Why so Drab?

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"Because writers of poems, plays, and stories are usually not systematic philosophers, it is not appropriate to go 'message hunting' as though their works contained nothing but ideas" (Roberts 120).

            Eh hem... this quote definitely stopped me in my tracks. Have we not been taught since middle school to look for symbolism, imagery, metaphors, similes, and so on and on and on and on in everything we read? I guess I have to give our teachers the benefit of the doubt. These texts were given to us knowing that they were literary pieces and therefore, must have reason to be close read. I just found it so strange to read this quote in a school "text book" when we are usually taught how to close read not that we should not always do it.

            Of course, it is common sense that we do not usually close read the books we read for fun. These books are meant to be an escape or as Roberts terms it, "escape literature" (123). In my opinion, "escape literature" should be added at least once into the curriculum. I know that there have been books I have read in high school and college that I really enjoyed and would have probably read by choice outside of class. These "works do embody ideas" (Roberts 123). Any idea can be analyzed; therefore, I think a book that is known to be popular amongst society, aka us college or high school students, could be added into the curriculum. I think it is important to refresh students with the reason why they truly love reading. I believe we can take something from almost everything we read. A lot of us found John Henry Days and The Quick and the Dead quite challenging and sometimes painful to read. Don't get me wrong though, I did enjoy parts of each novel. I just think it would be nice to see how books that we read for fun can also teach us something. Maybe then we will think twice when we read for fun and read between the lines a little bit more. We may be surprised by what we find.

Check out Josie's blog for more on the importance of reading literature for fun

8 Comments

Brooke, many of the "escape" writers ended up producing works that have stood the test of time. We all know Shakespeare was a crowd-pleaser as well as a deep philosopher, and Charles Dickens and Mark Twain were also both wildly popular.

I don't think anyone will be studying Star Trek novels or Sweet Valley High books as literature in the future, though the simple fact that there is a market for such books does say something about popular tastes and the values of the people to whom the books are marketed.

Freud famously said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," and there's another famous saying, "If the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail." Taken together, those two quotes suggest that the ability to read closely is one more tool on the tool belt, along with message-hunting and author biography.

You might be interested in the book "Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter," which argues that the popular culture of today is much more complex than the popular culture of past generations, and that today's teachers and leaders are doing youth a disservice if they dismiss all popular culture. Even shows like "Survivor" invite the audience to evaluate, critique, form alliances, predict, and debate it all online -- something that's far more intellectually challenging than watching Gilligan get hit on the head with coconuts.

Jessica Orlowski said:

You see... I agree that some books are just "cigars," as you put it, Dr. Jerz. But every piece of literature (not with a capital "L" necessarily) has the capability to teach SOMETHING. For someone who is not familiar with the traditional American schooling system, Sweet Valley High may teach them something. Now, Literature (WITH a capital "L" has stood the test of time because of its universal qualities... things that are common to the human condition. It all depends on what makes a work popular according to the needs and interests of popular culture (Love is usually a prevalent theme).

As for Survivor, I'm still debating about that one... I think it's stood the test of time (for entertainment's sake, of course) because it does contain some of those universal qualities- Fear? What else?

Brooke Kuehn said:

I agree with you Jess. I think that literature with a lower case l can teach at least someone something. Its just like the ROberts book. At least one of us seems to take something meaningful from each chapter but usually no more than one or two per chapter. As for survivor, i think it also teaches about trust, determination, ... (can't think of what else off the top of my head but im sure there are more.
Jerz, interesting point about Shakespeare. I hadn't thought about how he was much more of an entertainer in his time. So what does that say about current "escape literature"? Maybe that someday in the future our "escape literature" will be the modern day literatrue with a capital L?

Kayla Lesko said:

I love reading, but I have to admit that I didn't like any of the novels we read for class. And it's not because I'm not use to it (as some people claim), the ideas just seemed so forced.

Brooke Kuehn said:

Kayla, i actually liked most of what we had to read in class. I wouldn't have chosen any of them for fun so reading them in class forced me to introduce myself to more of a variety of pieces. I guess you could say it made me a more "rounded" reader although i cant say i would ever pick up one of these novels again by choice. I didnt feel like the ideas were forced but rather that i was forced to find ideas or draw from them something intellectual (if that makes any sense). How did you feel about Maus? I liked it because of the illustrations. It was nice to be able to anaylze pictures along with the words for a change. Also, with how you like anime, i thought maybe a comic sort of a book would be more up your alley. Not that im trying to compare anime to a graphic novel, its just that i know most anime shows were taken from the mangas, which in a way are like comics.

Some of today's popular fiction and art will stick around and be extremely relevant to the future; a lot more of it will be forgotten. We won't know whether any particular text will last until the future until we get there.

When I've taught popular works, the students who are familiar with the genre have no trouble reading and understanding it; and the students who don't like that genre slog through it. But the class discussions are often fairly abrupt.

And the requirements of a college research essay mean that students and professors both gravitate towards "difficult" books -- with ambiguity and controversy and complexity that rewards close scrutiny.

If a work is easily comprehensible, and there aren't any questions at the end of the book, then there's just not much to write about.

Jessica Orlowski said:

About Maus: At first, I was completely opposed to reading a comic book. I hated them for some reason. However, after I found that Maus was about the Holocaust, this opened my eyes a little more. I was mostly interested in the controversy of the whole thing, but I decided to give it a chance. I'm glad I did- some of the pictures were much more powerful than any account full of words ever could be.

Brooke Kuehn said:

If we ever get there. I agree that difficult works are far more important in a college lit class than fun literature which is why i only suggested adding one popular work as opposed to replacing all of the hard pieces with fun ones. I just think it is important for readers, probably more so not english majors, to be reminded that there is fun literature out there that can teach them something as well. I know i am not going to win this argument and i knew that going in to this blog, but its just a thought that i think is worth looking in to. I think this idea applies more to non english majors, students who do not love lit like we do.

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Brooke Kuehn on Why so Drab? : If we ever get there. I agree
Jessica Orlowski on Why so Drab? : About Maus: At first, I was co
Dennis G. Jerz on Why so Drab? : Some of today's popular fictio
Brooke Kuehn on Why so Drab? : Kayla, i actually liked most o
Kayla Lesko on Why so Drab? : I love reading, but I have to
Brooke Kuehn on Why so Drab? : I agree with you Jess. I think
Jessica Orlowski on Why so Drab? : You see... I agree that some b
Dennis G. Jerz on Why so Drab? : Brooke, many of the "escape" w
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