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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.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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