I was in high school the first time I read Frederick Forsythe’s The Day of the Jackal, a rollicking adventure about a shadowy hit man’s attempt to assassinate Charles de Gaulle. Fast paced, groovy, and allegedly adult, the 1971 novel ticked all the boxes those tomes I was reading in Mr. Shinkle’s English class did not. This was no Scarlet Letter. Ethan Frome couldn’t put together a sniper rifle. 1960s Paris looked and felt nothing like Thomas Hardy’s Casterbridge.
I was a solid student; no one would have described me as a reluctant reader; give me Turgenev and I would read Turgenev, but the truth of the matter was that ever since I’d left The Hardy Boys behind somewhere before my twelfth birthday, the books I read tended to be for class. The Day of the Jackal changed that, at least a bit, and I realized that reading could be fun again.
Two decades later, when I found myself teaching a reading intervention class, I remembered that hit man, and the value of giving students choice in what they read really sank in. Mine were not students for whom Melville held any cachet. Heck, Jack London bored most of them and he wrote The Sea Wolf! When they had the opportunity to select books that they wanted to read, however, they were more willing to put in the time to actually read them.
It was a lesson I brought to my other English classes, where we still read books together (no one should be forced to go upriver in Conrad’s Congo alone) and I built opportunities for student choice.
In a twelfth grade world literature class, where we traveled around the globe continent by continent, students could choose any book length text from a bank of authors given to them at the start of a unit. As we were reading poetry and short fiction from Africa together in class, for instance, the list of possible authors for their out of class reading might include Ayi Kwei Armah, Chinua Achebe, or Nadine Gordimer.
At the end of the unit students wrote about their own author and book, making connections to what we’d read in class, and then, as a culminating activity, they gathered in book groups based on what they’d read. At one table a group of students who had each read a different book by Haruki Murakami might discuss commonalities they saw in his various works. To hear students have expert discussions juxtaposing Sputnik Sweetheart and The Windup Bird Chronicle was energizing, and just as rich (if not more) than our shared conversations on Virginia Woolf or Mark Twain.
As adults, those of us who read most often chart our own literary course. That high schooler I was, quietly enjoying The Day of the Jackal, graduated and moved on to other adventures. In college I read the classics, voraciously to be honest, but still found time for more popular fare.
John le Carre was one on that pop fiction list. I enjoyed the efficiency and sense of Cold War era certainty of Tom Clancy (who a friend of mine once described as writing “novels … very liberal in nature. Consider: Clancy’s characters, whether in the military, politics, or intelligence, are capable, hard-working, well-intentioned, and intelligent. It’s like reading a political fantasy, where everyone has the good of the nation at heart, is competent at their jobs, and sincerely wants what is best for the country as a whole, not just themselves”) and I dug the palpable tension of Stephen King, but it was le Carre’s A Perfect Spy that showed me that popular fiction could include books of consequence. A Perfect Spy was never a book I assigned as a teacher, though I have no doubt that with its complex narrative voice and poetic sensibility it could have supported discussions as rich as any in my high school classroom.
Perhaps it’s because of my own affection for pop fiction that I’m a fan of bringing academia out of the ivory tower. Part of a teacher’s role is helping students see their world critically, and one way of supporting this is to give them freedom and choice.
By that I not only mean freedom to choose the books they’re most interested in, but also freedom from the judgement that one work is regal while another’s gold foil makes it cheap. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale started out on the bestseller list before it became a staple of high school reading lists. Mass market paperbacks can (and sometimes do) hold more than simply mysteries or romance.
Certainly there are degrees of litr’y merit, but an acceptance that literature can live in a supermarket magazine aisle strikes me as a positive quality not an indictment of taste.
I still want to explore Heart of Darkness in the company of fellow adventurers, but along the way I’d love to hear about their own travels to worlds less dark.
I reread The Day of the Jackal and A Perfect Spy this year, curious how my adult self might see them, and was pleased that I enjoyed both as much as I remembered liking them in my youth. I’d never consciously thought how much less silly le Carre’s book was than Forsythe’s, and noticing it now I chalked one up in the favorable column of growing older.
Rereading was a choice, and a good one, not like supporting those students who pick up a paperback because they think they’ll like it. Reading can and should be fun too. Along with travels to Wessex or Yoknapatawpha County, it’s healthy to encourage readers to spend a little time with jackals and spies.