The Way I Read: Through the eyes of a teacher

I was on the train to Boston when I opened up an old friend, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale.  Having moved from the West Coast to Chicago two months ago, and having therefore been out of the sight of salt water for one of the longest stretches of my adult life, I was looking forward excitedly to seeing the Atlantic.  I had already planned a little trip to New Bedford, where I would visit the nation’s largest whaling museum and step into the chapel where, in Melville’s novel, Father Mapple preaches a soaring (and prophetic?) sermon on the topic of Jonah and the whale.  In other words, I was in about as perfect a state of mind for reading Moby-Dick as a man can be, short of sharing a bed with a tattooed Maori harpooner or working for a one-legged man who nails gold doubloons to the water cooler and “baptizes” all his memos in pagan blood.  And it was a pretty glorious reading experience, I have to admit.

This isn’t the post where I defend Melville’s novel as one of the greatest epics ever written by an American…I may be forced to do that, at some point, but it’s not what has me thinking tonight.  Instead, what I realized as I read is that my experience with the book has been profoundly altered by the fact that, from 2005 to 2008, I taught the novel every school year to my honors-level American Literature class (given that it was paired with the Advanced Placement course in U.S. History, most of the students would have said they read it in “APUSH”).  Or rather, most of my students would tell you they didn’t read it….well, they tried to, but it was hard for them, or they had a lot of other work, or this “Spark” guy seemed to have gotten the story down pretty well.  This is also not the blog post where I call curses down from heaven on my lazy students for not reading the novel I assigned them.  I did enough of that while grading the Moby-Dick essays, lo, those many years ago.

I hope I’m successfully conveying the mixed feelings I have about having taught a novel I loved and high schoolers are almost genetically predetermined to dislike (or at least find too daunting to really engage with).  A little while after the last time I taught the novel, I read an interview with an American author (a good one, but one whose name escapes me) who says that everyone should read Moby-Dick, but no one should read it before the age of 50.  There’s a side of me that agrees.

Back to me on the train.  What really amazed me as I read was how vividly my reactions were dominated by my having taught the novel—so powerful were these feelings that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to read the novel the way I once did.  It’s making me wonder if it will be the same with all the books I loved and taught—The Iliad, or The Great Gatsby, or Macbeth, all of which I have on my shelf, and all of which I have been thinking of picking up for a good re-read.  And I thought I should share some of my thoughts and experiences here in this very occasional “The Way I Read” series, since I’m curious how typical or atypical this is for teachers, and I wonder if students are affected the same way by having first read a book in the context of a class.

Reading Moby-Dick is affected first of all by the emotional highs and lows I went through teaching it.  I hit the Quarter-Deck, Ahab’s first big show-stopper, where he stamps around the deck asking if everyone knows “what they’ve shipped for” and calling out phrases like “A dead whale or a stove boat!”  It’s a hugely theatrical scene, and while reading it I couldn’t shake the memory of my first APUSH class, whose discussions of the novel had been so lifeless that I made them enact the chapter aloud as Reader’s Theatre to try and wake them up, shouting at the class to chime in on the chorus’s lines and pleading with the kids reading harpooners’ roles to make them sound more exotic and fierce.  And then my eyes light on the stage directions that frame the chapter and those following (what a weird, bold, crazy man Melville was!), and I remember a student, Briana, who became fixated with “solving” Melville’s use of the stage directions (why do they appear, what do they signify, are they the key to unlocking the novel’s symbolic meaning), and how awesome it was to have a student that obsessed with a novel they were reading as an assignment.  I remember the worst symbolic interpretations I read, and I find (to my great delight) that the best symbolic interpretive essays I read are actually now part of how I read the novel.  I hit a passage and think how much more resonant an image is if I read the novel the way Tselil did, or John, or Alex.  Those essays (written feverishly the night before, in many cases) are now superimposed on the novel for me, layers of text upon the text that make their own meanings Melville never intended.

