Monday, May 16, 2011

Responding Better to Literary Reading

flickr-CaptPiper (creative commons licensed)
My students found little of interest and much at fault in the book I recently assigned to them, Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End. This has caused me to reflect upon what I might have done better to prep them for a more productive read.

On the other hand, I expect my English major students to be more sophisticated about their reading strategies, and I'd like to call them out on that point. By and large, what my students wrote about Rainbows End has been uninteresting and perfunctory. Their blog posts about the book are mostly personal reactions to their reading experience combined with brief criticism of the book's literary failings. These are not unreasonable responses, just not that useful. I want them to respond better to literary reading.

Now, to be fair, I am encouraging my students to be personal in their blogging style, and I also want them to feel comfortable posting informally -- especially about their reading. And if they post a review from to their Goodreads account, it seems perfectly reasonable that they write a short, candid, personally-oriented response to a novel, with a dollop of aesthetic critique for good measure.

But I had hoped for so much more.

A book report? << shudder >>
No, I don't expect my students to fall in love with things that have sparked great interest for me. But on the other hand, this was the only book assigned for our course to read in common, and it was one that I very carefully selected to launch our investigation of things both literary and digital. This wasn't a book on my coffee table that I might mention to a visitor, "you should give that a read"; it was the main book to introduce an intense academic term where I want my students to engage the issues that Vinge's characters do in Rainbows End. Their "reaction" posts did not give me much evidence or faith that they are seeing those issues or looking to apply them as they move forward. Their "reviews" sounded a lot like a genre we don't do in college: the book report, "Look, teacher, I did my reading" instead of something that showed them really understanding and engaging the available issues in that novel.

Mixed messages?
What I fear is that I have encouraged a kind of insubstantial engagement with literature precisely because of the medium I'm encouraging them to use. I don't know how to solve that problem, exactly. If expectations are too high, then their writing about literature will be seen as a formal assignment and that has its own costs. At the very least, this situation merits the observation that not all books are valuable either because they are personally interesting to the reader, nor are only those literary books of value that meet established aesthetic standards.

Good, aesthetically poor, literature
For example, Samuel Johnson criticized Shakespeare severely for violating the classical unities (rules about drama). Johnson wasn't wrong; it's just that the value in Shakespeare's plays transcended his lapses. I'm not equating Vinge with Shakespeare, but it is a bit of a misread to judge science fiction on its successful plots or characters, when this genre's strength is in ideas. That is a very legitimate kind of literature. Thomas More's Utopia is a horrible novel (an unfair judgment, since novels didn't come into their own until well after More), yet More's imagining of society has been extremely useful. Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels is a hodge-podge story that fails miserably in terms of plot. It is episodic, uneven, and not really coherent overall; yet, its critique of society remains valuable to this day. Uncle Tom's Cabin is a sentimental and ideological mess, yet it reveals Cival War-era attitudes with a precision that transcends its aesthetic faults. Thoreau's Walden lacks plot, character development, and coherence, yet its strengths supercede all these faults. Good students of literature don't ignore aesthetic problems, but they prioritize their readings by looking at a book's strengths, and not merely in terms of its personal influence on the reader.

Why Rainbows End deserved a better reading
Rainbows End is not a perfect book by any means, but it successfully imagines not just credible technologies (such as digital layers imposed upon our views of reality, already happening with augmented reality applications on mobile devices), but more importantly, it imagines the social conditions of new technologies (such as "belief circles" that reflect massive digital castes -- far from being merely fictional today). Vinge's book dramatizes the issues at stake when one culture (printed book culture, represented by the protagonist, Robert Gu, a curmudgeon trying to adapt to the digital world he awakens to when cured of Alzheimer's) goes head to head with a competing culture (digital culture, represented by Juan Orozco, among others, a teen who teaches Robert Gu how to collaborate on multimedia projects). I wanted my students of literature to think about the nature of literacy and its evolution by way of this science fiction tale, including the appreciation of traditional form (poetic imagery, for one) combined with the many mediations between books and education, or meditations upon consuming, creating, and connecting so broadly evident in what is, no doubt, a mediocre work of literature.

