“I want to write books that unlock the traffic jam in everybody’s head.”
– John Updike
The first real book I can remember reading was J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. I may have been 11 years old. I was banned from watching TV for some negligible crime involving the family dog and a bucket of paint. My allergies were acting up and I couldn’t go outside. My parents were fighting, and so I pulled a book at random from a box I’d found in the attic, and went into my room to disappear.
I remember thinking: “This book is really interesting. It’s about people even more messed up than my family.”
And also: “I wish they would stop yelling.”
About an hour later, during a lull in the domestic warfare that came to define my childhood, my mother entered my room, and found me under the covers reading the same moldy paperback she’d kept in her possession since she was around my age. She thumbed nostalgically through the first few pages, found this line, and read it out loud:
The rest were standing around in hatless, smoky little groups of twos and threes and fours inside the heated waiting room, talking in voices that, almost without exception, sounded collegiately dogmatic, as though each young man, in his strident, conversational turn, was clearing up, once and for all, some highly controversial issue, one that the outside, non-matriculating world had been bungling, provocatively or not, for centuries.
“What’s going on in that sentence?” she asked me. (My mother worked in education, and was skilled at these sorts of cold interrogations.)
“It’s a bunch of people, standing around a train station,” I answered.
“Mm.” She licked her finger, turned the page. “And the word matriculate. What does that mean?”
I shrugged my shoulders. I had no idea.
“It means go to college.” She closed the book. Sighed. “If you don’t know a word, you should look it up in the dictionary.” Then her face softened. “But a lot of the time, you can figure out what a word means, by the words that are around it.”
She gave me back the book. I noticed, for the first time I think, how veiny her hands were. And I realized that she had been crying. “So you learned a new word today. Good for you. You should learn two words every day, for the rest of your life.” Then she went out of the room, latching the door shut behind her.
I think I learned more about books, and writing, and the bizarreness of people, from that five-minute exchange with my mother, than from the many thousands of hours I spent in English classrooms and writing workshops from first grade through college.
* * *
“And Joyce was a poor sick fucker who probably died with his balls somewhere up around his navel. None of that for me, thanks.”
– Hunter S. Thompson
A few years ago–five? ten?–there was a major controversy involving the teaching of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as part of a standard high school English curriculum. The controversy stemmed from Huck’s relentless (and distinctly naive) use of the word “nigger” to describe his friend Jim, an escaped slave with whom Huck travels, on a stolen raft, down the Mississippi River.
I was never required to read Huck Finn in high school. I read the book on my own, some time after Franny & Zooey, and was sufficiently moved by the novel that when Halloween rolled around, I dressed up as Huck. That summer I wore the costume, or a modified version of it, as I explored the woods by my house with my dog. I don’t think I wanted to be Huck. I think I just wanted to be his friend. To find him in the woods somewhere.
Huck Finn is a lot of things–sad, funny, brilliant, maudlin, offensive, warm, clumsy, tedious. What it is not is an easy book to read. It’s a downright difficult book–and not just because of its folksy, racially-charged language. The book has no engine, no narrative thrust to keep the audience engaged. It is rather like the raft Huck and Jim travel on–meandering downstream, pausing to grill fish, occasionally finding adventure. Twain himself tired of the book midway through, put it in a drawer, and spent the next few years in bed. It is also a book with a famously bad and unwieldy ending.
Now, am I seriously arguing that children shouldn’t be required to read Huck Finn merely because it is a challenging work of literature? Yes, that is precisely what I am arguing–especially when there are shorter, equally rewarding books dealing with the same subject matter–many of them written by Twain himself. Tom Sawyer, Detective, anyone? Pudd’nhead Wilson?
* * *
“If a child does not like a book, throw it in the trash.” — Maurice Sendak
It makes no fucking sense to force children to read books they don’t want to read. It’s actually quite cruel–a lazy, yet elaborate form of torture. It is the equivalent of making a child work hard for a gift, over the course of many years, only to rob them of that gift just as they’ve developed the wherewithal to enjoy it.
