I keep meaning to write something substantive here, but I’ve been distracted by the conversation going on over at Mike’s academic blog, Ad Nauseam, specifically on the post “Finding the countercanon.” Originally, Mike posed his problem and request this way:
Back to my problem: as a product of my time and place I know the canon as it is espoused by my university, and I know the canon as it is espoused by my authors. (Woolf and Rushdie are graciously forthright about the books they think people should be reading.) But I don’t know, and I don’t know how to know, the canons that boom outside the walls of my little University, the list of 100 Essential Books They Won’t Teach You In College.
But then in the comments, other interesting questions related to his desire to learn about non-English-department-approved literature comes up:
So few of the students who go through intro lit classes will pick up a book after they graduate. Lit profs have only the 14 or 15 weeks it takes to satisfy a gen ed requirement to give students a map of the literary library, so that students who don’t have your natural drive for reading will at least get a sense of what’s out there, and feel that at least one author connected with them and represents something like their inner & outer lives.
This is part of why my own canoniphilia distresses me: I’m already at a demographic remove from the great majority of American students; if my syllabi are demographically identical, then I have that much less of a chance of breaking through to the infrequent or non-reader.
Back when I taught ESL, I spent a great deal of time pondering how to get non-readers to read actual books, and how to make them like it, and how that is actually quite different from teaching them to write literary analysis papers, which is often done at the same time and becomes quite linked in students minds (classic literature = writing papers, which often also = boring and annoying, leading to = don’t like to read.) So I had some stuff to say about the use of non-classic literature in the academic setting, and helping students learn to make reading choices on their own that they’ll actually enjoy.
In addition, a librarian friend of Mike’s has brought up the question of why English departments are so stuck on teaching fiction, when non-fiction is a very wide, diverse, and engaging genre of its own. She points out that many students perceived as “non-readers” by literature teachers may actually be quite in-depth readers of non-fiction about subjects they are truly interested in. Which is an excellent point: there is no reason that fiction is the only type of writing that can be analyzed for the actual structure of its writing. Too often, non-fiction is relegated to being viewed as all about the content, not about the style, but as any reader of non-fiction knows, some writers stand out as far better organized or far more entertaining than others, and some writers, knowledgeable as they may be, write so badly as to make their books unreadable by a non-specialist audience.
So if you like books and reading and thinking about how to get other people to like reading, or even if you ever had an opinion about how your high school or college English class could have taught you better, go join the conversation. Or join it here. Either way. Discuss!
-posted by Dana