Cool classics

12th September 2003 at 01:00
Joanna Williams revisits reasons for reading quality fiction

Most of the students who choose to study AS English literature in the sixth-form do so because they enjoy reading. This usually means class books at GCSE have interested them and they have also had positive experiences of wider reading.

Unfortunately, this love of reading is not always sustained into the sixth-form as other pressures compete for students' time. One irony of AS-level is that the increased assessment demands can mean any reading not directly course-related often seems like a luxury.

It is also at this point in students' lives that a social life and a part-time job may begin to vie with valuable reading time. Teachers, too, face demands on time that can force wider reading to be relegated to some distant point in the holidays.

Three invaluable books on literature for teachers all have the advantage of being based around brief discussions of literary extracts: The Art of Fiction by David Lodge (Penguin pound;8.99), Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino (Jonathan Cape pound;16.99) and How To Read and Why by Harold Bloom (Fourth Estate pound;7.99). They provide thought-provoking material in bite-sized chunks of a very few pages.

There are many ways for us to make use of these books. First, they can help in sustaining our own driving passion for reading. As we are reminded of books that moulded us, we can pass on enthusiastic recommendations to our pupils. The comments in the work by Lodge, Bloom and Calvino nudge us towards making new interpretations of literature we are familiar with. This can be refreshing when faced with teaching Macbeth or Great Expectations for the 10th time.

It can also be useful to use relevant extracts from these books alongside set texts. Students then have another critical voice to add to their own and their teacher's.

The Art of Fiction makes an excellent "text" book to look at for half an hour or so each week. Each chapter starts with a page-long extract from a novel. This is then followed by a couple of pages of commentary, drawing our attention to the literary devices the author has used. Topics covered include introducing a character, the sense of place, suspense and point of view. Over two years, this would contribute towards an excellent grounding in critical appreciation or textual analysis.

It is the introduction to Why Read the Classics? that is perhaps most interesting. Calvino's definitions of what makes a "classic" provide a useful starting point for debate. Sixth-form literature students should be encouraged to question why certain books are given a place on the syllabus and others are not. Their personal reading can provide useful comparisons with "school" reading.

Calvino is strongest in his arguments for reading classic texts while young. He claims: "Youthful reading can be literally formative in that it gives a form or shape to our future experiences, providing them with models, ways of dealing with them, terms of comparisonI" Again, this is a useful starting point for teenagers to reflect on their own reading.

Students can discuss whether they have been influenced by books they have read.

Harold Bloom is also unashamedly elitist in his defence of reading classic works of literature and in his belief that reading quality works can enhance and improve our lives. Above all, we want sixth-formers to develop a love of reading that will stay with them for many years after leaving school.

Our role as English teachers should be to challenge pupils to broaden their tastes by reading different styles and to read classic works of literature, if only to know why they wish to reject them.

The final thought on this must go to Calvino: "School is obliged to provide you with the tools to enable you to make your own choice; but the only choices which count are those which you take after or outside any schooling."

Joanna Williams is an English home tuition tutor


* Start each half term with a quick discussion on "the last book I read".

Teachers need to join in too. Students should note the titles of books their classmates recommend.

* Start a sixth-form literary swap-shop. Encourage students to share books they have enjoyed.

* When studying texts for coursework or examination, try to make opportunities to refer to other books by the same author, books that may have influenced or been influenced by the set text or other books on a similar theme.

* Whenever time permits, set a free-reading homework. Encourage students to see this as an important part of their studies.

* Use film or television adaptations to provide comparisons with the original text. Promote the idea that an adaptation is an interpretation of the text and we need to look at what the director has decided to omit or stress.

* Encourage discussion about the broader study of literature. Suggestions for class debates could be: a canon of literature is irrelevant to the 21st century; some books are better than others; computers and films have made literature less important.

* Give every member of the class the same passage of literature to read.

Then divide the class into groups and get each group to present their ideas on the text but in roles - a women's rights campaigner, a citizen from a former colony, a university professor or a television producer.

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