Meme: High School Daze to Praise (For Mature Audiences Only)

{Update 15 April: After reading this and the comments, be sure to read this follow-up post and the comments there. Interesting stuff in those comments.]

Constance incarnate Diane Cordell tagged me for this literature-themed meme begun by Paul C. at quoteflections. It’s a fun one for me, for a couple of reasons. But first, here are the rules

  • Select and briefly review one teen novel, classic or modern, which is a sure antidote to the daze of high school.
  • Title your post Meme: High School Daze to Praise.
  • Include an image with your post.
  • Tag four blogger colleagues.

Why Fun #1: I Think I Wrote This Blurb Years Ago (A Pedagogical Parable)

Before I started blogging, I piddled around in an AP Literature list-serv. I wrote a little post to share with other teachers there, and somebody emailed me and asked me if he could add it to his Huck Finn resources site, because he liked it. Why fun? It was the first time anybody (outside of a teacher or somebody I’d written emails or letters to) ever noticed my writing. It was only around five years ago, so I find it both pedagogically pregnant and psychologically cute that I, a 40-year-old professional literature teacher, spent the rest of the day floating a couple inches above the earth like the tooth fairy had just slipped a million under his pillow. Somebody out there in the world plucked something I did with words, and told me it had value.Rule of the Bone

Do I have to spell it out? Phi Beta Kappa (okay, from a state university, but still ;-), Magna Cum Laude (is that supposed to be capitalized?), Yadda Academy Yadda – all those “honors” didn’t hold a candle to this simple act of spontaneous recognition by a real reader whose bizness wasn’t grading what I wrote. When I saw the little thing posted on his website, I felt like maybe I could try being a Writer.

And this is why at least our excellent student writers should be blogging. End of Parable.

Now here’s the funny part: I searched for the Twain website that housed my little (weedy) rose, and it’s gone to Website Heaven, I guess. I couldn’t find it on Google, anyway (and yes, I tried Wayback Machine). But I searched a little more, and found this:

Some Passed-Over Classics
Rule Of The Bone, by Russell Banks

Arguably one of the funniest books in recent history. A contemporary retelling of Huck Finn, Banks has turned Huck (named Bone) into a 14 year-old stoner from upstate New York, who drops out of high school and eventually meets the Jim character (called the I-Man) who is a 40 year-old Rastaman living in an abandoned school bus in Plattsburg, NY. Together they make a pilgrimage to Jamaica where Bone believes his father is living, and where I-Man can resume his life as marijuana dealing shaman. Although the premise might sound a bit sophomoric, the story so neatly and creatively translates Twain’s classic into the modern world that you can’t help finding the time to read the whole thing in a day or two.

Why do I find this funny? Because the author is not attributed, and I’m not sure if it’s what I wrote – but I’m almost positive it is. If it’s not, is this plagiarism? You tell me.

I also find this interesting because of the name and thrust of this meme: “From High School Daze to Praise.” If I get that thrust right, it’s aimed at how soporific most assigned, schooly novels are for students (for students, mind you) who are living today and reading things their grannies read – and would still “morally” approve – in high school. Sanitized by either time or content, the novels we feel safe assigning are the ones that steer us clear of the rocks of parental complaint. Graphic depictions of sex? Challenges to Church or State (it’s okay if it’s a challenge to another country’s state, by the way)? We want to keep our job, so we keep these novels out of our students’ hands. And the upshot of this schooly bowdlerization of the taboo-probing nature of literature at its most powerful is this: “High School Daze,” to quote the meme. The students switch off of literature and switch on to pop culture, letting Marilyn Manson or Tupac, Quentin Tarentino or the Daily Show fill the shoes that real literature could fill for them. The Banks novel above? It’s a real depiction of teenage life for so many of our students – drugs, crime, a chilling pederast, a teen Hero’s Journey through that real world we so fear in our classrooms.

Why Fun #2: Case in Point

I took an AP Literature workshop from the queen of AP Literature – she wrote the book for the College Board – and the final assignment was an AP Literature syllabus that would win the approval of the College Board bureaucrats.

I included in the syllabus a novel that, besides being one of the most mesmerizing displays of prose artistry in the English language, was also guaranteed to pique the interest of that most difficult of audiences – high school seniors. I’m talking about Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

The AP Literature Queen’s reaction was predictable, but no less disappointing for that: “I advise you,” she said (and I paraphrase), “not to teach Lolita. Think about it. The protagonist is a 40-something literature teacher like you, and he becomes sexually involved with a school-girl younger than your students.” lolita

I thought long and hard about that advice. AP Literature touts itself as a “college level course,” yet it’s advising me to teach it like my students can’t handle adult content. It’s encouraging me to perpetuate the Daze. So we’re reading Lolita this month.

I think I can say they all love it. I also think I can say they can handle it – and if they can’t, they should learn to, now more than ever.

