This is a primer for teachers and students on why and how to read literature; and why this is an important – indeed, vital – skill to have and to hone in all walks of life. It is irrelevant to the humanities and to the sciences, it is critical and inherent to how to think.
When you read a book learn the whole object first. In order to do so one must have the physical book. For most literature, if at all possible, it is best to physically hold the words in your hands as they were shaped by the author. The book as an object is the place you are allowed concern for authorial intent -- because (without getting into the business of publishing) what you are holding is both an object and a subject of desire.
Pause and consider this: in your hands is a human being's artistic passion. It is a desire and catharsis embodied into an object you now hold. Each pagination, each lettering, every kern. As you read be sure to honor this fact and its presence in your hands.
Sensation is integral to the readerly experience. When I think of Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon I don't see the colors yellow and brown but I feel them, along with the coarseness of the pages. A dark sense of oak comes up and a deep solitude. I hear Milkman cry to Guitar that "[i]f you surrender to the air, you could ride it" and I see myself at 16 years old in a pink bedroom crying. Reading is an organic process in which the words and the language and the stories become a part of you and I teach literature as something to be entered into as such. When you open the book, when you turn a page you are walking into someone else’s air.
When reading what is now called difficult literature (it's always important to ask, "...difficult for whom?") many of my students will wall up and say they do not or cannot relate and don't know how. This is especially so whenever literature concerns the big O's: the Others known as race, gender and/or sexuality. Traditionally, literature involving the white race, the male gender and/or heteronormativity has not been as publicly deemed difficult. But that is for another essay.
If there are letters to be read, read them. Create meaning with them. This will inspire you to put your own words onto pages and read them to others. I read everything there is possible and have always done so. I am a black woman. When I read as a little black girl there was never a struggle to enter into the traditionally white canon I was privy to. But I had a huge personality and I'm not sure I'd have struggled to enter into anything. There are a lot of little girls like that. Who don't know their size until someone lords it over them how small they are. That is absolutely for another essay.
The absence of that struggle for me has helped me answer the frustrations of my students. The ones who immediately feel prevented from entering into or relating to or understanding the words of characters not like themselves. Or how to read in a syntax that's not what they are used to seeing. I also speak to the students who perhaps feel a premature kinship to the literature because at last they do sense some recognition on the page. Literature is never that easy. Seductive, yes. Easy, no. Trust me.
Literature, particularly fiction, is about the human condition. And the best works do not transcend those big Os (never that, such a suggestion is insulting) but, rather they embrace them even and, especially, when the Other presence is seemingly not there.
It's why so many black writers, myself included, are diehard Faulknerians. I didn't read Faulkner until I was 19 during my sophomore year in college. It was his most difficult text: not The Sound and The Fury, his most celebrated novel and one I find lacking and much more typical in racist tropes, but Absalom. Absalom! When Charles Bon describes the not-whores of New Orleans I felt inspired to write about the women in my family and the black narrative -- how our beauty is in direct correlation with our massacre. Near the end of the novel when Bon (as imagined by two other characters -- told you, literature is seductive) tells Henry Sutpen, "I'm not [your brother], I'm the nigger who's going to sleep with your sister unless you stop me"
I still find that passage to be one of the most fascinating and earth-shattering in the North American literary canon. Because what is that if not subversive double-speak? What is that if not the most definitive representation of our American tension around race, especially since November 2008? Is he our past or our future?
I tell my students to treat the literature they read as alive. Something to constantly grapple with as much as they grapple with their own growing bodies and minds.
There is nothing without context and there is nothing outside context (I'm also a Derridean). But I believe in the overlapping of everything. I have to believe these things this way or I'll have no excuse for my high amount of pop consumerism. I'll have no explanation for why I see no problem paralleling Jay Z's "I'm not a businessman, I'm a business, man!" with Bigger Thomas's "But what I killed for, I am!" or why I'd argue that his version of "99 Problems" is a radical, misogynistic, Lacanian love song about the choice to be alone.
I tell my students literature is alive and well because when I watch television and come across a scene in which a white President taunts a black father about performing cunnilingus on his daughter I just know Shonda Rhimes was a Faulkner devotee in her Dartmouth days.
Or, because when Ferguson and Baltimore burned I thought of Salman Rushdie's line "Humiliate a people long enough and a wildness bursts out of them" in his too-oft ignored, aptly named novel Shame.
Read this way for the rest of your life but do so aggressively for a year at least. Be sure to copy those passages that strike you, especially the ones that strike you for reasons you cannot articulate beyond saying that it’s “interesting.”
Then, ban “interesting” from your vocabulary and get started on how to describe the indescribable.
Step one, how to avoid the passive voice: owning it.
Posted tonight on Dr. Mark Anthony Neal's New Black Man
just some things usually on my mind....