so many English classes.

  • Shawn Vestal says:

    I feel like writers need both — a strong knowledge of the old stuff, because that’s the foundation, as well as familiarity with what’s happening now. However, I think it’s probably easier to catch up with current writing on your own, with a grounding in the tradition, than vice-versa.

    • Shira Richman says:

      I’m with you, Shawn–as a teacher I consider it my job to get students to read what they aren’t already reading. Often the most useful things to assign are texts that are just at the edges of the group’s comprehension, texts that need some unpacking. Often the writings of “dead people” (those from another time) are more difficult, more complex, need more contexutalization.

  • Knezovich says:

    I think Sam’s initial point about determining “how a book really stands up” is key in this discussion.

    As a teacher (which I am not) you want to be certain that what you’re feeding your students has value, and gauging how a book retains its value is easier from a distance.

    I think of it like this: If you asked me in 1988 what I thought was the greatest band recording at that time, I would have said, without hesitation, Ratt (favorite album, “Reach for the Sky”). And I would have said that because it’s what I believed. Obviously, I was an idiot, and we all know Ratt sucks, and in fact, was never cool and there was never a chance that their music would transcend the period it which it was created (unlike, say, the Pixies or Fugazi… who I would not discover until years later).

    I’m making a really stupid point, and I know this, but I’m just saying… longevity goes a long way. Especially in the classroom.

  • Ryan Siemers says:

    As a grad student in literature at Eastern, the question of canon formation has been of some interest to me. I would argue that the English canon is a discourse in the Foucauldian sense. In _The Archaeology of Knowledge_, Foucault introduces the concept of discourse, in part, as “practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak,” and as unified by a “notion of ‘spirit,’ which enables us to establish between the simultaneous or successive phenomena of a given period a community of meanings, symbolic links, an interplay of resemblance and reflexion, or which allows the sovereignty of collective consciousness to emerge as the principle of unity and explanation.” The first thing we should question, Foucault would argue, is the very unity that the English canon presupposes: the notion that a tradition, beginning with _Beowulf_ and including Joyce’s _Ullyses_, even exists. After all, the former is a Norse myth and the latter was written by an Irishman who opposed British occupation. Secondly, we should question the assumption, which has been articulated above, that entrance into the canon is granted to “good” literature and denied to “bad” literature, and that time magically performs this benign process of filtration for our benefit. Instead, in _Discipline and Punish_, Foucault argues that discourse is a function of power. The English canon, in short, is implicated in power relationships. Changes to the canon, specifically the addition of female authors to _The Norton Anthology of English Literature_’s Romantic section in the 1990s, demonstrate how shifting power relations (resultant from the feminist movement) are reflected by changes in the discourse. The familiar six dead white guys that filled the pages of the British Romantic section prior to this change were likewise strung together because they served/reflected the dominant political power structure up to that point. In short, the canon is an exertion of power, not an altruistic repository of aesthetic beauty. So, there’s nothing wrong with preferring the living to the dead. Just the same, to avoid the whole Foucauldian argument at parties, you might as well read _Moby Dick_.

    • Kathryn Houghton Kathryn says:

      I like your point about thinking of the canon as something defined by power–and I agree with it entirely. Maybe that’s something that also needs to be addressed in English courses, some sort of acknowledgment. But I suppose if we could talk beyond who has power, it wouldn’t be an issue in the first place. So then, is this something best delayed, so that the everyday students continue to get what’s traditional but more advanced students are introduced to all of the details? In some ways that seems all right to me, but in others…I wonder at why we tend to dumb things down (in all disciplines) for younger (“less serious”) students. There should be more balance.

  • Pete Sheehy says:

    I think Shawn hit it right on the head. None but the most severe nerds are going to dig up much 19th century English lit on their own, but anybody who finds themselves in a lit class of any kind for reasons other than trying to fulfill some undergrad degree requirement will discover on their own what contemporary books appeal to them. When I went to college in ’84, the only books I’d ever read on my own were about Hitler, Hank Aaron, and that Jim Morrison biography everyone read in high school in the early ’80s. I dug the English Lit classes I took, but was turned onto the Beatniks and Bukowski and Henry Miller in the dorms, and that led me to contemporary literature. Anyone who enjoys literature will inevitably find themselves reading contemporary books.

    Steve, you are really brave for making that confession about Ratt in pubic, I really admire you.

  • Knezovich says:

    Thanks, Pete. I need all the support I can get.

  • Pete Sheehy says:

    Freud strikes again! Though I think it’s a better name for a collection of poems.

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