So in my LibraryThinging1
, I've reached John Bellairs and The House with a Clock in its Walls
, which is possibly the first book I ever read that scared the living daylights out of me.
I love it with a passion.
And I discovered, trying to make LibraryThing cough up the right edition (still its most aggravating flaw), that (aside from a "Just for Boys" edition
that, um, clearly hasn't talked to any ten year old girls recently) there is a study guide
Now, you would think, what with the Ph.D., and the geekiness, and the bookmania, that I would be tickled pink that someone thinks teaching The House with a Clock in its Walls
is a good idea.
However, comma, you would be wrong.
I'm all in favor, mind you, of teachers encouraging kids to read THwaCiiW
and talking with them about it and so on. But that's not what a "study guide" suggests. A "study guide" suggests that we must learn
, that we must lay it out like a patient etherized upon a table and dissect its inner workings. And I think that approach does both kids and book a terrible disservice.
There are those who complain that studying English literature "takes all the fun out of reading," or "destroys people's enjoyment of books." My experience has been that this is simply not true, that having a command of the tools of critical reading makes reading a richer, deeper, and exponentially more rewarding process. It may mean that there are certain books, certain authors, that one can no longer read because one has become sensitized to the shoddy and meretricious manipulations, or to the deathliness of the prose, or other characteristics that naïve readers do not notice. But what I've found is that there are always
more books to read, and better books, and so there's no loss.
Okay, I'm also a first class geek, but we knew that already.
So what, you are probably asking, is my deal with Bellairs?
Well, here's the thing. There's a difference between reading critically (in the sense of reading with critical skills) and dissecting. Not all books--not even all good
books--benefit from dissection. I know people have been disappointed that I haven't followed up my epic Sayers posts with similar disquisitions on other authors, but the reason for that is that a book has to be doing a certain kind of work in order for dissection to have value. And mostly, books that respond to this treatment are books that are already in the canon and doing very well, thank you.
This isn't a value-judgment; many of the books I love and reread don't do the kind of work I'm talking about. But if they aren't interested in building thematicosymbolic2
structures, any attempt to study them, beyond reading comprehension questions and cultural context as necessary, will
kill them, because it will be asking students to find things in the text that the text wasn't interested in generating.3
And in trying to find the seeds of the onion, you tear the onion apart. The books become pale and lifeless, with all their clockwork gears showing.
And that's a terrible thing to do to a book.
I find running through my head as I work, this little ditty: LibraryThing, you make my heart sing / You make everything / Groovy / LibraryThing, I think I love you.
Because my brain will just not shut up.2
Some days I shouldn't be let loose on the English language.3The Pooh Perplex
is an extended, satiric exercise in doing exactly that.
There's another post I could make about analysis reading against the text, but that's a hostile procedure. You do it to books that have something in them that needs
to be killed--racism, sexism, sexual hypocrisy, etc. It can provide an astonishingly rich analysis, but if persuasive, it does guarantee that you will never be able to look at that particular book in the same way again.
ETA: My post
about X-Men: The Last Stand
is a good example of an analysis that straddles the uneasy boundary between analysing with and against the text.