Sunday, October 28, 2012

Required Reading

You've been spending some time lately in the company of Isabel Archer, a difficult company in many ways, filled with tricky combinations of irritation, grudging respect, outright admiration, and unanticipated flare-up of impatience.  Ms Archer is a fictional creation, her ultimate fate of some concern to you as teacher, writer, and person, all occupations you hope to do well at.  Her creator is Henry James, a writer you managed to avoid while you were a formal student, although in retrospect it can be argued you went to considerable lengths to avoid many writers, many things, and many comparisons and conclusions you ought to have made sooner given your choice of profession.

Ms Archer, in many ways represents your irritation and impatience as a student with your irritation and impatience as a writer and, with greater certainty yet, with your irritation and impatience as a teacher.
She is the protagonist of what many of your own teachers and other critics regard as James' finest novel, Portrait of a Lady,one that could with some irony be argued to belong in the list of most distinguished American novels.  Although James had long since packed his bespoke clothing and workout dumbbells to England, he nevertheless published in America, and cast Isabel Archer as an American.  He also had some rather poignant difficulties in store for her, including a final scene in which she realizes a terrible truth.

Would Portrait, you wondered make an excellent pair-up with My Antonia for your Winter comparative literature class? Each novel is about a strong, perhaps even headstrong woman, set down amidst a swarm of restraining conventions, confused men, and inflated romantic notions.  Had you the time to include a third in the compare/contrast calculus, you could include Madam Bovary.

Isabel Archer reminds you of your own impatience and irritation as they relate to the matter of students and reading.  Even though you read with great energy, not lost on you are the ends to which you went to avoid reading the titles assigned in classes, most of which were in fact assigned to supply for you then what you attempt to do in classes designed to provide wannabe writers with tools, skills, and ideas.
Your only defense against reading Portrait then as opposed to in more recent years is that at least you were reading with a hunger that seemed to defy satiation, as though each new thing might be the transformative title that would cause the inner lights to go on and stay on.

In that hunger, however misguided, you at least read.  Isabel Archer at various moments is aware of the same hunger for reading, but is also aware that much of her information comes from reading rather than experience.  She appears at times to prefer the remoteness of observing others as they experience rather than indulging personal experience.  Although James does not spell this out, he offers us strong suggestions of this view of experience applying to sexual experience as well.  James draws some interesting moral, intellectual, and emotional choices for her, then sets her forth like a wind-up toy to cope with them while he shrewdly and with penetration observes on her behalf.

With few notable exceptions, a good many of your students draw the line at reading.  They would have you know that they are too busy writing to read, even when you point out to them how their own lack of reading has in a real sense frozen them at a historical time at the past so far as narrative technique, character goals, authorial intrusion, and dialogue are concerned.  Good as Jane Austen's dialogue is--and it is quite good--modern drama, especially television, has given writers the opportunity to digest her technique and grow beyond the limitations of her reach.

Is it only your way of discussing reading?  When you bring up the subject, you see the drawbridge being raised and the moat drained by those who say their wish is to write, who say they are too busy writing to think of reading.  They look at you across the generation or so separating you and you see them wondering what privilege or leisure or other forces were at play to keep you away from your writing and so content to spend your time twenty thousand leagues under the sea or on Mars or in Afghanistan with adventure books from men well before your time, and how you could admit to a fondness for Jane Austen and be serious about it.

Like Isabel Archer, you have a clump of information yanked from your reading, but you also have your own experience to draw upon as well as your experience of having written words, millions of them, and from having edited millions of them.  You move among the worlds to the point where Isabel is as real to you as your companions at breakfast this morning, and you find yourself wondering as you walk and drive about your current city whether a character of your own design has been to this place or would likely go here.

Some of the steam of your impatience and irritation has given way at the realization that you have in fact eventually caught up with the readings assigned to you so long ago, perhaps to their advantage and yours.  You'd not have had much patience with Isabel when you were first given the chance, any more than you had with the whale and those who sought to cope with him.

Some of them regard you with the faint, patronizing acknowledgment that you have wasted your time by becoming well read, an acknowledgment that loses luster when, after a page or so of reading their work, you see what is about to happen.  At which point you are elected to the status of idiot savant, of a piece with the Dustin Hoffman character, Raymond, in The Rain Man.

The laugh is on them.  You are not in the slightest well read, and if their flirtation with writing turns into a full love affair, they will soon enough discover that neither are they.  Perhaps you'll pass one another on the way to the used book store.




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