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On Assigning Books

I taught my first collegiate class in 1982, and when you’ve been around the pedagogical block as many times as I have — well, first of all, you tend to get a little dizzy, but second, there’s little that makes you anxious. The rhythms of one semester resemble those of any other; being a college professor is not a job for those who crave novelty of incident.

But there is one moment each semester when my pulse accelerates a bit and I feel anxiety creeping around the edges of my mind: it’s when I order the books for the following semester. As a Christian, I should be prayerful all the time, but it’s when I see those book order forms that prayerfulness (at least about my teaching) really kicks in. I believe that these are the most momentous decisions I make as a teacher: the questions about how I run my class sessions and what writing projects I assign are relatively minor in comparison. It’s what my students read that has the deepest and most lasting effect on their lives.

In any class in which I assign poetry, I ask students to memorize and recite fifty lines or more from the poems we have read. Those fifty lines can come from one poem, or from several, by different poets. (I tell them that if they want they can take one line from fifty different poems, but no one has taken me up on that offer yet.) When students memorize a poem it works its way into their minds — they develop an intuitive and often unconscious grasp of its structure, its way of working. As George Steiner has commented, “The private reader or listener can become an executant of felt meaning when he learns the poem or musical passage by heart. To learn by heart is to afford the text or music an indwelling clarity and life force.” And to recite the memorized poem is to bring it to life in your own voice.

So I sit in my office chair while a student sits across from me, and then I turn aside so I’m not looking at them. (This tends to make them less nervous.) Sometimes they go too fast, and the words blur like telephone poles from a speeding car; sometimes they stutter and stumble. That’s all fine: I tell them that there are no style points. The point is learning by heart, and speaking the poem in one’s own voice.

Once a student came in and announced that she would be reciting the last fifty lines of W. H. Auden’s poem “In Praise of Limestone.” My heart sank a bit. The lines of the poem are long and, because it’s in a quantitative meter, not regularly rhythmical; a tough poem to memorize, and not easy to recite. But I smiled and turned aside, and she launched in — hesitantly at first, as I had feared. But then, somehow, she found her balance and rhythm, and as she moved towards the poem’s conclusion — “if / Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead” — she spoke with such assurance that I knew she had gone to the very heart of that great poem. When she finished, and I turned to congratulate her, I saw that tears were rolling down her cheeks.

But books and poems — and all other things, really — that have the power to enrich and touch also have the power to wound. Over the years I have had many students in my office who, reading The Brothers Karamazov, which they had been told was a great Christian novel, were shocked to discover that Dostoevsky allows Ivan Karamazov all the room he needs to proclaim and explain his rejection of God’s world. Nor did they know what to make of the indirectness with which Dostoevsky provides a response to Ivan: Alyosha’s kiss — that’s all? No, that isn’t all; but it seems like it at first, and it is hard for the young Christian to wait for faithlessness to be refuted, especially when the refutations that come are so much less direct that Ivan’s charges.

And if the devout Dostoevsky can disorient, so too in their different ways can James Joyce, Philip Larkin, Iris Murdoch, and Philip Pullman, plus critics and theorists such as Michel Foucault and Judith Butler — all writers whom I have taught on a regular basis.

I sit at my desk with the book order forms before me and sometimes feel that I’m throwing bombs into crowds. Depending on the class, I may be ordering for fifteen people or thirty, and in my mind’s eye they sit there in front of me. I realize, then, how few of them I’m likely to know at all, and even those I do know I won’t know well, not well enough to know how they’ll respond to what I’m putting before them, what I’m pressing them to read, what I’m forcing them to think about and talk about and reckon with.

I am aware that few of these students are as fragile as their elders (especially their parents) fear. By and large, they handle challenging ideas with aplomb — and even at times, I must admit, with surprising indifference. Franz Kafka once wrote to a friend that “A book must be the axe to the frozen sea inside us,” but in the average reader that ice is quite thick and not easily broken through. But you can’t tell by looking at people how thick or thin their inner ice is; and people vary in their vulnerability to any given axe. One reader can be unmoved by a book that devastates her neighbor.

When I assign books, I’m making decisions about a group, a crowd, a median or mean. But reading is done by individuals. And that’s why I pray for wisdom.

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "On Assigning Books"

#1 Comment By Matt in TX On November 8, 2012 @ 9:06 am

Can I ask why you teach Foucault and Butler? Is it to show your students how not to write? Or is it to give them an understanding of how the AIDS epidemic occurred? (Their ideas led or contributed to the communal-sewer gay male sex culture of the 1970s.)

It’s weird to me that someone who ostensibly loves beautiful writing would teach these people, except as warnings.

#2 Comment By Lulu On November 8, 2012 @ 11:48 am

The power of books: a True Story

When I was eight years old, I fell in love with Charlotte’s Web. I reread it so many times that my older sister, whose book it was, deemed my rereading unseemly and forbade me to borrow it again. So I created a mock-up of the binding with cardboard and crayons, slipped the mock-up in the book’s place on her shelf, and hoped my nearsighted sister wouldn’t notice the difference. Alas, she became aware of my deceit and confiscated said book.

