One of the perks of being an English teacher is that you get to reread books. Those of you who are not English teachers and/or avid readers look at that sentence and diagnose us with, at best, lunacy, and at worst, deeply masochistic tendencies.
Hear us out. How many times have you watched your favorite movie? Surely several, if not dozens. Why? You might say it’s for the inherent pleasure that the film provides. Maybe it was to tease out a secret plot you completely missed the first time around (think The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects; for us the most recent film to do this was Moon). Maybe it’s simply to live in that world for two more hours, be it an imaginary one in a galaxy far, far away, or one closer to home if a bit unusual (we will gladly spend two hours in Wes Anderson’s world; every time we rewatch The Royal Tenenbaums, a different character resonates with us as the spiritual center of the movie). Or maybe it’s because, in a way, that film tells you something new about yourself every time you watch it. It serves as a kind of cinematic height chart, if you will — or maybe the better analogy is to a Rorschach test.
This is what rereading books is like to an English teacher. Not all of what we reread is pleasurable. The Scarlet Letter is pretty much as dreadful as you remember it; besides, your students will just want to watch Easy A instead. But Nathaniel Hawthorne is an outlier. What we’ve been struck by, as we return to the classics we last touched twenty odd years ago, is how much we missed when we read, say, Lord of the Flies as a teenager. (The boys killed the mother pig how?) The Great Gatsby is probably the best (and most chronicled) example: Who among us, as a sixteen-year-old, could see past the glitz and pageantry of Gatsby’s parties, or perceive that there was more going on that just a doomed love triangle? To be fair, you may recall discussions about that beckoning green light and the American Dream; about the different social classes embedded in the novel’s geography, from East and West Egg to the forsaken Valley of Ashes; maybe about all that symbolism, whether the mysterious eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg or the vivid color imagery of white dresses, yellow cocktail music and vast blue lawns. Even if you grasp all of those things on an intellectual level, though, there’s only so much a teenager can grasp about regret, or the loss of innocence, or the end of the American Dream, or the meaning behind a passage like the one on the last page when Fitzgerald describes New York — “a fresh, green breast of the new world” — as it first appeared to a Dutch sailor’s eyes, putting him “face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” Reread Gatsby now, and you’ll likely find a whole new story waiting for you — and not because Fitzgerald’s text has changed, but because you have.
What we’ll do, throughout the summer, is pick one classic a week and reintroduce you to it. We’re calling this little endeavor “ReLit.” You’ve read the books once (or, perhaps, “read” them once … you know what we’re talking about), but now is when you’re actually ready to read and appreciate them. The other thing we’ve learned, as we’ve reread and attempted to do these books justice in our own classrooms, is how different reading a book and teaching a book can be. So Gatsby is about the American Dream. So what? What does the American Dream mean to a teenager in 2015? What is the 21st century equivalent to the scaffold where Hester Prynne is judged and scorned by her Puritan neighbors? (According to our students, the answer is “the Internet.”) What do we make of Mark Twain dropping the n word 219 times in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when that word has evolved and taken on so many different connotations since 1885? Or publishers replacing that word with “slave,” on the grounds that it’s not censorship but rather a way to make Twain more accessible and less controversial in an era of classroom trigger warnings? By no means do we have all the answers. But maybe, like us, you’ll find unexpected pleasure in wrestling with some of the questions.
Tomorrow: Jane Eyre!