By Julia Aizuss
Last week I walked out of another argumentative English class, still pondering the themes of forgiveness, moral ideals and honesty that I had debated with other students in our overly air-conditioned classroom. The novel we were reading, Tobias Wolff’s “Old School,” the story of a boarding school student who aspires to be a writer, had led to lively discussion over the past few weeks. As someone who loves English class, I had definitely enjoyed it. But despite the arguments about philosopher Ayn Rand, the attempts to define morality and the analyses of the Bible’s Parable of the Lost Son, I still felt that day, as I had throughout the year, that something was missing.
Where was the attention to language? Literature isn’t only about themes and ideas. Language is a huge factor too. Though it’s a factor I read closely for in the books I read outside of school, I’ve rarely seen it incorporated into class discussions.
One of the aims of our English program is to instill an understanding of literature. I think we’ve got that covered — we can all agree that we spend substantial time isolating the themes of the novels we discuss and analyzing each word of the evidence we use in our essays.
We dissect the language to extract and argue the themes embedded within, but we seldom put the language back together again and appreciate it for what it is.
Earlier this year, when I was writing an essay for Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” I found myself struggling to use one piece of evidence until I discarded it, realizing its significance wasn’t in its potential for analysis but in the rhythmic alliteration of its wording. Wilde hadn’t used certain words for their meanings so much as for their beauty. This, however, was irrelevant to my essay and irrelevant to the way English class was conducted. I could never read aloud “in what a monstrous moment of pride and passion he had prayed that the portrait should bear the burden of his days” and ask everyone to just appreciate it. Instead, I’d probably receive blank stares wondering what the point was, or which particular word was supposed to be close read.
Paying attention to the language makes a difference. My older sister, who read “The Great Gatsby” for her English class a few months ago, told me recently she wouldn’t have liked it as much if she hadn’t followed my suggestion to pay attention to the language instead of solely to its themes.
Our English program sends us off into the world as people who can read a book and be able to understand its greater themes, but this alone doesn’t constitute a full appreciation for literature. Without learning how the tools of good writing are used to create a good book, we miss out on much of what makes literature great and this, in turn, diminishes our enjoyment. Language is the backbone of literature, after all. You won’t find a book review where the quality and style of language isn’t taken into account. Our English classes should take these into account too.