This is wonderful.  It also robs me of the ability to read the novel alone, which is very curious—I simply can’t boot all of those voices and faces out of my head, and so I’m reading along with them.  And there are less clearly positive things that come with this too—is it good that, as I read, I keep mentally marking “oh, that would make a good quiz question” or “hmmm, how could I get them to talk about that?”  It’s certainly distracting, but it’s also a pretty high level of engagement with the text.  It means I skip over some things I probably shouldn’t, though.  And some things, I’ll admit, are pretty clearly negative: some of the worst days I had in the classroom were the discussions of chapters (almost) no one had read, or worse, the days where it became obvious we were discussing how to interpret what SparkNotes was telling us, instead of what Melville was saying.  And when I hit those stretches in the novel, it’s hard not to feel myself dragged down a bit, wondering if the book is really as good as I want it to be, remembering what a slog it was in November to be pushing through a novel that was increasingly being read only by me and about six other people.

I’m sharing all of this pretty openly, not to put any former students through a guilt trip (though some of you probably deserve it!), but rather because this is the funny, unexpected consequence of having taught something for that long.  I can’t imagine how it is for some of my colleagues who have taught the same novel for 10 or 20 or 30 years.  So, this is how I read (some things).  I wonder if I’m affected by my having been a teacher in the new books I read (am I silently evaluating them for discussion questions? wondering how I might teach a given theme?).  I wonder what it was really like for me to read Melville the first time—can I recapture those thoughts now, or are they gone forever?  And I admit, I wonder how my former students will read Melville….well, I wonder how the very few of them who will ever pick him up again will read him.  Will they remember what I did?  What parts will be worse for them, or better?  And, as the years go by and the memories fade for all of us, will works like this become less dominated by the classroom?  When I am 60, or 70, or 80 (knock on wood) and reading Moby-Dick on the train to Boston, how many APUSH thoughts will crowd my brain?  Is my shared group experience with this novel a permanent alteration to me as a reader, or just a passing moment in my life that will be gone before too long?  I hope this sparks some thoughts for you, and that perhaps you’ll share your own experiences or ideas about this in the comments section below.  Thanks!

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12 comments on “The Way I Read: Through the eyes of a teacher

  1. Blake Crinklaw says:

    This is kind of unrelated since we don’t read Moby Dick in APUSH anymore, so I didn’t read it last year (although I have read it on my own time). I don’t dislike Melville, although I’ve only read that one book of his, but I think he writes like an old man. His writing is very important but not always enjoyable. It’s an excellent book, but part of what makes it such a slog is that I can’t help but feel that the book itself is aged. While I’m sure a good case could be made for its relevence, I just see it as a dusty tome of classic literature, which makes it the kind of thing one reads for academia and perspective, but not for enjoyment.

    I contrast Melville with Ernest Hemingway, one of my very favorite writers from the first half of the 20th century. Melville (in Moby Dick at least) carries a weight on his shoulders that flows through his writing. Hemingway always sounds young, even in the works of his later life. His work resonates with young adults and teenagers, I think, partially because he never loses the useful spirit that runs through his work. His writing is also important, but it’s also enjoyable. Personally, I think The Sun Also Rises should be in the APUSH curriculum.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Blake, thanks for your thoughts! I will, of course, offer a few reactions. First, you may simply be making the case that author I can’t remember is—that, fundamentally, Melville’s great novel is aimed at someone much older than a high school student, and will resonate best with them. But I fell in love with the book at about your age, and so did Nathaniel Philbrick (whose feelings on the matter are well worth reading: http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2011/11/moby-dick-201111#gotopage1 ). So I don’t think that’s entirely it.

      This is, of course, a matter of taste. I don’t find Hemingway very moving, in my limited work with him: I think his prose is very bold and effective at sustaining the tone he wanted, but it’s not a tone I particularly identify with. There’s no way really to fit The Sun Also Rises into APUSH without ousting The Great Gatsby, and man, I couldn’t do that if you paid me. I’m sure there are folks who think Hemingway’s book superior to Fitzgerald’s, but I’m not in that club and not likely to get there.

      I’m sorry Moby-Dick reads to you as something dusty and academic. I think it’s a really vital book, very earthy. It’s full of sensory details—whether or not you like the feel of spermaceti on your hands, or the scent of the try-pots, I don’t see how you can read the novel and not be overwhelmingly struck by those notes. It’s a dangerous world inhabited by Ishmael, one full of death (much of which we see unfold before us). Ahab’s personality is larger-than-life, and his elemental clashes with Starbuck are really intense, I think. Frankly, I’d accept a lot of charges against the novel—it’s sloppily edited, the pacing is often uneven, there are long philosophical and pseudo-scientific riffs that can be distracting, many of the characters are not given sufficiently human dimensions, the symbolism is sometimes so prominent that it takes away from the significance of the actual events, etc. But the notion that it’s a sort of slow, plodding, dusty old fogey book….well, I’ve heard it many times from bright young teenagers like yourself. And I have to say, I always feel like it’s more something they impose on the book than something that’s there. Hemingway’s more action-packed, I grant you, but I don’t think we can fairly call Melville boring. Goodness knows there are a lot of novels out there where nothing much happens, but Moby-Dick shouldn’t be grouped with them.

