If you haven’t checked out Michael Ian Black’s Obscure podcast (see bottom of the post for subscription links), you really should. Michael models exactly what I try to teach my students to do when they read: he talks back to the text, he looks up information that he doesn’t know, he reads the footnotes or endnotes, and he thinks about how the book connects to other books, life, the universe, and everything else.
My husband and I support Michael’s Obscure podcast on Patreon. As part of the deal, we participate in regular book club discussions about the book with other folks, and I have had a lot of fun in our discussions. The book club group is funny, smart, and engaged. One thing that came up in our most recent book club discussion last night is just why Frankenstein, the book Michael is currently reading on the podcast, is considered a classic. Why do people think it’s good? Michael admits he’s struggling a bit with the book, and some of the rest of us chimed in with our thoughts about it. For example, the framing device of the letter seems confusing and unnecessary. There is a lot of build-up to something big which then happens offstage, where the reader can’t see it; the two examples that came up in discussion were actually creating the Monster and Frankenstein being jailed for suspicion of Clerval’s murder in Scotland. I don’t know why, but I didn’t notice these things when I first read the book, and I didn’t think much about them when I taught the book in the past either.
I told Michael he’s making me wonder why we consider it a good book, too. I mean, I feel a bit sheepish admitting I didn’t think about these things before, but I think that’s one reason why discussing books with others is so great. In this case, it’s making me aware of Mary Shelley’s writing quirks in a way I hadn’t considered before. We had a bit of a lively conversation in the Zoom chat about how sometimes books are required reading when we’re not interested or ready for them (Jane Eyre came up as a summer reading book for high school). I think there are a lot of reasons why we might cling to books in the classroom, but it’s important that we consider whether they are serving the purpose we hope. When I select a text, I think about the following things:
- How does it fit with the themes and skills I am teaching?
- How do I think students will engage with it?
- What sorts of things can students learn from it (writing moves, history, or human nature and character—among other things)?
Frankenstein is widely considered to be the first science fiction novel. In addition, it’s one of the earliest popular novels, written in a time when novels as we conceive of them were, well, new (hence, “novels”). Depending on what you’re teaching, Frankenstein could be a good fit. For example, if the focus is on the development of science fiction.
But I’m increasingly wondering as I listen to the podcast if it’s good. I am also recalling a class I had some years back who were struggling with the novel when I taught it, and it occurs to me that maybe they were not really into it, and I wasn’t engaging them in a way that worked. As Michael points out things that bother him in the book, I can’t help but feel he has a valid point.
I might argue what’s really happening in the book is more of a philosophical argument: what does the creator owe their creation? Perhaps the plot itself is not why we might teach the book. Maybe not character development either. But I could see a case for the novel’s philosophical questions being a good rationale for teaching it.
That doesn’t really answer the question about whether or not it’s good.
You might want to check out Dr. Kat’s video about Mary Shelley and the creation of Frankenstein. She makes some really valid points about the novel’s philosophy.
Full disclosure: Michael is a friend, but I’d recommend his podcast in any case. It’s excellent.