What a Book Is For, Revisited

[This is a reprint of an old posting, but with an afterword.]

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 Extraordinary 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 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 their neighbors, 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, which is what you would do when choosing poems for a good anthology rather than a textbook. Can a textbook be so good? It is difficult. In 1967 Lionel Trilling published one 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.

* * *

I republish this posting the day after the I.B. results came out, and it seems necessary to consider what I have said in light of the very real demands that externally set examinations place on students and their teachers. Before I became an all-I.B. teacher, I could work with students on poetry in different ways than I do knowing that they must all be able to produce well-written answers to questions about poetry as a genre and poets they have studied as well as extemporaneously written commentaries on poems they have never seen before. Nonetheless, I believe that I still  teach students first and foremost to “read the poem,” as Professor Koch would have said, while concurrently teaching them how to make a solid written argument. This ends up partly “teaching to the demands of the test,” but by way of teaching to the demands of a coherent intellectual life as an adult.

By following the I.B. curriculum’s requirements to teach collections of work by single poets rather than an anthology of many poets’ works, I find that the students can hear better the way poems speak to each other as well as to their readers and hearers. It adds a depth and keenness to their analysis that a survey could not produce. And it is still possible to expose them to a variety of poetic types. If they have to read poems by Yeats, Frost, Bishop, Lawrence and Hopkins as well as Antony and Cleopatra, they will end up having seen a good sampling of the possibilities of poetry, and that is a good thing regardless of test scores.

By the way: My students did well.


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