Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Rainbows, Daisy, and What I Really Think About English Class

My friends have fallen out of love with reading and that bothers me. My friends who read Dickens, Twain, Hugo, and Shakespeare for fun. My friends who write their own stories. My friends who work on the literary magazine. It's not the reading they've abandoned-no, they crave stories. It's English class. The assignments designed to pick apart their favorite books. The lectures that make them think they can't be writers because they're not some old dead guy. Most of my lit magazine class took it to get out regular English. I'm an anomaly.
We had this unit on light in sixth grade. One day after school, I looked outside and found a rainbow. All I could think was, "It's round because the sun and water droplets are round. The light is divided up into all of the colors in the visible light spectrum, like light going through a prism. There are other colors we don't see like ultraviolet and uuuuuuugh. What happened to my brain? Why can't I just enjoy this stupid rainbow?"
Behold, science!
That's what literary criticism is. So much how and why and cause and effect that you forget to see the rainbow. People who love language classes generally do it for the creativity. It's a nice break from the yes/no, true/false, x/y mindset of science and math. But when English class becomes more about analysis than appreciating the beauty they fall out of love.
My philosophy with reading is to take the middle  ground. Yes, study the imagery and metaphors and syntax and all that crap. But don't forget what you love. It's alright to set the worksheet aside and simply admire a book. When I read The Great Gatsby and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I was supposed to dissect them for rhetorical strategies and vocabulary words. But that's not what I took away from the books. My favorite scene in Gatsby is this:
“Why candles?” objected Daisy, frowning. She snapped them out with her fingers. “In two weeks it’ll be the longest day in the year.” She looked at us all radiantly. “Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it.”
“We ought to plan something,” yawned Miss Baker, sitting down at the table as if she were getting into bed.
“All right,” said Daisy. “What’ll we plan?” She turned to me helplessly: “What do people plan?”
Before I could answer her eyes fastened with an awed expression on her little finger.
“Look!” she complained; “I hurt it.”
We all looked — the knuckle was black and blue.

There is no fantastic literary value in this scene. It's not the one people quote. It's not the one people discuss in book club. It's not the one I focused on in my essay. But I liked it and that's all it matters.
Daisy reminds me of every idiot I've ever known. The type of people who keep talking when they never had anything to say in the first place. The type of people who make mistakes and then whine about them rather than take responsibility. Now whenever I hear someone echo themself, I think, You're daisying again. I like that F. Scott Fitzgerald was able to take something that always bothered me and put it into words. If I tried it would be a rant. He made it funny.
And Mark Twain did funny much better than Fitzgerald. Most people read Huck Finn as The Great American Novel or a commentary about racism and slavery. I didn't. The part I'll always remember is the long, anticlimactic thirty pages at the end of the book.
Huck's friend, Jim, is an escaped slave. Or at least he was escaped until he got captured by a plantation owner. His prison is a simple wooden cabin with a locked door. Huck's plan to break him out goes like this:
1. Open window
2. Cut chain of Jim's leg
3. Watch Jim climb out of window
But Huck's friend Tom has better ideas. He's read adventure novels and he knows his history. Prison breaks are supposed to be daring and complicated. He'd rather cut off Jim's leg than the chain. So despite Huck's protests, he comes up with a ridiculously complicated escape plan. It involves tunneling into the cabin with pocketknifes (while shovels sit a few feet away), drugging the guard dogs (the dogs are friendly), disguising himself as a servant girl to deliver messages (there are no servant girls and they're allowed to talk to Jim anytime they want), and forcing Jim to keep a diary in his own blood (Jim can't read). Tom reckons they can get him free in thirty seven and a half years.
But Huck points out that Jim will be dead by then, so Tom speeds things up a bit. And then, for the fun of it, he lets the townsfolk know about the escape in advance so they can have a proper army chasing after them. Which nearly gets them all killed.
It's a slow chunk of the book where nothing important happens. Most adaptations leave it out. But I liked Twain's not so subtle jabs at adventure novels. And I'm allowed to like it all I want since my homework is done and over with.
Bear with the literary analysis. The pain only lasts for a little while. But don't lose sight of the rainbow because, in the long run, that's all you want to remember. 

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