1. The Question: I never know how to respond when my students ask me why we have to read so many books about “different cultures.” My first reaction is anger – an unwieldy, emotional kind that is impulsive and cruel. It is precisely for this reason that I always keep a cup of iced coffee nearby. I reach for it when I need a few seconds to think about how cool it is to have a job.
If I’m lucky, I can compose my face into a generous smile and begin to ask students questions about what they deem to be “different” about the culture in the book at hand. Eventually, after much pencil tapping and shrugging and uncomfortable side-eyeing, we reach the groundbreaking conclusion that the book is not solely about A White Straight American Experience. The students repeat phrases like “it hits you over the head,” and “rubs your nose in it,” as though they’re being potty trained by a sadist.
If I’m not feeling so lucky, I’ll say something about literature being a conduit for all human experience and leave it at that. After all, we have syntax and shit to talk about. I’ll promise myself that I’ll dedicate a Research Sunday in the near future to the answer for this question and I’ll promise myself that I’ll get it right next time.
Both responses are wrong: incomplete, superficial.
2. The Walls: In the Time of the Butterflies, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Life of Pi, The Awakening, anything by Gloria Anzaldua
Nick Hornby reports crying tears of frustration at the hands of Iain M. Banks’s Science Fiction novel Excession in a 2005 Believer column. Even the blurb on the back filled him with terror. I feel similarly when trying for any point of time to make headway into The Fellowship of the Ring or the first book of The Game of Thrones. I want the experience of having read these books, because I want to participate in conversations about Ents and Dire Wolves when they are happening around me (as they often do). However, I don’t want the experience of ACTUALLY READING the books because I hate them. I don’t know why. I do like dragons and Renaissance festivals.
I have a wall when it comes to detective series novels. I’ll read a one-off thriller with no problem. But as soon as I turn the book over and see that this same detective is making a return visit to the pages, I suddenly can’t be bothered.
Another wall: All Historical Fiction.
This doesn’t mean that I am particularly snooty. I’ll read just about anything about a serial killer, a school shooting, or a person who rides horses.
All readers are going to have natural walls. Some books need to be read anyway.
3. The Bridges: Fight Club, Fist Stick Knife Gun, Gilgamesh, Hamlet, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self
I guess it’s not rocket science, but it will take more than month of Research Sundays to figure out how to teach students that walls are sometimes worth scaling (especially since I can’t read a book about a dragon), and experiences are worth reading even if no one is interested in appropriating the coolest parts.