      Is it possible this is a reaction on your part simply to 19th century conventions about writing—what sort of vocabulary is used, what is and isn’t depicted directly for the reader, etc.? Can you give me an author or two writing before 1880 as examples of what you like, or would it be fair to say there isn’t anybody writing before 1880 whose writing does what you think good writing should do? I hope you’ll respond—I’m curious to hear more from your side of the story.

      • Blake Crinklaw says:

        I’m going to assume you just mean American Writers in that time period, so just off the top of my head, I really like the styles of Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain. I think James Fenimore Cooper is a bit hit or miss, but I like him generally. I’ve only read The Scarlett Letter by Hawthorne, but I liked that one as well.

        Not to puff out my proverbial chest regarding literature, but I like to think I’ve read a lot of novels from different times and styles. I read contemporary young adult fiction alongside the Four Major Classical Novels of China. I read Bram Stoker and Nabokov along with Tim O’Brien. I don’t think that I have an issue with the writing conventions at the time period, given all that.

        I also don’t want you to think I hate Moby Dick. I don’t hate it at all. It’s interesting and some of the philosophical asides are very well-developed. I just think that a combination of the skull-fracturing force with which the symbolism is presented, the (in my opinion) slow pace for most of the book, and the fact that I think the language (as descriptive as it may be) simply isn’t very exciting makes the whole novel out to be very academic.

        There’s nothing wrong with academic reading or writing, but I think there is some value in a writer that is capable of both intelligent, thoughtful writing as well as entertainment. Most of the great novelists I’ve read are good at balancing that dichotomy, but I feel like Melville tries too hard to be important, as if he were aware that he was writing his magnum opus. It’s the same reason I think that Joan of Arc isn’t Mark Twain’s best novel. It’s not a bad novel, but it’s one that the author thought needed to be important, and in pursuing that importance, the author forgot the other half of story-telling.

        As for The Sun Also Rises, I think if more time was devoted to the literature instead of the history (which is never going to happen because of the focus on the AP test), it could be a companion read to Gatsby, Gatsby focusing on what happened to those who stayed in America and TSAR on what happened to those who left.

        • jwrosenzweig says:

          Hmmm….I’m not sure how to differentiate Cooper, Poe and Hawthorne from Melville, although Moby-Dick is intentionally written on a bit more of a “grand” scale than most of the things they attempted, which maybe gives rise to the tendencies in the book you’re critical of. And I hope I didn’t come across as saying “well, Blake, you’re hardly well-read enough to think this, are you?” That would be really rude, I reckon—I think it’s obvious from the way you write and think (independent of the examples you gave above) that you read widely and are open-minded. I was wondering if there was something specific about the 19th Century style that bugged you—since you gave Hemingway as a counterexample, it occurred to me that maybe you found all the 1700s/1800s stuff too flowery or overwrought. It seems that’s not the case, though…well, to each his own, after all. 🙂

          Your point about Melville’s self-consciousness is fair, I think—I definitely agree that he was thinking of the novel as his magnum opus the whole way through. Honestly, I find I often respond well to authors who are conscious that “this is the achievement I will never surpass”. Maybe I am less sensitive to (or critical of) elements present in that kind of writing. I’ll admit I’ve never read Twain’s Joan of Arc…I probably should, but in all honesty I find Twain’s anti-religious sentiments really overwhelm his talent when he writes novels that take on religion directly. I like him, but I’m far less enthusiastic about him than most people I know.

          And your comments about Gatsby vs. TSAR are sharp—you’re certainly right that a “real” honors American lit class would have time for both, and that the contrast could be worthwhile. I’d have to think about whether or not I’d pick TSAR, given the scope to add several more titles to the list. I think my inclination, at first, would be to add more minority voices (more female authors, more people of color) before adding another of the famous and celebrated white men. 🙂 But Hemingway is an author of importance with a huge influence on American writing downstream, so it’s hard to say. Maybe I should revisit TSAR—I’ll admit, my memories of it at present aren’t fond enough to whip up real excitement for teaching it.