Now more than ever, with social networking and blogging and Facebook and so many other global entryways into our students’ lives, Lolita is relevant. It raises the questions we need to raise. Are there predators out there? Should minors shut themselves off from all adults because of that? (I’m thinking of my introduction of my students to my Twitter network of educators who have been so helpful in their learning this semester.) Or should minors instead learn to distinguish the adult angels from the adult devils out there, and to conduct themselves wisely and react wisely to any bad apples among the barrel brimming with good ones?

And besides this tangential benefit, there is the purely literary one: by teaching Lolita and similar mature works, we introduce our students to the world of real literature – shocking, unsettling, disruptive, paradigm-complicating if not -shattering – and give them the opportunity to discover why we adults read it.

Or else we trot out the same old “safe” novels breaking the now-safe old taboos. The Scarlet Letter, anyone? AP Literature, were it alive when Hawthorne’s novel was new, surely would have advised against teaching it then. But we can teach that one now. In its exploration of now-quaint adultery, can’t we admit that now, in content and (archaic) style, this novel that once dazzled today only . . . . dazes?

I’d love to hear students in comments here.

Now who do I tag (I don’t believe in “whom”)? Okay: Nathan Lowell, Bud Hunt, Jeff Wasserman, Doug Noon.

36 thoughts on “Meme: High School Daze to Praise (For Mature Audiences Only)”

  1. In my high school, most kids don’t read the books. They use sparknotes, or simply just fail. “Sex sells.” It’s very true. If Lolita was taught, most kids would catch on that this book is interesting. I believe that they would actually read it. They would most likely have thoughts on it, and class discussions wouldn’t have crickets so often.

    Hannah’s last blog post..Math Class Madness

  2. Hannah: Crickets indeed. And snores and sighs.

    There’s a post in there for students to write for teachers. Let me know if you write it?

  3. Although I haven’t read Lolita (except for surreptitious glances and puzzled whispers when cousins & I found Aunt Dorothy’s copy one day…where was the “bad” part, we wondered), I can see that I should – must- do so now.

    The problem of adult/child relationships has become more immediate as Australian authorities shut down the justly famous Al Upton’s miniLegends blog in part for permitting foreign adult educators to mentor elementary children.

    Teachers, at least in the U.S., have long been cautioned to maintain a certain distance from their students, to never become involved in a child’s or teen’s personal life. There are exceptions, as when we pass along information to a school psychologist or social worker or carefully mentor a needful pupil, but, in general, we don’t interact personally with our students.

    As I’ve become more active online, I’ve met kindred spirits of all ages. I enjoy exchanging gossip and advice with a variety of people, some of whom are teenagers. I want to tell that I’m not a stalker or a predator: I’m an older wife and mother who enjoys intelligent conversation. The glimpse I get into the teenage world is fascinating: I don’t want to BE them, I want to UNDERSTAND them.

    I am repulsed by child abusers and molesters. Lolita may tell me more than I really want to know about “unnatural” sexual desires. But I am not afraid of knowledge. I’m just afraid of the ignorance that might intrude on what Al and other mentors are trying to achieve.


    diane’s last blog post..Meme: High School Daze to Praise

  4. A teacher at my school played around with the idea of students picking their own books:

    Anyways, I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever been bored/ hated a book that we had to read for class. I can say, however, that almost all the books I’ve read have benefited my learning in a huge way. The Odyssey, for example, was a bitch to get through as a freshman. But do I regret reading it? Noooo way. There are just some books that you have to read; books that are referenced over and over again and books that help you discover who you are. Hannah is right, sex does sell, and so does a good story with characters that you can relate to. Part of your job as a teacher of these books is to show us how our emotions and experiences still relate to the characters/plot in the book(even if the author lived hundreds of years ago). Essential questions like, are humans innately ethical? or what kind of world do we live in? or how do bring meaning to my life? can be understood a little bit better by reading great works of literature.

    This is probably the book geek in me coming out, but great books ARE interesting to students. And there are SO many great books out there.

    My books and I took offense at the word “safe”. You used the example of the Scarlet Letter, which I had to read last semester for American Literature, and how adultery isn’t as scandalous as it was back then so the book isn’t as interesting to us over sexed teenagers. Reading that book, I can’t help but say that the notion of adultery was not really the most important part for me. What intrigued and interested me was the idea of an independent woman (especially in the misogynistic puritan society) having an inner struggle with herself (one that isn’t so uncommon with modern women) and taking charge of her one life in a strong manner. It’s something that a teenage girl can draw on in times of hardship. I know Hester has certainly been an role model for me in some ways.

    Sometimes it’s hard to find all of these great ideas in books. Thanks to my outstanding English teachers and the discussions we had, I was able to find my connections. That’s why I think that it’s not the book so much as how you teach it.

    Lindsea’s last blog post..Experimenting with writing styles?

  5. Lindsea, I love your argument, but it comes from a student who likes literature. Listen to Hannah, on the other hand, who as a student reports the realities of students different from her and you.

