A Conversation About Literature

(By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
Monday, November 10, 2008

Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Hours" and other works, was artist-in-residence recently at the University of Maryland at College Park. Here is part of a conversation he had with reporter Valerie Strauss about young people and literature:

Q) How do you teach young people to love literature?

A) I think helping kids to learn to love literature is not all that different from helping someone you are dating learn to love you. Which is not to be a drag or a burden, or sort of an irritating obligation. Think of yourself as on a date with these kids. . . . What is going to feel sort of challenging but interesting and compelling to them? What is going to make them want to date you again?

Q) Where do you start to build a curriculum they would appreciate?

A) I'm sure compiling a list is a little like planning two weeks in Europe. Once you get started, you have to go to Portugal, but what about Norway? You can so easily end up spending three hours in half the countries in Europe because they are all fantastic. . . . I guess I would start with American literature, because we are members of the world community and we are also Americans.

Q) In what order?

A) I guess I would want to think seriously about moving backwards through history. Starting with the present and going back. I'm going to hope that at least some [high school students] are going to go for Junot Diaz and Toni Morrison. I think an early Morrison, like "Sula" or "The Bluest Eye." Now there is an amazing book. Or Denis Johnson's stories in "Jesus' Son." These are obviously serious works of literature but with no whiff of the tome about them. Then I would go backwards. That's how you get to questions like, "How does Toni Morrison come out of 'King Lear'?"

Q) Is there a book that no high school graduate should miss reading?

A) There are about 300 essentials. What do you cut? I don't know. But you don't want to overwhelm them. It gives them a bad feeling about the whole prospect of reading. Challenge, yes, but not overwhelmed. Not made to feel guilty and foolish for failing to connect to Ahab and that whale for 700 pages.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company