          Thanks, as always, for your thoughts and for being so willing to jump into the conversation—it seems we often disagree, but I think we do so with respect for each others’ viewpoints and I hope we both gain from the discussion (I know I do!). 🙂 If you’re willing, I’d be curious to hear what else (besides TSAR) you’d add to an honors U.S. Lit. class, given the opportunity to do so.

  2. Dogen says:

    This is an engaging perspective. I think whenever you find yourself crowded with APUSH thoughts when reading Moby Dick, then all that is normal. I know when I was reading it I had multiple interpretations in a single sentence pertaining to religion, art, and sexuality. Its not like Mellevile intended for me to think those thoughts during the reading, but that was simply what stored in my subconscious…at the time.

    You could say, religion, art and sexuality were the seeds planted in the basement, and the roots simply grew up into the living room and stayed there for a while. Then I’d read the next sentence and move on. I don’t think its beneficial to think that when your 60 years old you’ll be reading this Melville novel like a high school teacher. Thinking like that only traps you in an intellectual hell.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thanks for the comments—I think I understand where you’re coming from, although I think “intellectual hell” goes much too far for me at the end. I’ll grant that, in 30 years’ time, I hope I’m bringing more and different things to my reading than I am now. But I don’t see that there’s anything wrong with holding on to some of what I’m using now. Or do I misunderstand your comment?

  3. Dogen says:

    Why is intellectual hell going too far?

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      “Dogen”, I think I already explained this, but I’m willing to give it another go. I agreed with the idea that I thought growth was a good thing, but I thought that your characterization of my continuing to read Moby-Dick through a teacher’s eyes in 30 years as an “intellectual hell” was excessive because I think there would be value in retaining at least some of that perspective. In the same way, I don’t want to read novels I loved as a child in the same way I did when I was a child. But when I am old, I hope I can still capture at least a little of what I saw as a child. To read The Hobbit like an 8 year old at the age of 80 would certainly be a bad thing if that’s all I’m capable of. But I think being able to touch at least a little of that child-like mentality would be worthwhile for an old man to be able to do.

      Besides the above (in which I disagree with what I take to be the substance of your remark), even if I agreed with you that it’s completely undesirable, “intellectual hell” sounds much harsher to me than any negative consequence I can envision. Being a racist ideologue who writes screeds for a Holocaust denial magazine would be an “intellectual hell”. Being an older man who reads novels without adding any of the perspective gained from his years of experience is sad, or even counter-productive, but not “intellectually hellish”, in my opinion. Of course you’re free to disagree—if you’d like to defend your characterization, I’d be curious to hear what you have to say.

  4. Dogen says:

    Well, that certainly clarifies my misperception on your entire piece on Reading through the Eyes of a Teacher (and subsequent comments). What you are saying is, and correct me if I’m wrong, that in 30, 40, or even 50 years time, you’ll look back on your experience on teaching Moby Dick to your students with a sense of nostalgia. You must have had a heartfelt connection with those students to compare them to the pure and innocent mind of an 8-year-old child reading the Hobbit. I think its beautiful.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Hmmm…I guess I’ll take one more crack at this. And then if we’re still not understanding each other, I’ll have to leave it at that. I did definitely have a meaningful connection with my students. And I think a little nostalgia’s nice, and hope it will always be present when I pick up a copy of Melville’s novel. But that’s not really what I’m saying at all.

      What I’m saying is that, in the future, I am interested in how I will continue to read. I am wondering whether, years from now, I will still (in some sense) be reading the novel in the way I did as a teacher, since that method of reading seems to persist as of now. The analogy to The Hobbit is another example of this—the idea that in some ways we read books differently as we age, but that I hope in some ways to continue to be able to have the same experience.

      This is the kind of thing I consider, from time to time. For whatever reason, it seems to really be throwing you off—maybe you and I read very differently, or maybe it’s just that we think of reading very differently. In any case, that’s where I’m coming from, and I don’t think I can do any more to make it clear than I’ve just stated.

  5. Dogen says:

    Oh. Funny. That’s how I initially understood your article. So yes, the first time I read it I understood it the way you wanted it to be understood.

  6. Dogen says:

    But if that is the state of the state, then there’s nothing to do about it then.

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