“A million candles have burned themselves out. Still I read on.”
-Edgar Allan Poe
No one gets to the end of their life and says “I wish I’d read more Nietzsche.”
I was a philosophy major, taught English for a dozen years, and get kidded today for reading Sartre for fun. “Who reads Sartre anymore?” Evidently just me. And yet I know the truth that for most, Nietzsche is more a phase than a philosopher.
I’ve also reached a point in my life when rereading some books stems less from a desire to really understand them and more because I simply don’t remember as much about their content as I do have memories of them being good.
Tess of the D’urbervilles is on my list to reread, The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch too, and Haruki Murakami’s Wind Up Bird Chronicle. It will be interesting this summer to see how the tastes of my undergraduate years have changed.
In the first draft of that last sentence I put “if” instead of “how,” though I know that there is no way those tastes (a way of summing up perspective, attitude, and understanding) haven’t developed as a result of the varied experiences of an adult lifetime.
I thought of this last week when my assistant principal, himself a former English teacher, mentioned to me that as he was walking with a student from his office to her Creative Writing class he asked her who her favorite writer was.
“Poe,” she answered.
When he told me the story, he and I both had the same response: That will change.
And it will, and that’s okay. Heck, I still keep a couple of old copies of Poe on my bookshelf, some essays and Eureka, and while I don’t consult them for wisdom or guidance, their presence, like some kind of talisman, reminds me of the person I was when I read them back in my younger years.
Working at a high school means that I get to be around students who are actively engaged in developing their own tastes. They’re in the process of reading Hamlet and Heart of Darkness for the first time and they get pushed in their four years before graduation to think critically and creatively about science, and history, and math.
Some might pick up Siddhartha or Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and whether they agree with the author or not, they may find their minds stretched in ways that help them become the people they are becoming.
It’s our job as educators to nurture this.
And if some of the titles or authors who so inspired their teenage selves feel flat or flawed by the time they reach thirty, all the better. If that’s the case, they’ve continued to grow and learn.
We oughtn’t mock the stones we step on as we cross the stream, but thank them, imperfect as they are, for giving us the footing to walk to the other side.
On a high school campus that means nodding when a student tells us about the merits of Edgar Allan Poe or asks us to think about an maxim they’ve discovered in Beyond Good and Evil.
While we do, we might mention James Baldwin or Zora Neale Hurston, or even Jean Paul Sartre. Well, probably not him. And all the while I’m convinced that it’s right to celebrate these authors our students connect with, these authors they may even find themselves rereading some summer when they’re in their forties.