Monday, January 4, 2010

The Love of Reading

One of the truly great rewards of being retired is a renewal of my love of reading. Many would be surprised to see me use the word "renewal" here: in my capacity as an English teacher, surely I was reading all the time! And, indeed, I was: students' papers and tests, ministry documents, school and departmental papers, and novels, plays, poems, stories, journals, articles all for the students to read. But, sadly, none of it, with a few notable exceptions, would really qualify as "serious" reading: that is to say, reading for me alone, designed to enrich and stimulate my mind and soul.

Many years ago, I acquired a book called "The Western Canon" by the noted scholar Harold Bloom. I read bits and pieces of it through the years as a resource to help me better understand the world's great literature. But, for the last three months, I have been able to read this huge and far-reaching book on my own, cover to cover, slowly, thoughtfully and even meditatively. The experience was wonderful: Bloom is a truly brilliant man, sometimes bombastic and even a little infuriating. But the breadth and scope of his life-long adventure in reading and re-reading the western world's great books is so impressive. Any of us who considers ourselves to be "good" readers must shudder and feel inadequate compared to this man.

Besides the wonderful observations he shares when he writes about the 26 of the greatest writers and books in the western world, however, Bloom spends much time in bemoaning the state of the study of literature in our modern world. In these passages, I found myself particularly engaged, because, of course, I have just completed 29 years teaching English to the young people of south Oshawa. Much of what Bloom writes about rang true, and gave me so much anguish at the way I have earned my living for almost 3 decades.

Bloom lashes out at those who seek to change the study of English into a hodge-podge of politically correct and socially acceptable activities designed to build better citizens. Bloom would not call this English at all, and he is absolutely right. The true study of English, and the English language in all its beauty and majesty, is similar to the study of music and painting and sculpture: it is an art, not a social science, and, for Bloom, the true way to study it is to surrender to an aesthetic approach. This certainly is not the way English is taught in high schools, nor should it be so for the vast majority of our young people. But Bloom rages against the complete absence of the aesthetic, and I would have to agree. Too often, English is the subject governments latch on to whenever a particular "motherhood" issue becomes a hot topic. The recent English guidelines, which I read and began to ponder in the last year of my career, was an impressive document on how the study of English would save the world on the multiple fronts of
gender equality, racial harmony, environmental responsibility, complete tolerance of all beliefs and lifestyles, all the while promoting a strong appreciation for Canadian literature and culture in an ever changing world, and, of course, making a meaningful contribution to students' understanding of technology and media. Where was the room for Shakespeare?

Bloom calls the new approach the "School of Resentment", and, alas, I must admit that I was a cog in the resenters' machine. I had to hack away time in my curriculum for all the new things needed to be taught in order to satisfy the powers that be. But, much to my everlasting pleasure, whenever it came to teaching Shakespeare in most of my classes, many and even perhaps most of my students actually ended up enjoying the experience. Would they go on to become scholars? Happily, many of them have, but most simply enjoyed the transitory experience of reading and thinking about a Shakespearean play. Not just Shakespeare either, but several other of the world's great writers. I would like to think that Bloom would applaud my efforts, even just a little.
In the last couple of years of my headship of the English Department at G.L. Roberts, I tried to challenge my young and talented colleagues to seriously re-think the way we teach English. That's a tough challenge, and I must admit that I wasn't very good at re-thinking it. But, in our fast paced, technology driven, economically oriented missionary zeal, I would hope that a future English Department Head would attempt to put on the brakes on the new "School of Resentment" and say to the world "No, we are not abandoning our most important mission. We are going to attempt to expose our students to some of the world's greatest minds, souls and words. We are going to continue to teach literature for its own sake: for the joy of reading." Such a person would make Harold Bloom happy. Bloom said about the teaching of English that "English and related departments have always been unable to define themselves and unwise enough to swallow up everything that seems available for ingestion." He fears that English departments will soon join the Classical departments in our universities, marginalized and cut back to anachronistic curiousities. He may be right. But I certainly hope that, somewhere, there will be educational leaders who will resist the trend and continue to offer the great works for the shrinking but no less worthy number of young minds and souls who thirst for this knowledge.

Bloom says that we are entering a "Theocratic" age. This used to mean an age and an ethos dominated by those who profess a knowledge of God and who use this knowledge to rule others. Bloom makes it quite clear, however, that the new "Theocratic" age may have little to do with religion or philosophy, at least in its classical definition. Perhaps the new age has already begun.

Is Bloom merely a crank, an old man ( now almost 80 ) who just doesn't like the modern world? Perhaps, although you see an awareness of the modern world and detect a great sense of humour in his writing. I don't see him as a crank. I think he is a prophet. And I am glad he has written so prodigously in his more than 50 year career. I have another one of his books, a huge work completely devoted to Shakespeare. I think I'll set aside the next 6 months to read it : slowly, silently, thoughtfully, and completely alone. He would want it to be this way.

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