What a Book is For

A recent article in The New York Times reported the city schools’  ending book purchases at book fairs of small “trade-book” vendors in favor of mail order from large suppliers operating in remote locations. While it is always sad to see a local fabric of professional relationships ripped up by the demand for cheapness, that was not what made me take a second look at this article.

It incidentally reported on what trade books the schools bought and explained what trade books are for. The article said that these books, including novels and works of non-fiction, “are intended to fill out lesson plans” and “supplement textbooks.” I guess that in this view books of poetry are also intended to fill out lesson plans, though the article doesn’t mention them. It did mention that the city schools spend a third of their book budget on trade books. This is sad news to someone like me, who have taught English without a textbook for many years, as is the view that “trade books,” i.e., books, might be considered “supplements” in an English class.

Are the books most ordered by the New York schools novels? Are they works of non-fiction like, say, Richard Hofstadter’s America at 1750? Are they poetry anthologies like The Rattle Bag, edited by a Nobel-Prize-winning poet and a Poet Laureate of England? No, they are guides to prepare students to take standardized tests. This dispiriting statistic is a confirmation, if one were needed, of the test mania now submerging American public schools, those dikeless Low Countries of learning. If I were to recommend a “trade book,” i.e., a book, to read in order to understand where test mania comes from, I would choose Charles Mackay’s Memoirs of Extroardinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, whose chapter on “Tulipomania” I have shared with students for many years.

To return to “trade books,” i.e., books: which textbook would they supplement? So many English textbooks are so bad: The sidebar distractions—the smeary dreary badly colored pictures—the little boxes of crap—the inane assignments: where does one begin the catalogue? You might say, “Rather than begin a catalogue, begin with the literature.”

Let’s take poetry as an example and counterexample. I mentioned The Rattle Bag, which many of my classes of 9th-graders have used for many years. This book is so immediately appealing to them that I find the best way to introduce them to it is to give them half an hour or so just to browse and read. By the end of that time most have found a favorite, shared it with the kids around them, and begun looking for more. By the end of the poetry unit their favorites and mine have become a part of their study and experience. And their favorites can be surprising: not just Nash or Frankie and Johnny, but also Blake and even Thomas Hardy.

I attribute the success of this anthology to the likes and dislikes of the anthologists, who clearly chose poems that tickled them or took the tops of their heads off. Can a textbook be so good? It is difficult. In 1967 Lionel Trilling published a textbook called The Exper­ience of Literature. The success of this book was a sad one. It contained fifty-two prefaces to works in the collection, each of them a masterpiece of criticism written by a master of prose who could have the top of his head taken off by a good poem. Teachers complained that the prefaces left them little to say, so they were removed (the prefaces, not the complaining teachers). Students were still left with Shakespeare and Sophocles, but deprived of a keen critical intelligence by their side. The prefaces now appear separately as a “trade book,” i.e., a book. I use one of them, passing it out to the class, when teaching Hopkins’s “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo” to 12th-graders. The textbook with prefaces is out of print.

Wallace Stevens complains of the white nightgowns in his poem “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” that “none of them are strange.” What would he think of the poetry collected in many current textbooks? It is unexceptionable, and it can fill out a lesson plan, but it’s like a 180-day diet of mashed-potato sandwiches. When a highly capable student of mine, a Berber from Algeria, decided to examine Philip Larkin’s “High Windows” in the collection of the same name to see how it gets from its startling opening to its stunning conclusion, he was not in the mood for mashed potatoes, and he should not have had to eat them. He engaged forcefully with the poem and came to an exceptionally good understanding of it, and his classmates congratulated him.

Everything he (and thereby his classmates) came to understand that week about English was the result of his engagement with a poem that he could not shake off. By contrast, most students have no trouble shaking off the material in a bad textbook, and I am sure they will shake off much of what they “learn” in a course of preparation for a standardized English test. We would do far better to imagine lesson plans supplementing good books than the other way around, and to teach those books, not the tests that follow them.

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