Getting inside other people’s heads, part 1 (or: Why bother reading books?)

Michelle, earlier this month, posted about her disgruntlement with the kind of student whose only frame of reference is his or her own experience, and who is disinclined to consider any other possible frames of reference. As Michelle puts it:

It seems that particular mindset just isn’t embracing one of the aspects of literature i love so much — which is the rich and valuable insight you have to other cultures and other values, despite the common threads of humanity. … I think it’s similar to how annoyed I get when someone offers an opinion in class and then backs it up with a "well, that’s the way it is where I come from" type of remark. It seems to suggest that they draw all their conclusions on the narrow history of themselves, their small miniscule environment, not even within the world at large, but miniscule in the space of all of humanity and history.

I recognized this feeling of aggravation immediately. My own experiences as student and teacher weren’t always like this (far from it), but when the "that’s the way it is where I come from" attitude surfaced, it always drove me around the bend. I recall, for instance, a class centering around Renaissance music and art that I took as an undergrad, wherein one of my classmates opined, during a discussion of Erasmus’s life and works, that she didn’t understand why the Protestant Reformation was such a big deal; her campus church group included both Catholics and Protestants, "and we may not agree, but we don’t get into fights." Never mind that we were talking about a period of history when people not only got into fights over theology but fought prolonged and bloody wars over it, complete with burnings at the stake and all that; my classmate seemed to think that if it didn’t match her own experiences, it didn’t make sense.

My worst teaching semester was one in which my attempts to get my students to take an interest in the readings were greeted with a chorus of "We couldn’t relate to that! It was boring!" whenever the reading was something that didn’t precisely reflect their lives and interests. Finally, in a fit of utter frustration at one "I couldn’t relate to it" comment too many, I told them that the point of getting an education was learning that there was an entire world out there that they hadn’t experienced yet. I said that "relate-ability" wasn’t the best criterion to judge what they read, because it ruled out an immense amount of material that they might someday find interesting if they were less preoccupied with reading only books with which they could identify. They listened politely, but they weren’t convinced. I still consider that class to be my biggest failure as a teacher because I never managed to convince them of that point, and my impassioned speech in favor of reading about the unfamiliar, the strange, and the outside-the-sphere-of-personal-experience wasn’t articulate enough to reach them.

I don’t want to dwell on this, because it’s a depressing memory. What I do want to dwell on is what all this says about why people read literature at all. My students, or at least the ones who complained that they couldn’t relate to the readings, wanted reading to be like looking in a mirror: if they couldn’t see themselves in it, it didn’t hold their interest. I wanted them to see it more as a window — a lighted one showing the inside of someone else’s house to passers-by in the early evening, or a top-floor one that gives a vista over the roofs that you’d never see from the street. I’m much more of a window-reader than a mirror-reader, but I’m not out to dismiss the mirror view of literature. I think, ultimately, literature is both: a window where you can sometimes see your own reflection but with other things showing through it.*

So this will be part 1 of a series, because if I keep going it’ll be a monstrously long post. I think I’ll post on the mirror view of literature and the window view of literature separately. It’s probably going to end up being an attempt to see, window-like, into the heads of mirror-readers.

* An image stolen from any number of sources but probably from John Donne’s "A Valediction of my Name in the Window."

5 Responses to “Getting inside other people’s heads, part 1 (or: Why bother reading books?)”

  1. loren says:

    As I used to tell some of my students, the ones who COULD understand stories, “I’d hate to be married to someone so dense that they couldn’t understand the view of a character in a novel.”
    It seems to me that one of the most important reasons for teaching literature is precisely to teach a sense of empathy, as Atticus Finch tells Scout learning to walk around in another person’s shoes is part of growing up.

  2. michelle says:

    Argh, the story about the contemporary happy union between protestants and catholics slays me. I honestly do not understand how, out of all of literary history, the reformation is so difficult to grasp because movies like Elizabeth ought to reach mainstream and serve as a visual demonstration. But most people think that the King James bible is the first bible produced in English so Who Knows.
    I taught my first class this week, as a substitute, and they were reading The Awakening. I can’t say that I was shocked at some of the comments (and I covered really well) because overall, the group was impressive, but some of the students were just zoning on Edna’s sex life and whether she’d get it on with Robert, and whether Edna and Adele were having a lesbian experience on the beach during what is essentially, Edna’s first breakthrough. A few of them (the most vocal) seemed to miss the boat on a sensuous nature apart from sexual. I threw in as a contemporary example for Edna’s firm decision to not go back one step, Thelma’s lines towards the end of the Thelma and Louise film, which was something like — Something’s changed in me, and I can’t go back. Some of the students finished the line before I delivered it; some of them looked at me as if they’d never seen it and one said, I hated that movie! Oh well, I thought, you’ll probably hate the ending to this book, too.

  3. cindy says:

    Teaching the Awakening was too painful for me because of the student reactions of “What’s the big deal? IF it were me, I’d just leave my husband.” And teaching anything about slavery was similarly painful. “Well, if I were a slave, I’d revolt. When my boss tells me to do something I don’t want to do…..”
    This is why I don’t teach literature any more.

  4. dale says:

    I remember being staggered when I read something of Harold Bloom’s, in which he talked about reading for consolation, and I realized that he meant it. Not that I never escape into books — but I seldom escape into literature, except maybe for Dickens. Literature for me has always been about travelling, going into worlds-as-seen-by various people, the more disparate the better. Consolation is Agatha Christie & Reginald Hill.
    I think that was the first moment I clearly understood that people really do read for different reasons.

  5. alan says:

    I like the mirror/window analogy, and I’m looking forward to more on it.