Ten Wonderful Things, Part Four: Harry Potter

The fourth of ten things I loved about teaching this past semester.

4. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about reading lately.

Since I began teaching CEGEP, I’ve become aware of a problem that directly influences everything I do (or, at least, it should) but I don’t know how to grapple with this problem.  The problem is that students don’t read books unless they’re required to read them for school.

This has become a little less true in the last couple of years, though, and I put it down to two things.

I would wager that this year, most of my female students had read the Twilight series.  I can’t count the number of times I was subjected to loud conversations outside my bathroom stall to the tune of, “Not Edward, I love Jacob!”  “No, Edward!  He’s sexy!”  “Jacob!”  “Edward!”  I could have assumed they were talking about the films, but I regularly saw the covers of Twilight installments sticking out of bookbags, and what’s more, it felt like I was seeing more other books sticking out of their bookbags as well.  Mostly vampire-themed romance novels, but still.

I believe that any book-reading is better than no book-reading, and I believe that students who read for pleasure have huge advantages over students who don’t. That said, I tried to read Twilight.  Or, rather, I tried listening to it as an audiobook.  About three chapters in, I was ready to puncture my eardrums to make it stop.

I shouldn’t assume that the book was wholly at fault – maybe reading the voice of the insipid narrator Bella would have been less irritating than hearing it.  But I was also offended and bored by the whole premise: girl with no discernible attractive qualities becomes the object of the obsessive desires of all the boys around her, including a vampire who is not a boy at all, but old enough to know much, much better.  Laura Miller of Salon has written and spoken about the problems with the messages that Twilight sends to teenage girls, and I agree with her.  Rescue fantasies are always troubling, I find, but it helps if the heroine is at least spunky, and Bella, at least in the first part of the first book, is about as spunky as low-sodium polenta.

Which brings me to what I believe is the second reason that these days, more of my students have read SOMETHING that wasn’t assigned by a teacher, and that reason is of course Harry Potter.

At the time when the Harry Potter books were really taking off, my students would have been around the age of the first book’s target audience.  A couple of years ago, when I asked classes if they’d read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as kids, only a smattering of them raised their hands.  This semester, at least half of them did, and a good percentage of those said they’d read all or almost all the books in the series.  (The percentage who said they’d seen the movies but never read the books was about the same as it had ever been.)  Some of them had read the first book for school, but a lot had either read it on their own or, once they finished the assigned first book, went on to read the rest of the series of their own volition.

I assign it in my Child Studies course, where we first read Franny and Zooey.  They almost all hate F & Z, and they all, almost without exception it seems, love HP.  The reasons for this are a focus of discussion for much of the course; “What makes a book good?” is a running question from the beginning of the semester until the end, when they write a story themselves and evaluate it according to the criteria they come up with.

Harry Potter is special because they think it’s good, but it’s also special because I think it’s good.  It’s a good story.  It has lots of important messages about the value of courage and the danger of judging by appearances.  It has lovable characters, and most of the nasty characters are complex.  And it’s full of wonderful funny writing.  Assigning Twilight on a course would leave a bad taste in my mouth, but assigning Harry Potter doesn’t.  If they haven’t read it, they should.  If they have read it, they should read it again and think about why they love it so much.

What strikes me most about the Harry Potter lessons is the level of engagement in the discussions.  Students are almost never off-task.  No matter what question I ask them about the book, they have something to say about it.  They’ve DONE THE READING.  (If you aren’t an English teacher, you may not be aware of how significant this is.  It is VERY SIGNIFICANT.)  When I walk around and observe them, they hardly notice me, so absorbed are they in discussing whether Harry’s relationship with Draco Malfoy is more important than his relationship with Ron, or whether there is anything morally questionable about the role of witchcraft in the series.

Some would ask whether pleasure-reading should really be the focus of the college English classroom.  I would argue (and am hoping to soon write a literature review that argues) that it should be at least one of the foci, at least in the context that I teach in.  This might not have been true thirty years ago, when a large percentage of the students admitted to CEGEP already knew how to read for pleasure, and didn’t need to be given opportunities to discuss books they easily loved – they did that on their own time, as all “readers” do.  At that time, it made sense to introduce students to books they might not come to on their own, and to challenge them to find value in works they didn’t particularly like.*

I think it’s still important to do this (and when we work on Franny and Zooey, finding value in the difficult is the main thrust of our work.)  However, I think we also need to acknowledge that for many students, the only books they ever read are the ones they read for English class.  If they haven’t learned how to love books, English class might be the only place they can learn that, the only place where they have natural, invested discussions about books the way “readers” do, the only place they get to practice the skill of being a “reader.”

And if Harry Potter is the only book, or set of books, they’ve ever loved, then it might be a good idea to pause and look at it deeply and think about that experience: the experience of loving a book.

I try to mix up my assigned texts, mostly to avoid semester-to-semester plagiarism, so I’m trying to find a replacement for HP and the PS next year.  I’m considering introducing the students to A Wrinkle in Time instead.  I think of it as one of the Harry Potters of my generation.  (It was actually published seven years before I was born, but my friends and I were obsessed with it.)  It’s also the first in a series – a trilogy, actually – so you never know; it might lead some of them to read two non-required texts that year.

What book did you love when you were seventeen years old?  If I gave it to my seventeen-year-old students now, would they love it?  I might not teach them anything else, but if I give them the chance to love at least one book, I’ll feel like I did something right with my life.