But my sister’s sternness didn’t cure me. I still reread old favorites, including Charlotte’s Web, whenever I need a good friend’s familiar company.

#3 Comment By cka2nd On November 8, 2012 @ 11:56 am

Mr. Jacobs,

I just wanted to let you know that I appreciated this post and look forward to reading more like it.

#4 Comment By RobF On November 8, 2012 @ 1:27 pm

This is beautiful. Thank you for sharing it with us.

#5 Comment By Alan Jacobs On November 8, 2012 @ 1:42 pm

Matt, often I wish I lived in a world where my only criterion for choosing what to teach is Beauty, but alas, I don’t live in that world. Sometimes other factors — historical importance, or current influence, or intellectual power, depending on the course and on the mandates I’ve been handed by Higher Authorities — enter in. Balancing those various criteria is always a challenge.

#6 Comment By Luke On November 8, 2012 @ 3:22 pm

Alan,
I really appreciate your writing and I’m glad to see you posting regularly. Surely this is a topic on your mind for reasons beyond the book order forms coming due? I also am a teacher and I find myself responding to the election carnival in a similar way: what knowledge do my students need to assess the current situation, what questions do they need to consider to navigate it responsibly and ably, and who might speak a transformative word into their hearts as they read into the wee hours of the morning next semester.
May God bless our students and have mercy us teachers!
LT

#7 Comment By Scott Lahti On November 8, 2012 @ 3:58 pm

“When students memorize a poem it works its way into their minds — they develop an intuitive and often unconscious grasp of its structure, its way of working … And to recite the memorized poem is to bring it to life in your own voice.”

While a senior at Wilton (Connecticut) High School in the fall of 1979, I took a course on Shakespeare, whose assignments included the reciting of a classic passage in Mrs. Martin’s office. I chose Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, and, warming to the task much after Professor Jacobs’s female student – or even after William James’s essay “The Energies of Men”, about second and successive winds, about which the young Henry Hazlitt of 1922 [1] in The Way to Will-Power, and, after my triumphant in-chambers Garrick turn, went on to recite it, if primarily to myself, several thousand times more over the thirty-three years succeeding, including as a sleep-fighter on many a late-night cross-country drive. This stood me in good stead in 1995, when between forksful of salmon in the reception aftermath of my having delivered from obsessive commute-rehearsed memory Emerson’s “Give All to Love” for a friend’s wedding, I harvested one verbal rose after another from my grateful first-nighters among the weeping aunties in the pews.

“I have had many students in my office who, reading The Brothers Karamazov, which they had been told was a great Christian novel, were shocked to discover that Dostoevsky allows Ivan Karamazov all the room he needs to proclaim and explain his rejection of God’s world.”

That recalls not just the immemorial post-Miltonic jibe about the Devil getting all the best lines, but, speaking of [2], the latter’s divisive 1981 novel The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., in which a postwar Adolf Hitler, captured near an Amazon jungle by a team led by an Israeli Nazi-hunting Holocaust survivor, defends with a whirlwind of virtuoso eloquence his role as symbiotic whip-cracking catalyst of the Jewish state.

Ever the tease with his penchant for an oddball dose of tough love in extremis, Steiner went on just last November, in the [3] roundup in the TLS, to once more rub humanity’s tongue over its sorest tooth (I kid, you, Serious George, in purloining one of your own stock images) via his blurb for a recent book on the own-goal Nazi endgame:

“Ian Kershaw’s The End (Allen Lane) is a magisterial narrative, at once bleak and compelling. Would that it had confronted a key question. To what extent was Germany’s rapid rebound from ash and apocalypse due to the legacy of discipline, social cohesion and stoicism left by the Reich?

#8 Comment By Scott Lahti On November 8, 2012 @ 4:11 pm

“But books and poems — and all other things, really — that have the power to enrich and touch also have the power to wound.”

George Steiner again, from a [4] upon the US publication of The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H.:

“Central to everything I am and believe and have written is my astonishment, naive as it seems to people, that you can use human speech both to bless, to love, to build, to forgive and also to torture, to hate, to destroy and to annihilate. In the gospel we read: ‘In the beginning was the word.’ And I am asking: Could there be a word at the end? If there is a divine word, a word of creation and forgiveness, is there by the same token a word of final destruction, a word which un-mans man? And did Hitler come very near to knowing that word?”

#9 Comment By Donald On November 8, 2012 @ 6:08 pm

Wow. I was going to comment that the post was fascinating and touching . (Which it is. Thanks for another peek into a professor’s mind. I memorized a sonnet for a lit class in college. Sadly I didn’t get anywhere near the heart of it.)

But the comments here too! Who is this Steiner, I ask myself. Off to Wikipedia and maybe Amazon…