When I was young, I read for pleasure – eating up books, soaking up plots. Enjoying them because they appealed to my tastes and whims.
When high school English classes rolled around, reading changed. I began to dread the activity I once loved. As Billy Collins puts it in “Introduction to Poetry,” reading felt as if I was tying the literature to a chair and “tortur[ing] a confession out of it.” This base extraction of information was done to complete assignments, to pass quizzes, to get a grade. Meeting predetermined standards was the goal of this system; learning was not an outcome.
In my World Literature class last semester, I was exposed to a better way. Instead of memorizing facts we engaged the texts. We asked what the stories were about beyond the surface facts of character, plot, and place. We asked what implications they have for our own lives. Mythology became more than stories of gods and nymphs. Chekhov and Tolstoy became more than inaccessible Russian authors. Poetry became more than romantic bumbling. In working to discover the meaning of the texts, I also learned the texts themselves in a deeper, more intimate way than I ever did while following the system I learned in high school. I learned to waterski across them; to hold them up to the light.