Friday, February 25, 2011

Favorite books and authors to teach

I have two kinds of favorite books: those I love to read, and those I love to teach.

Occasionally they will overlap, but for the most part they are distinguished by their different purposes, one private and the other public. The books I love to read are for me alone. They nourish and nurture my daydreams, which then give rise to the stories I write. I don't talk a great deal about them, unless I'm surrounded by like-minded fantasy geeks at DragonCon or at an Atlanta Radio Theatre Company rehearsal. The books I love to teach, however, demand to be shared.

Though I like to discover new "teaching books" almost as much as I enjoy stumbling onto a new author whose works are prime daydream food, I have a few I return to again and again, books and authors with something specific to offer a group of students. They aren't ones I would pick up for a cozy comfort read. They don't offer me the chance to do brave deeds in my imagination. But they hold human nature and society, with their eternal struggle between order and chaos, against a powerful light.

Author: Edgar Allan Poe.
When it comes to introducing students to literary analysis, nothing beats Poe. Students new to analyzing literature are tempted to take stories very literally, to accept at face value what the narration tells them. With Poe, bless his twisted heart, you can't do that. Common sense tells us that the events in the last scene of "The Tell-Tale Heart," for example, could not be unfolding precisely as the narrator describes them. Students are forced to see past the veil of his distorted perceptions to discover the real truth. They have to dig past the surface -- the key to literary analysis. Poe's stories, with their characters on the edge of madness or beyond, also give them a compelling look at human psychology, so driven by desire for love and power.

Author: Flannery O'Connor.
In the world of fiction, violence is a good thing. Granted, some of the most powerful violence in literature is psychological, but good old physical violence always makes a useful attention-getter. Students are rarely bored by an O'Connor story, in which the air crackles with violence. Here the physical and psychological brutality dovetail, and students discover a disturbing but edifying mental "scorched earth" in which characters are stripped of everything they have known and counted on. It's as scary as anything they might encounter in a slasher film, but here, unlike there, important truths about basic human fallibility are laid bare. One need not ascribe to O'Connor's rigid Catholic doctrine in order to see them.

Play: Othello.
One of the most important and inescapable elements of literature is irony, which occurs wherever there's a disconnect between appearance and reality. Life teaches us repeatedly that we can't always trust what we see, and Othello, with the powerful master manipulator Iago at its center, shows the manifold ways in which reality might be bent, as well as the ways our fears and desires shape or perceptions. Othello also offers a harrowing emotional experience, as a sympathetic heroine becomes the victim of Iago's machinations. Since Shakespeare is meant to be seen, not merely read, I like to show my students the DVD of the 1991 Royal Shakespeare Company production, which features Ian McKellen as a frighteningly charismatic Iago and Imogen Stubbs as a plucky and winning Desdemona; you can't help wishing you could leap into the scene and rescue her. Basso profundo Willard White also makes a powerful Othello.

Book: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.
A few nights ago, on Jeopardy's Teen Tournament, the final question asked the young contestants to identify the author of this quote: "You have seen how a man was made a slave; now you will see how a slave was made a man." I did a mental happy dance as each contestant got the name right. I felt like sending their parents and teachers a thank-you note. The name "Frederick Douglass" should not be forgotten for many reasons, not the least of them being his brief but powerful autobiography which details his youthful days as a slave. The Southern slave system might be long gone, but Douglass's book retains its relevance, and the famous quote touches on why: it brings up a question that never goes out of style -- "what shapes our identity? How is an individual consciousness formed and strengthened or thwarted?" In looking at Douglass's battle for control over his identity, students may be led to think about all the ideas and experiences that have gone into making them who they are.

Literature both reflects its time and reaches beyond it; from it, students learn simultaneously about the past and the present, about a world removed from their own and the world they move through now. That's why it matters, and why it will continue to matter after new technologies have come and gone and morphed into shapes we can't yet imagine. God bless good stories.

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