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*Katha Pollitt’s essay “Why We Read: or, Canon to the Right of Me” elucidates this topic in a way that has stayed with me for many years.

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Previous wonderful things:

Thing #3: Early Mornings

Thing #2: Incorrect First Impressions

Thing #1: My IB Students

Image by Nino Satria

What I’m Learning From Roberto Bolaño’s The Skating Rink

A friend gave me a copy of The Skating Rink for my birthday a couple of weeks ago.  I’d told her that I’ve been trying to get into mystery novels lately, and she’s been devouring Bolaño but didn’t want to plunge me into his difficult masterpiece 2666.

It’s a relatively slim book, with an attractive, mysterious cover, and hey – a murder mystery.  So I was looking forward to it, and, after polishing off a couple of other things, picked it up in great anticipation.

It was hard.

The language wasn’t hard.  It’s narrated by three men, oral-history style, so the diction is simple and conversational.  Even structurally, it’s pretty accessible; each chapter is one long paragraph, which was in some cases disorienting, but the chapters are short, no more than a few pages. And there’s no question but that it’s brilliant.  The story is sinewy and double-crosses itself so that you have to read more and more slowly, backtracking and pausing and questioning.

It’s set in a fictional Spanish town outside Barcelona.  I’ve never been to Spain – it’s next on my list – and maybe some more intimate cultural knowledge would have helped me.  The three narrators were indistinguishable to me until well into the first 3rd of the book; maybe if I had some personal associations with the names “Gaspar,” “Remo” and “Enric,” they would have solidified for me sooner.

(I love names.  As a child I kept lists of names; I would comb through magazine mastheads and the credits of movies to find names that were new to me and write them down.  Every so often I’d alphabetize the lists – by hand, of course, on notepaper – so that I could spend more time looking at them and sounding the names out in my head.  For most of my life, I’ve had an uncanny ability to remember people’s names, although that has declined in recent years.)

What’s more, none of the characters – the narrators, the beautiful figure skater at the centre of the story, the old opera singer, her young companion…– were the sort of people one would really want to spend any time with.  I know this is a facile criticism; in fact, it’s not a criticism at all.  “Creating likable characters” is an overrated skill; creating unlikable but interesting characters is a far greater feat.  And these characters are all supremely interesting.

It’s a very good book, and I found it difficult to read.  And this was an important experience, because it reminded me of what my students go through all the time.

My friend chose this book for me, and I could have chosen not to read it.  I decided to read it through to the end because:

  • Bolaño is an important writer, and, as a reader, writer and teacher of literature, I should know something about his work,
  • I could recognize that the book is brilliantly written, even if I wasn’t compulsively swept along by it,
  • My friend loves Bolaño, and she’s smarter than me in many ways, so I know she’s on to something.

So I was able to engage in and appreciate this tough reading experience because I can recognize that it will bring me something.  And the truth is, when I say “tough,” what I mean is “I didn’t feel obsessed with the urge to devour this book to the exclusion of everything else I have to do.”

My students, however, are in a different position.  First of all, they don’t get to choose whether they finish the books I assign.  (Well, they do – their latest writing assignments suggest of many of them decided not to finish, or in some cases even to start, Franny and Zooey – but the impact for them is much greater than it is for me when I abandon a book.)

Also, my students have not received years of training in the reading of literature.  In fact, many of them don’t even have years of experience in reading simple books – a good number of them have probably never read a book, certainly not a work of fiction, unless it was assigned in school.  Therefore, I expect their responses to my “motivations” would go something like this:

  • “You say this guy’s an ‘important writer.’  Why should I care?  What do ‘important writers’ have to do with my life?  A bunch of people somewhere decided that this guy is important.  I don’t think he’s important.”
  • “You say this book is ‘brilliantly written.’  What makes it brilliant?  Who says it’s not just some guy amusing himself without caring what his reader wants?  If someone else calls this ‘brilliant writing,’ why should that matter to me if I don’t understand what the guy’s saying or why he’s saying it?”
  • “I guess maybe my English teacher is smarter than me.  Or maybe not.  She seems to think she is.   But why does that mean that I should read the things she thinks I should read?  That guy sitting up front in the third row is probably smarter than me, too, but I guarantee you that the stuff he likes is as boring as the stuff my English teacher likes.  If my English teacher likes this book, then I probably won’t, because my English teacher is NOTHING LIKE ME.”

We’re each the centre of our own universe, including our own reading universe.  My friends recommend books to me – sometimes I read them, sometimes I don’t finish them, sometimes I never pick them up.  I tell my students to read things because I think they should, and because I think they might even enjoy them.  They don’t get to decide what to do with that information; they either follow my recommendations or they risk failing their English course.

Granted, school is not a book club (although I sometimes wish I could make my classes more like book clubs, and I’m taking steps to see if that can happen.)  But if I can at least empathize with my students’ struggle to read books they don’t really like, maybe I can find ways to help them get something out of them.

I’m glad I read The Skating Rink through to the end.  It will stay in my mind far longer than some of my more comfortable reads.  I’d like my students to be glad about their difficult reading experiences too.  I don’t know if it’s too late, if they’re too old, to learn this skill if they don’t already have it: the skill of taking satisfaction in meeting an unappetizing challenge.  But maybe teaching them this skill is one of the most essential parts of my job.

If anyone has any pointers on how to teach it, I’m all ears.