I was recently asked to list my ten most memorable reads. In my last blog entry I said that time, place and circumstance impact a book’s importance for an individual. Upon looking at my book list, however, I notice another dominant factor. The majority of my choices have a relationship to education. This isn’t surprising, since I’ve been a student or a teacher for much of my life, but it also says something about me as a reader. I enjoy a book more, when I delve into it through active analysis.
When I was teaching, I used the analogy of a pizza to clarify and/or justify literary analysis. You can eat a simple cheese pizza without any extra toppings, and it can satisfy your hunger, just as a simply constructed piece of writing without much depth can satisfy your reading desires. There are, however, many other types of pizza. Some have multiple toppings that offer a wide range of experiences to your taste buds, much as the stimulation that densely constructed writing can provide for your brain and emotions through plot, images, use of language, symbols, themes and so on. Of course someone who doesn’t care about extra toppings/literary density can eat/read the simple pizza/literary work, but it’s a shame not to take advantage of all the goodness that’s sitting there waiting to be enjoyed.
My first taste of extra toppings was in high school. I don’t remember the grade level, or the teacher, but I have always remembered the thrill of studying A Tale of Two Cities. It whetted my appetite not only for more Dickens, but also for more in-depth reading experiences.
Although I didn’t study A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Joyce), it is peripherally related to education in that I read it on a train, when I was moving away from home for the first time to attend college. Being in a highly emotional state, I needed a “loaded” reading experience to sustain me on my journey, and give me strength for what was to come. Luckily I’d already had enough experience with analysis to absorb what I needed from the book.
There is a lot to be said for how a pizza is served to you. You can eat it straight out of the box, or you can enjoy it on fine china, placed in front of you by a skilled waiter. I was fortunate to receive that level of expert attention when I studied The Waves (Woolf) and Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Hardy). Although I was introduced to these books in the unlikely setting of a theatre school, my instructor was a true literary scholar. I’m sure that her knowledge and passion for the material sparked not only my initial response to what for me were new styles of writing and ways of seeing the world, but have also had a great deal to do with my life-long regard for the novels and their authors.
I have had the pleasure of teaching several of the books that made my list/menu, but two in particular are worth mentioning. In the Skin of a Lion was published in 1987 to critical acclaim, and as a result it was included in a Canadian literature course I was taking as part of my M.Ed. I fell in love with the book for many reasons: the history, the setting, Ondaatje’s writing style. It had such an impact on me that I subsequently used it for several years as a core book in a Can Lit course I was teaching.
Last but definitely not least is a book with which I have the most history. I never studied it (as a student), but I did teach it between forty and fifty times over a period of twenty-two years. Only a novel as good as To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee) can be revisited so many times and still present the reader with new details, and new insights on life. Within its pages there are undoubtedly enough “toppings” to appeal to any reader’s taste.
Below I have included my list of books. I would love to hear your feedback. Do you have a favourite book?
1. The Waves, by Virginia Woolf
2. Tess of the D’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy
3. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
4. The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden
5. The Stone Angel, by Margaret Laurence
6. The Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood
7. A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens
8. The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
9. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce
10. In the Skin of a Lion, by Michael Ondaatje
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