In 2009, I taught a class at Culver-Stockton College called “Writing and Literature.” It was the second half of the college’s two-semester freshman writing sequence, and it’s one of those classes more eagerly anticipated by the teachers than by the students. It’s a composition course, and our job was to improve the students’ writing skills. But as grist for their compositional mills, we were supposed to pick some literary texts for them to write about.
I hadn’t taught a course like that in many years, and in fact I was pressed into service in this one because one of the regular instructors was on sabbatical. But I looked forward to teaching it. I hadn’t taught literature in a long time, even as a source for writing topics rather than for appreciation’s sake, and I was looking forward to the English teacher’s guilty pleasure – making students read works that mean a lot to you in hopes that they will also mean something to them.
The books I chose for the students to read were mostly ones that meant a great deal to me – books that in one way or another changed my life. One of them was Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Walden has that effect on a lot of people. A friend of my family’s told us this story: She spent a semester as an exchange student in England, and while there was talking about American literature with a British student. She glanced over his class reading list, and casually remarked, “I’m surprised that Walden‘s not on there.” He hadn’t heard of it, so he went out and bought a copy. A few months later, she heard from him again. Transformed by his experience of reading Walden, he had gone in search of his true self, wandering across England with minimal money and possessions, seeking authenticity in people and social relations with that kind of blinding enthusiasm that is the property of the young. Now, I wasn’t hoping that any of my students would drop out of school and roam Missouri like Diogenes as a result of my class, but I wouldn’t have minded if the book had the same effect on one or two of them that it had on me the first time I read it – the sense of coming to grips with a truly independent mind, and the thrill of experiencing a writer who is simultaneously deeply dissatisfied with the conformity and dullness that most of us allow ourselves to fall into, and optimistic about the greatness that we are all capable of.
Something else that I think about a lot is the right relation between humans and nature, how we are supposed to live in the world and yet not claim it, how we can achieve a good level of comfort and pleasure without ruining the world for future generations. I’m not what you would call a “back-to-nature” zealot, but some of my most meaningful moments have happened in the woods or on the river. So in addition to Walden, I asked my students to read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Wendell Berry’s What Are People For? Into the Wild tells the story of a young man who is a back-to-nature zealot, whose rejection of society’s artificiality leads him to a tragic estrangement from friends and family, and ultimately to his own death. I can’t say that this book changed my life, but it serves as a very useful counterbalance to the unalloyed worship of nature that we are all a little prone to sometimes. Wendell Berry is one of the contemporary apostles of living the small and local life. His essays in What Are People For? articulate this viewpoint. I didn’t ask or expect my students to read the book and then become small country farmers; that wouldn’t be sensible, and besides, the world needs journalists and clinical psychologists and business entrepreneurs and everything else we were trying to teach at Culver-Stockton. But I did hope that they would develop some appreciation for their region and their origins. I wanted them to understand that they’re not inferior to anyone if they come from Canton, or Palmyra, or Hull, or Hamilton, and that beautiful and fulfilling lives can be led in such places as well. And I wanted them to think about their food – where it comes from, who grew it for them, what had to happen for it to reach their tables. Part of being a responsible human being is awareness of the impact of your actions, and too often we put food in our mouths, clothes on our bodies, or toys under our tree without giving much thought to the human and natural expenditures that lie behind those seemingly simple actions.
Another book that I had my students read was Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and this really is a book that changed my life. I first read it when I was in high school; wandering in a used book store, I was intrigued by the title and bought it for ten cents without knowing a single thing about it. For those of you who don’t know the book, it was a big seller in the late 1950s and early 1960s – part Holocaust memoir, part pop philosophy. The thing that I remembered about Man’s Search for Meaning, and the quality that led me to require it for my class, was its remarkable blend of horror, realism, and optimism. Before the war began, Frankl was a successful psychiatrist in Vienna, the director of an institute that focused especially on the prevention of suicide and the treatment of those for whom life had lost its meaning. Then very swiftly he found himself in a concentration camp, stripped of his family, his possessions, his dignity, even the simple essentials of life itself, and forced every day to confront those questions that most of us rarely if ever confront: what is the purpose of my life? Is there a purpose to my life? Why should I bother to get out of bed today? Why not just die?
Perhaps because of his background and training, Frankl was able to view these questions with a measure of objectivity, even while enduring the terrible suffering of the camps. And he emerged from his experience with what he called a “tragic optimism,” and in this book he makes the case for it. His tragic optimism is perhaps best thought of as the living embodiment of existentialist philosophy, the idea that “the meaning of life” is not something outside oneself waiting to be discovered, but rather something that each of us creates through our own actions. At one point he writes, “Man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.” And to quote again, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” While this attitude is somewhat bleak, it is also quite bracing – sort of that cliff-edge sensation. From the time I first read Man’s Search for Meaning, I have reminded myself occasionally, when I get busy blaming my surroundings for some undesirable situation, that although I am subject to circumstances beyond my control, my response to those circumstances is under my control. I’m not responsible for the situations in which I find myself – but I am responsible for how I deal with those situations, and it’s in the way I deal with them that I make my life mean something.
I also had them read Self-Reliance and Other Essays by Emerson, specifically the Divinity School Address and the essay entitled “The Over-Soul.” I am not sure if my students got anything out of those essays, because they are tough, tough pieces of reading – and they are the easiest essays in the book! But being a teacher means being an optimist. You always think they might just get it – and I hope the students at least experienced what I always experience when I read Emerson: the sense of having engaged a great mind, successfully or unsuccessfully, and having come away with at least a partial understanding. Emerson is not afraid of talking about the divine, about the universal, the eternal. I find Emerson’s essays very difficult; the sentences glance off each other sometimes with little apparent connection, they are full of allusions to other works and figures from history, and of course he never stops to explain anything. But there’s always a sense that something is going on there; you catch glimpses of it, and the harder you work at his essays, the more you get out of them. There is great value to be gained from tackling something tough, even unsuccessfully. And that’s an experience every student ought to have.
If the privilege of a teacher is to inflict upon your students the books that mean a lot to you, the curse of a teacher is to have those students hate them. Or perhaps even worse, to fail to appreciate them. And I am sure that by the end of this semester, most of my class cussed my choices, once, twice, or many times. And I cussed their lack of understanding an equal number of times. But that’s all right. It’s not so much what book a person loves that is important, it’s the act of experiencing books, and perhaps coming to love a book. Books have a permanence to them; I like the way they feel in my hand, solid and stable. I like the concentration that goes into a book, the fact that someone took a long time and sustained effort to create it, and the fact that it takes time and effort to draw out its meaning. So if my students didn’t respond to my chosen books, okay. Maybe they will choose books of their own to hold dear. I think that’s the real secret to books – they speak to us in different ways and at different times. The book that resonated in my heart when I was twenty-five may leave you cold, and indeed may not speak to me in the same way today that it did then. We all have our own list of books that have changed our lives, and those lists are never the same. I’ve told you about mine – now I’d like to hear about yours.
(This piece adapted from a talk I gave to the Quincy, Illinois, Unitarian Church)