For some reason, Emily Dickinson’s line, “There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away” is running through my mind after re-reading Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours. My AP Lit students read and studied Mrs. Dalloway before spring break, and I asked them to read Cunningham’s book over the break. Since it had been quite some time since I read it, a re-read was in order for me, too. I remember it didn’t quite land for me when I first read it. I recognized it was well written, but I couldn’t have foreseen I’d read it again. Because I really love the idea of intertextuality, and also because I borrowed my AP book list largely from a friend and colleague, I decided I’d do Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours together.
My students empathized with Septimus Warren Smith, and they really wanted to talk about him in our discussions, though they also marveled at Virginia Woolf’s writing and tried to connect to Mrs. Dalloway as a character, too. I think they did good work. I will be curious to see how they appreciated The Hours after having read Mrs. Dalloway first, because my first reading of The Hours was years before my first reading of Mrs. Dalloway, and I believe I appreciated The Hours more after understanding how it is in dialogue with Mrs. Dalloway.
What I have really been thinking about today, however, is re-reading. I often tell students that we bring everything we are, everything we’ve read, and everything we’ve done to each book. When we re-read with a gap of time, we often find we respond differently to a book the second time because we are not the same people we were the first time we’ve read, we’ve read more books, and we’ve lived more. In the case of The Hours, my response was entirely different. I connected deeply to the characters in a way I couldn’t when I first read the book 13 years ago.
I remember having the same reaction to re-reading The Catcher in the Rye. I read it as a teenager and despised Holden. Who cares about some ungrateful, annoying preppie teenager roaming New York? How horrified I was when a high school friend once told me he thought all teenage boys were Holden Caulfield. Years later, I saw Holden entirely differently, but it took becoming a mother and a teacher for me to empathize with Holden. Now I love that book and count it among my favorites.
While I know that there is a popular movement in English teaching today to throw out the whole-class novel study, I do still see value in it. I know for a fact that some of the books I am asking my students to read won’t land for them, not yet. I have told them so. And yet there is still value in reading and thinking about these books, letting them rattle around in our brains, and returning to them (if we want to) years later when perhaps we are ready for them to land. At the same time, I do think students need to learn what they like to read in order to become readers, and we should offer opportunities for students to choose what they read as well. The tricky part is not ruin a book so that students have no desire ever to return to it again. Of course, I never really know if students do return to books unless they make a point of telling me, and often they are living their lives, reading other books, and doing other things, so I never know for sure if they pick up a book we studied together, look at it again with their more experienced eyes, and connect to a book in a way they didn’t when they were in my class. But they do at least have the book, somewhere in their minds, and later, perhaps the book might just take them lands away.
Slice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.