From Indianapolis come these words, written by a reader who clearly knows the way to a columnist's heart:
"You made my day when you stated that 'The Old Man and the Sea' was a work of 'monumental fatuousness.' My sophomore English teacher made me read that book, see the damned movie twice, and make a speech in class. I did a lousy job because I'd fallen asleep so often. Because I was only 14, I'd assumed I was dumb/immature. Now I know the story was monumentally fatuous. I think I'll write to her, too."
Although this correspondent seems to have taken my opinion just a wee bit more seriously than she should have, her letter is most welcome--not merely for its kind sentiments, but also as a reminder of the peculiar injuries that can be inflicted upon us, often unwittingly, by our high school English teachers. No doubt the teacher in question had the very best of intentions; perhaps she thought that exposing her students to the simple-minded sentiments of Hemingway's novella would be a painless way to persuade them of the joys of fiction, in the manner that some teachers now assign the (transcendently fatuous) work of Rod McKuen in hopes of persuading students of the joys of poetry. But the ruse obviously backfired, for here we have a former student who has been nursing a literary grudge for heaven only knows how many years, and now actually proposes to send the teacher a letter in hopes of scoring the final points in this long-running contretemps.
The teacher, if she cared to, perhaps could argue that the force-feeding of "The Old Man and the Sea" had a more salubrious effect than her erstwhile charge is willing to acknowledge: It produced a reaction of sufficient violence so as to engage the student's emotions with a work of literature. And the teacher would have a point; merely to arouse a 14-year-old's hostile interest may be a first step along the road toward serious reading. But the larger point is the one that counts: Having books crammed down one's throat, whether they be good books or bad ones, is a very efficient way to develop a lifelong aversion to them.
That point was made recently by Russell Baker, commenting on the short-lived fracas in Fairfax County over assigning "Huckleberry Finn" to junior high school students. Recalling that the novel "had been poisoned for me by schoolteachers who drove me to it before I was equipped to enjoy it," Baker wrote: "My immediate question is, what's it doing in the curriculum in the first place?" Having undergone 'similar experiences' with Shakespeare, George Eliot, Charles Dickens and Herman Melville, Baker long ago devised a system under which "any teacher caught assigning Dickens to a person under the age of 25 would be sentenced to teach summer school at half pay."
Baker's tongue was not, I think, in his cheek. Though it is true that the only way to teach the great and not-so-great books is to require that students read them, it remains that for one reason or another kids are often exposed to books long before they are ready for them--or exposed to them in a manner that seems almost calculated to evaporate whatever enthusiasm the students may bring to them. Like it or not, it is a precocious junior high schooler who is ready for "Huckleberry Finn"; leaving aside its subtle depiction of racial attitudes and its complex view of American society, the book is written in language that will seem baroque, obscure and antiquated to many young people today. The vastly simpler and sunnier "Tom Sawyer" is a book for kids, but "Huckleberry Finn" most emphatically is not; yet how many people think of "Tom" as a better novel than "Huck" because, from a 14-year-old's perspective, it was more fun to read and easier to understand?
Surely just about everyone recalls the agony of struggling through "Moby Dick" at the age of 17 or so. That book (which Baker succinctly described as "accessible only to people old enough to know what it is to rail at God about the inevitability of death") is difficult even for a careful adult reader, with its digressions into whaling lore and its theological ruminations. The teen-ager who staggers through it at the interminable pace of 20 pages a night, and then sits through suffocating class discussions of its "themes" and "metaphors," can hardly be expected to return joyfully to it as an adult; unless the teen-ager grows into an academic or an English teacher, Melville's great novel is almost certainly lost to him for good.
In my case, that very nearly happened with William Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury." I was subjected to it, if memory serves me accurately, as a junior in high school. To say that I hated it is a considerable and charitable understatement. At that age I was no more equipped to understand "The Sound and the Fury," much less to enjoy it, than I was to translate Sanskrit or run General Motors. Yet there I sat, dumbfounded, as Faulkner's shifting points of view, experiments with time and brooding contemplation of history passed before my uncomprehending eyes. It was required reading.
And it gave me a distaste for Faulkner that surely would have accompanied me to my grave, had it not been for a stroke of sheer, blind luck. A dozen years later I found myself on the campus of a famous university, with nine months in which to do whatever I pleased and with no requirement that I be graded on the results. In the catalogue I discovered a seminar on Faulkner for graduate students. Out of a sense of duty--I was then working in the South, and had begun to test the book-reviewing waters--I asked permission to sit in on it. When permission was granted, I approached the semester with heavy heart.
Well. You could have knocked me over with a magnolia blossom. What had seemed mysterious, forbidding and obscure when I was 17 was revealed, now that I was 29, to be a whole new universe. With a sense of discovery that I have rarely experienced, and that I still remember with a shiver of pleasure, I entered Faulkner's world and immediately found that my own world had suddenly taken on vast new dimensions. For the first time in my life, I really understood the joy to be found in reading difficult, challenging books--books that demand to be met on the author's terms rather than the reader's. From "The Marble Faun" to "The Reivers," I sailed through Faulkner's books in a great burst of awakening. Ever since, those books have been a central part of my life. And foremost among them is "The Sound and the Fury"--a novel that, I at last realized, has a limitless capacity to amaze, instruct and please me.
But as I say, I was lucky. My love for Faulkner's work developed in spite of, not because of, what I was taught when I was 17; an accident that happened more than a decade later gave me a second chance--proof, as if further proof were needed, that there is indeed life after high school.