Consuming literature intelligently
Francis Bacon famously said
Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. ("Of Studies," 1625)
I fear that the English major tends to attract and to encourage students who are rather satisfied with (and even rewarded for) highly subjective kinds of reading. Of course, the existence of a curriculum that requires them to read more broadly, and assigning them to compose traditional literary criticism, can bring them out of that egocentric world into a larger conversation. It turns out that some books deserve "diligence and attention" not because they float your boat, but because others have found them worthy of their diligence and attention.

That works on a grand scale (it's the way that we come up with the literary canon), and it works on a smaller one, too. Sometimes, it can be an extremely useful thing to find value in literary works not because they please you, but because they are important to someone who could be of value to you -- like a teacher, or a mentor, or a boss.

I'd like to relate this to uses of new media. Recently, while skiing with my nephew (a high school senior), he told me about how much he wanted to get a job after high school with a specific sports retailing company. He was interested to know how he could set himself apart from the many applicants competing for his desired job. "Use the media available to you to find out what is important to your prospective employers," I told him, "and then start to show interest in those things and knowledge about them." I told him he didn't have to wait to graduate or wait until they had received a job application in order to get in the game and start proving his value to them. It's really quite simple: position yourself to get something of value by providing something of value, and that begins by finding out what these people find valuable.

Questions to ask yourself when reading
If I were one of my own students, I would have asked myself, "Why does Dr. Burton want us reading this?" or even better, "How can this book become a bridge between what Dr. Burton thinks is important for us to learn in this class and what interests me most?"

Now that my students are busy reading a self-chosen literary work, I'm wondering if they are simply going to indulge a personal view, or whether they are going to work to make their reading relevant to what others are thinking and doing. Good books give people good means to converse about important topics, but this requires some work to investigate not just the book's inherent qualities, but the contexts in which discussion of that book can be relevant.

Contrary to traditional literary inquiry, I want my students to investigate such contexts as much as they investigate the texts about which they are researching and writing. So you are reading Huckleberry Finn. Who cares? It turns out that lots of people do, and you can find them and converse with them. Maybe you are reading something less well known, such as Sondheim's Assassins. The question of who could care is as relevant as who already does. What problems, tasks, projects, organizations, or groups could my investigation of this literary work profit? To what and to whom could this work be relevant right now? How can I make that bridge?

Now those will be great questions to see my students answer. I wish they had answered them about Rainbows End; I expect them to answer those questions regarding their current, personally chosen reading.


  1. I completely understand what you are saying here. My own blog/Goodreads post was nothing special and nothing useful, like you said. I was focused much more on how reading it online affected my experience. I could and should have added more about how the book related to our class and the issues we have discussed.



  3. This was really interesting to read. As students we are used to hearing about what other students are saying about the reading and the things we have to do to fake our appreciation for it, but I love that you can call us out on it. We are not used to getting a teachers personal response to our reactions except in the form of letter grades. That is my experience anyways.

    That being said, what is this book, and is there something online that would give me a good idea of the basic lessons? Is this something you think I should look more into?

  4. Aly - I don't think that your post about how you experienced the novel was inappropriate, since much of the book is about new ways of interfacing with knowledge.

    Bri - Apologies, since in your post about the book you certainly made the very sorts of connections I'd hoped more students would attempt instead of just registering personal opinion.

    Rachel - Thanks for commenting from India! I wonder if some of my students could point you to the answers to those questions...

  5. That is all i needed to finish my short piece of writing based on a variety of humanities and social sciences at my college this year. When in university i would otherwise prefer sample term papers for free on history made for me by some custom writers who already have degrees and huge experience in educational sphere. For the most part, not only students can judge by level of mastery or complexity of any kind of research material.