Only the Lover Sings: The Secret to Teaching Literature

I have spent my twenty-five years as a teacher further and further refining my purpose, to its present obsessive focus. My animating ambition, the one I live, sleep, and breathe, is to help people learn to love – to love – great literature.

In the span of that time, the task has become only tougher, primarily because of the omnipresence of technology. The quick and ready entertainment, meme and soundbite style content, and constant din of calls for our attention that come with a smartphone in every hand mean it has become increasingly difficult to get anyone to read.

Nevertheless, when my students are in the classroom, held as a captive audience, their devices all turned off and set aside, and we have in our hands one of the beloved books of my carefully chosen curriculum, I still feel an almost infallible power to turn them into thoughtful, eager, and passionate lovers of books.

While I myself am always learning more about what it takes to teach literature well – whether that means conceptualizing techniques that come to me as instinct, or gaining new insights from the world’s great teachers, present and past – I am confident I can name the fundamental principle behind my (perhaps immodest) boast of infallibility.

To be an effective guide and mentor, you must be in love with literature yourself. 

I say “be in love with” rather than “love” to give emphasis to the personal and passionate form the attachment has to take. If familiarity with great books feels to you like some duty of cultural literacy, if the experience of reading is more cerebral than it is of the soul, if the books you teach do not reverberate in the very core of your being, then you are not “in love with” literature.

Most of my memories of studying books in school involve, at best, dry discussions of literary devices, and, at worst, no discussion at all, but only multiple-choice tests to prove I’d done the reading. Almost never do I recall a teacher modeling an earnest emotional investment in the work, and rarely did I myself come to feel that kind of intense and personal connection.

By contrast, someone recently described to me how, as a boy, reading Lord of the Rings had made him desire to be good. He found himself unable to abide the thought of doing anything that, in his mind, would make him a disappointment to heroes like Frodo and Gandalf. That is what it means to be in love with a book. He saw the novel’s theme, he felt its import, and he made it a part of himself.

One of the problems endemic to education is that this love of literature has been lost. We cannot teach that which we are not capable of ourselves. So, if our capacity for that love has atrophied, or was never properly developed, what are we to do?

It is important for me to note here that I myself did not learn to love books until I was in my mid-twenties, and already working as a teacher. I have a vivid memory from my youth of watching a performance of The Miracle Worker and finding it painfully dull. Today, it is painful for me to confess that, because this play has come to stand in my mind for what it means to awaken a child’s soul to “a consciousness of her immortal nature” – to be a teacher, in the truest sense of the word. And after teaching this play every year for two decades, I still cannot read the climactic scene without crying.

My own eyes were first opened when I read Victor Hugo’s novel Ninety-Three aloud to my little group of homeschooled students so many years ago. We were wholly absorbed and focused. We were riveted by the plot. We gasped in chorus at the sudden twists and sighed over sentimental passages. We discussed our reactions as we read, and we worked to decipher Hugo’s message. The experience was as much a life-altering one for me as it was for them.

The point is, even if a passionate approach to literature does not now come naturally to you, it is a skill that can be revived or learned afresh.

  • Connect again with that classic that really made you feel – in love with the aloof Mr. Darcy, awed by the integrity of Atticus, pitying of poor Jane Eyre.
  • Find a mentor. When I discovered a great literature teacher, I consumed every word of his I could, and, afterward, strove to emulate his process. I am now trying to offer mentorship myself through a program called Read With Me, whose mission is “to help people connect emotionally with the classics.”
  • Take a close look at Mark Edmundson’s Why Read? or Arnold Bennett’s Literary Taste. Hear the former tell you in impassioned tones why “real reading is reincarnation,” and let the latter explain how literature helps us raise the plane of our existence “to the top level of the peaks.”
  • Recall that reading great books is meant to be a pleasure – not an idle one, but the profoundest kind we can know. Don’t consider a book part of your personal repertoire or eligible for your curriculum until you are able to consume it as a life-enhancing pleasure yourself.

Now, in one sense, a love of literature is only the precondition of effective teaching; it doesn’t give you a process. But it another sense, it is necessary and sufficient.

If you yourself have mastered a book’s meaning, felt its import, and made it a part of yourself, then you will know that all your efforts must be integrated around helping your students do the same. You won’t allow yourself to be distracted by too much talk of literary devices, you won’t be content for your students to prove only a rudimentary grasp of the content, and your discussions won’t be soulless and cerebral. You will be better able to trust your instincts, because you will know, deeply, the purpose you hope to achieve.

With my own faithful repertoire of books I dearly love, I can now be sure that every year a student will, for example, beg to keep her copy of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House so she can share it with a sister, or create a year-long calligraphic log of favorite literary quotes, or declare indignantly that I have ruined her for romance because no man will ever be a Cyrano de Bergerac, or weep with me more than once over scenes in Les Misèrables, or ask for keepsake versions of the books we read for Christmas.

I am in love with these books, and they learn to love them too.