Of course, that’s how school works. The point of school is to spread the gold from the sand, and identify and validate those students who are willing to fall in line with arbitrary rules and requirements, while penalizing those children who are unable or unwilling to march in lockstep, thus sentencing them to various low-paying vocational tracts, or worse, state universities.
Which is why students are assigned The Catcher in the Rye and not Franny and Zooey. Or Grapes of Wrath and not Travels With Charley. Or Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge and not Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Or Hemingway and Henry James instead of Kafka and Camus. God forbid children derive actual joy, and even original thought, from crawling under a tree and engaging deliriously with a work of fiction. We have them reading The Great Gatsby, for God’s sake. The Great Gatsby!
Which brings up a somewhat problematic question that’s been weighing on my mind for some time:
Why require children to read novels at all?
* * *
“A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” –Edgar Allan Poe
Recently I was asked by a fellow writer to provide a quote supporting the idea that short stories–despite the apparent rapid-fire disappearance of journals like Ontario Review and Grand Street–are still a viable medium. Leaving aside that this question presupposes, a priori, that short stories are still valuable, I will attempt to answer the question in the context of the short story-vs-novel educational dilemma.
First, the short story market is not disappearing; if anything, it is expanding, at a vastly disproportionate rate to our culture’s interest in the form. I should know; I spend a grotesque amount of time submitting to, and being rejected from, practically all of them.
What is disappearing is the average person’s–and even the above-average person’s–tolerance for writing that does not engage the imagination on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, page-by-page basis. In such a stifling literary climate, it is a wonder that people read any books at all. What the novel has become is a niche interest, nothing more. An eccentric, though still well-regarded hobby. The novel’s value in shaping today’s culture, or in clarifying its vision of itself, is questionable at best.
The short story, by contrast, is unique in that it packs all the pleasures of long-form fiction into a savory, aromatic dish that can be ingested and enjoyed in about the same time as it takes for you to leash up your dog and go looking for adventure in the woods.
* * *
“The difference between journalism and literature is that journalism is unreadable and literature is unread.” — Oscar Wilde
My ideal high school English curriculum looks something like this:
- Roald Dahl, Skin and Other Stories (short stories–student picks any two)
- Shirley Jackson, The Lottery (short story)
- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings (short story)
- J.D. Salinger, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, and Seymour: An Introduction (two novellas)
- Mark Twain, The Prince and the Pauper (short novel)
- Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (short story)
- Stephen King, Different Seasons (four novellas–student picks one)
- Alice Munro, Runaway (short story)
- John Steinbeck, Cannery Row (short novel)
- Albert Camus, The Stranger (novella)
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes From Underground (novella)
- Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich (long short story)
- Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (novel)
- Michael Chabon, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (novel)
- Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections (novel)
- Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing (film)
- John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces (novel)
- August Wilson, Fences (play)
There. Now isn’t that a colorful pile of literature? Doesn’t that look like a damn fine way to spend each school year? Aren’t these books more dynamic, more relevant, more beautifully written and joyfully consumed, than crap like Jane Eyre and Washington Square? Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if kids came home with these books, and their parents snagged the books for themselves.
It may be a random list. It may be an incomplete list. But it is an undeniably lively list, and if a kid can’t get excited about at least a few of these books, then what you have on your hands there is a dyed-in-the-wool simpleton, and no amount of lovingly rendered prose is going to prevent him or her from working in a gas station and watching The Big Bang Theory.
Note: This reading list is obviously lacking in non-Western voices, for the simple reason that I myself am somewhat of a simpleton, and have a limited interest in anything that doesn’t involve vodka, puppies, or football. My list is also notably light on female authors; I could have–and perhaps should have–included Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, or Ayn Rand…but high school students already read those authors, and I wanted to do away with the old, established curriculum and create something new here.
You may also notice that my list does not include such “classics” as The Odyssey, The Iliad, The Canterbury Tales, or Romeo and Juliet. You may even have a problem with this. To which I say: fuck the Classics. They are impossible to get through without massive quantities of wine and weed. The Classics are what college is for.
High school is for discovering the pleasures of reading serious fiction, and developing and refining those tastes, and experimenting with queer fashion choices, and sneaking cigarettes and blow jobs in bathrooms, and other worthy, wholesome pursuits.