My Education in Books

Looking back it seems to me that life must have taught me about books, because I see no evidence that my education had much to do with it. English literature classes in particular I remember as a steady stream of unremitting dullness, conducted throughout secondary school by a teacher whose thankless years of civil warfare with semi-literate, resistant, troublesome children had led him to the brink of psychosis. In the early years when we were still relatively obedient, he would read a newspaper if the class bored him, and once we arrived to find him plugging in his electric razor and having a leisurely shave. Fundamentally he was a good man, but teaching had ravaged him, and the fractured shell that remained did its best to sleepwalk through class. For my ‘O’ level examination (now those exams are long defunct of course) I studied Dickens, which I learnt to hate, surviving through several thousand years of reading out loud around the class, an occupation in which children stumbled their way through antiquated prose in sullen humiliation, and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. I learnt the first act to limber up my memory (which once upon a time was almost photographic) but recall nothing of the meaning of the play. To this day I feel a regressive uncertainty about Shakespeare, convinced I’m deaf to its inner beauty.

Literature in other classes faired little better. For religious education at the age of 12, we read through C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. More lessons of stuttering pupils, the rest of us furtively flicking ahead to calculate which passage might fall to our own tied tongues. But that was all we did: read through it. It wasn’t until years later I found out it was supposed to have an allegorical dimension; I thought we were just passing the time. I was 16 before we started on literature in my foreign language classes, and here things perked up because I did love the books: Max Frisch and Bertolt Brecht, Albert Camus’s The Stranger, Pascal Laine’s The Lacemaker. I can scarcely believe I ended up concentrating on the French. I remember our teacher telling us very solemnly that the reason why Alain Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes had an atmosphere of mystery was because the word ‘mystery’ and its derivatives appeared regularly across the text. I look back now and wonder what on earth she was thinking. Well, actually I know; she was having an affair with the sports teacher at the time and we used to watch agog as they sailed out of school together in his sharp little convertible. We were united in considering her private life to be much more intriguing than anything she had to say in class – a low hurdle to clear in any case.

But in my life, as in most people’s, there was one teacher who made a big difference. The vibrant, enthusiastic woman who taught me German language and literature throughout my school career offered ample testimony to what a committed teacher could achieve. German grammar, the dullest of dull topics, was brought to life by her as she gave us games and silly sayings and idiosyncratic ways of retaining its labyrinthine formations. Literature she loved, and would at any moment push back the desks to act out the passages in plays she found inspiring. She never let us flag, weary as we perpetually were at that stage, of being educated. She was my first mentor, hooking me out of my swotty sequestration with work and employing me as wardrobe mistress for the National Youth Theatre of which she was an avid member. I began to fall in love with life’s possibilities and I had just the best time.

By now I was reading around my subject in preparation for my Cambridge interview. I felt like a chick blinking open its eyes and recognising blindly the outline of its mother. I read Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (I couldn’t believe he could ‘quote’ from a so-called writer of genius in his novel – what a big head he must be!), some of Sartre’s plays, the novels of Francois Mauriac. I understood nothing, but I was in a state of enchanted shock. Was this the world before me? By some miracle I made it to Cambridge and was suddenly catapulted into an entirely different relationship to literature. The sense of confusion and inadequacy and sheer hopeless disorientation I felt in my first year is something I have tried to retain throughout my teaching career. Held over our heads was the glimmering ideal of a perfect reading, and high as I jumped I couldn’t seem to touch it. No one would tell me what I needed to do; I had as much chance cracking the enigma code single-handed as working out what a good essay looked like. Nowadays I tell my students what is required and the expression of relief that washes over their faces indicates that nothing has changed. Back then, what happened in the elegant, book-lined, paper-strewn rooms of our supervisors could not often be graced with the name of ‘teaching’. Brilliant men and women sat in armchairs and waited for our hesitant, ill-informed questions. They did their very best to bridge the chasm that divided us, but without understanding the depths of our ignorance or the extent of their rarefied spirituality. But despite all this they were inspirational. As we sat in our undergraduate darkness, they opened the doors to their minds and the blinding light that spilled out held a transcendent, magical quality. I wanted some of that for me, with a primal, starving neediness.

