During my teaching experience, I have learned a couple of truths about what makes literature great, great. The first, I heard about from my senior high school English teacher, Mrs. Peterson . Our class was just finishing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when "Ms. P" told us that we should read that book at least 3 times at different stages in our lives (presumably during our youth, middle-age, and old age) and that, each time, it would take on not only greater significance, but that it would be a different novel.
Later, when I landed my first teaching contract and taught Huck Finn to my students, I remember loving it more than ever. It was suddenly the funniest book I had ever read. How had I missed the irony in its tone, before? How had I overlooked the hilarity of the King and the Duke? More importantly, I had just graduated from college and had learned how to approach a book in a whole new way. As I was trying to come up with a gimick for engaging my junior Honors English class in Huck's misadventures down the Mississippi, the book fell into astounding clarity and I realized that Twain had written an epic and that Huck, like Odysseus, was on the hero's adventure. Nerd that I am, I was so excited about my discovery that I lost sleep over it that night. My junior class, as it turns out, was not nearly as taken with my approach to Huck Finn as I was and it is possible that they are still sniggering at my unfettered enthusiasm.
The next truth I learned about great literature also comes from my experience with teaching. Simply put, to teach literature is to become enamoured with literature. To this day, my favorite Shakespeare play is Romeo and Juliet. I know that isn't the most erudite selection from Shakespeare's canon, but I love it the most because I probably taught that play 15 times during my career as a Sophomore English teacher. It feels familiar, yet I am still amazed to discover each time just how eloquent and flawless the language is. It has, on me, the effect that all timeless literature does. Instead of getting fatigued with R and J, my enthusiasm for it increases with each new reading and, in turn, with each new teaching.
Just this week, I read a Browning sonnet. Sonnets have never been exactly my favorite poetry. They are so structured and so preoccupied with unrequited love that I suppose I have found them to be a bit um. . .well. . . corny. However, I gained new appreciation for Elizabeth Barrett Browning as, her Sonnet XLII, took on shape and focus when, after a couple of readings, her words became more than pretty fluff. Oh, don't get me wrong, it was STILL all about true love, but I feel better for figuring that out and I feel like myself again, having read it.
Ahhh, won't it be great to be 55 and reading Huckleberry Finn all over again for the first time?