Books: “They don’t get tired and give in, they don’t rearrange their words to soothe their reader’s ego or get a better position on the shelf, and they can’t be bullied” – Josh Corman for Book Riot.
I’m not going to get political here. I promise.
I’m quite frankly exhausted by, though no less involved in, politics these past few weeks, but when I saw this quote, I knew I needed to explore it. It does (fair warning) come from a pretty politically charged piece that you can seek out and read, if you like, but I first saw this quote completely out of context and feel that it’s a powerful statement in and of itself.
The push and pull of it intrigues me.
I first pictured a book: proud, immovable, and cool. Spine bent ever so slightly, tantalizing a reader with the ideas inside, like the love interest in a dark romance who reads Goethe in tiny coffee shops and spells color with a “u”:
I’ve got what you need, but I’m in charge here. We go at my pace. Turn my pages to see where I will lead you. You aren’t the first and you won’t be the last.
Aloof in the face of need, careful not to promise too much. If you come to this book looking for fulfillment, it won’t permit you to find it. Too easy. It’s not about you. It’s about the message.
I can also see this book as a soldier on the front lines, battling to retain pride in its themes. Beat down by two star Amazon reviews, milk spilled across its pages, and the misrepresentation of translation, reprinting, and censorship. Not desperate, but insistent:
See me. See what I really am. What I have to offer. I am not what you purport me to be. I am not what others say I am. Think. Judge for yourself.
But what does any of this mean for our classrooms?
For my students, It means we are going to write about it. I want to know what they think. What identity this quote suggests books have, and thereby what role in our lives? What impact?
See, in an age that not so subtly suggests that books are made better by individual interpretation, I would argue we sometimes give ourselves too much credit.
I might go so far as to suggest that we need books to be a bit immovable these days.
It’s not all about us. What we like. What we need. What we get out of an experience. Of course, authors need to make money to keep writing books, but on the back of my copy of East of Eden, Steinbeck is casually smoking a cigarette and weaving a tale of good and evil. Is there really so much room for interpretation there? Should there be?
Yes, we, and our students, benefit immensely from challenging conventional thought and learning to build meaning from difficult texts through personal connection, but at the end of that journey, the book remains. The nuance may be up for debate, but the message, perhaps not.
Books offer us a place to see that which does not grow old. The words are pressed between the pages, meaning what they did when they were published. It is we who change and must work to balance how perception influences theme.
Tweets scroll past in soundbites on the screen. Facebook spins and updates with a thousand new ideas with every pull of a thumb. Books remain what they always have been. They cannot be bullied to change with the times. They are timeless, and as such, essential to our survival in the era of eight second attention spans.
So as we bring ourselves to a text, we must be willing to meet it halfway.
It’s not about you, or not only about you. It’s about the two of us. Book and reader. We can only succeed if we work at this together.
What better lesson for these times, political or no, than to meet in the middle and align our unchangeable past with the possibilities that carefully crafted ideas can suggest for our future? A book, afterall, still needs a reader.
Let’s produce millions of resilient readers, hungry for truth, who will open books and listen, because a book is always ready to talk, and frankly, we could all stand to listen a lot more than we do.
I’d love to hear your reflection on the quote. Please feel free to join the discussion below in the comments.
Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and Honors/Pre-AP Sophomores, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout. She is a firm believer that a youthful spirit, a kind heart, a big smile, and a good book can ease most of life’s more troublesome quarrels. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum.
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I’m trying not to be political or religious here, but I’m thinking about our pastor’s current sermon series which focuses on Old Testament laws and their contemporary relevance–goat sacrifices, burnt offerings, cringe-worthy divorce processes, a lot of fun stuff. If we focus on those texts simply as words, we get stuck pretty quickly. On the other hand, those laws arose from specific cultural and spiritual beliefs and goals. If we understand the context of those laws, we can accept (or not) and follow (or not) their intents without causing undue consternation to the local goat population.
This leads us to wonder if we should accept or reject a text simply because of its words? What if the words have lost or changed their meanings, but the truths behind the words remain intact?
My point is that the words of a text are just a vehicle for conveying a meaning, because that’s how human communication works. We can quibble with those words all day long by bringing to them our own perspectives and experiences. Words have a certain elasticity. But the meanings and messages underlying those words are powerful, soulful truths that are “immovable” and “can’t be bullied.”
I wonder if this has implications for how we teach students about diction. If we begin with “What truth is this text really saying?” we can see how an author’s word choice reveals her attitude about that truth and her artistic approach. Then we can talk and write about how different choices would reveal other attitudes and approaches without altering the “immovable” truth at the text’s core.
Thanks, Lisa, for such an important, thoughtful post.
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To me, the magic is always in rereading. Books are static; we are not. If we can appreciate that the same text is going to mean different things across our lifespan, we’re in a good place!
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