The most inspirational teacher I ever had from this time I have little to say about, because she was perfect. This young woman, barely five years older than myself, became my PhD supervisor, and we worked together in a blissful harmony for three years. To anybody embarking on a PhD, I will say that the supervisor you choose is every bit as important as the topic you study. It is a weary, dusty road to travel, and unless that supervisor looks like an oasis, you will become parched and shrivelled long before the destination is reached. I loved her gentle, unobtrusive passion for literature, her creativity and intellect, her endless, steady encouragement. Most of all I loved the way that she did not try to impose the geography of her thought upon mine. Instead she crossed over to my side of the borderline and we both regarded the project together, slowly assembling a construction that reflected the mental structures of my mind, not of hers, nor of some abstract literary critical ideal. I think of her fondly as my academic mother, and if I have any claim to being a good teacher in my own right, it is in great part due to her.

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7 thoughts on “My Education in Books

  1. Your post reminds me of the way that throughout high school the reading I loved to do was in no way connected with the reading I had to do for English class, and I didn’t realize that they could in any way be connected until I took an advanced placement class in senior year. The teacher wasn’t any good at all, but it was then I realized that I could get academic credit for reading the kinds of things I read on my own, and I decided right away to major in English in college (although until that point, I was going to with foreign languages). I’m not sure it was a bad thing that the reading I did outside of school meant more to me than that done inside — since it reinforced for me the pleasurable, maybe even subversive nature of reading — but it would have been bad if I’d realized too late that I could somehow in some way connect my informal reading with formal study. And sometimes even bad teachers can teach us something worth knowing, or stear us in the right direction, even unintentially.

  2. God I remember those interminable English Lit lessons. I was sooooo bored. And I never realised you were too, sitting there next to me – you always looked brigh-eyed and bushy-tailed and so must have done a convincing job on the teaching staff. I like to think I have an (albeit small) appreciation for literature despite my schooling, not because of it! Your past recommendations have helped too 😉

    And now, so many years later, trying to learn German as a adult (it only took me 15 years to get round to it, ha ha) I read your post about Frau. G-W and sit here with some envy – perhaps I would have been better taking German ‘O’ Level with an animated teacher rather than the drier option of Latin!

  3. What a lovely essay. I think you’ve got an entire series of pieces about teaching literature in you, a lifetime of pieces, in fact, and I hope I get to see them all. Best, BL

  4. Ah rugbymadgirl, I discovered the way to get through school was to look lively on the outside and to be thinking of something entirely different on the inside… I seem to remember that we found ways to keep ourselves amused in those English classes too!

  5. Oh wow, this reminds me of the past four years. To this day I can’t appreciate Dickens and Shakespeare (which means an English concentration is probably out of the picture for me). It must be — as I’m sure you’re aware — really hard to teach literature because it’s so different for so many people. And with the standard English lit books, it’s hard for teachers not to fall back on stale lesson plans and accepted viewpoints. I think that’s one of the alluring things about foreign books — you don’t really know what to make of it.

  6. I was very lucky to have wonderful English teachers in high school. Four of them were so engaged with contemporary Canadian literature that they ran a small press together. They were hampered somewhat by the approved curriculum in what they could assign us to read. But they taught the required books with enthusiasm, worked in the contemporary stuff wherever they could, and somehow bridged the two in a way that made me feel that all of it was accessible and engaging. I was already a keen reader but they definitely broadened my horizons. They were amazing mentors to me as a writer as well, encouraging my literary ambitious but also criticizing my early attempts at poetry and fiction in a very constructive way.

  7. Pingback: Reading inheritance « Of Books and Bicycles

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