    As I said in my post, and emphasized parenthetically, the relevance problem applies to students less switched on (and in international schools, where students are generally not native English speakers, and thus more challenged by archaic English, that’s the majority).

    Sure, I can enjoy the Scarlet Letter. But I know novels far more relevant to the 21st century that I’m told not to teach because they deal too much with reality – the students’ reality, in language more accessible to all of them.

  6. Lindsea,

    In our Western culture, you should be familiar with the Bible, Greek mythology, Shakespeare, Dickens, Clemens, and an assortment of poets (including dear Eliot) to understand literary allusions.

    Toss in Cervantes, Chaucer, Victor Hugo, to go the traditional route. I had a very conservative education, and these were some of the biggies. Add James Joyce,Jane Austen, even Conan Doyle and Lewis Carroll.

    Too many to pick from…then add whatever modern writers suit your fancy. I’m partial to Philip Pullman and Neil Gaiman, myself.

    Read widely – you’ll develop your own standards. Best gift my parents gave me was free rein to read whatever I brought home from the library.


    diane’s last blog post..Meme: High School Daze to Praise

  7. Lindsea, the point I’m making is about the relevance of Lolita, and the engagement factor. I’ll follow your side-street, though.

    You need, for Western literature, an understanding of parts of the Bible (the Judeo-Christian side of our schizoid culture) and Homer (the naturalistic pagan side). That’s enough to give you a handle on Shakespeare and everything after. More would help, of course. But I’d prefer to leave that more to you to seek out and drink out of thirst.

    Archaic books are, to me, dangerous when prescribed to minors. They beg to induce frustration in many young readers whose lexicons are not developed enough to handle the diction, and whose historical and experiential understandings are too premature to appreciate the subtleties anyway. A case in point: while I read Homer in high school, I didn’t really get it (or enjoy it) until I’d studied enough history and philosophy in college a decade later. The same is true of most classics I read.

    Short version: I discovered literature after high school, outside of college, by sharing a reading list with a friend. The readings were all 20th century, too. That fed my desire to read more literature – and drove me into literary studies, finally wanting (and developed enough as a reader) to wrestle with those classics.

    I’m not saying my case is universal. But yours isn’t either – and that I can say because I’m a teacher who encounters students in his English classes year in, year out.

    The argument about the traditional canon is long and endless (google it). I personally love the canon that you defend, but pedagogically I’m being a pragmatist: most students aren’t ready for it, and it’s too early for it to be relevant to them. Meanwhile, there are books like Lolita, Rule of the Bone, and many more, that are lexically and syntactically suited for students’ reading levels, and don’t require the historical background and cultural literacy that really only comes in any deep sense with age and college (or other advanced studies).

    So this seems to be one of those “agree to disagree” things.

  8. A wonderful (and dangerous!) conversation, Clay! You and your students are to be commended. Diane, thanks very much for your contribution.

    Hannah is right. My HS Brit Lit teacher Mrs. P. told us that we would ABSOLUTELY NOT be covering the Wife of Bath’s Tale in class, and that she was NOT assigning it. So, of course, we all read it and hijacked the next class discussion. :-)

    5th graders are having sex. 1 in 4 American teen girls has an STD. (1 in 2 if she’s African-American.) Not that this is a good thing, but it’s reality, today. Literature deals with the human condition, makes it accessible, gives you a proxy to explore ideas. A safe place to talk about things without getting too personal.

    Teach “Lolita” in high school? Maybe not such a bad idea.

    Oh-and-by-the-way… worldview-wise, I have a fair amount in common with the Puritans. But ignorance makes poor armor.

  9. Corrie, as usual, thanks for the comment. It’s not that “sex sells” that makes Lolita a strong candidate for “prescribed” high school reading lists – though that sexy allure is a great (no pun intended) Trojan horse; rather, as you say, Corrie, it’s that the book serves as “a proxy” for the realities these youngsters are aging into without being educated about – armored against, in your language – as they do.

    Lolita, at the end of the book, is a pregnant 17 year old, by the way, in a dead-end marriage. I won’t spoil any more. But it’s all about the conversations about teen responsibility for their own flirtatious behavior, about the dangers of playing with fire, about the reality of adults who will burn them, and all the other risks they need to think about.

  10. Was tracking twitter for “hack”. I’m using IE 7.0.5730.11 and I see the Submit button. However, I noticed that when I moused over the “Related Posts” titled “A bitch. A hellcat. An absolute Doll. Who is Taylor the Teacher?” it would switch it from 2 lines to 1 line, very bizzare.
    Just to throw something in, something I remember from high school literature class was my old brother having read the exact same stories 2 years earlier and talking to me about them. I guess vote yourself if this is a pro or con.
    I’m trying to think that the most controversial thing we read in High School was part of the Cantebury Tales, about farting, and then being told we wouldn’t be reading all of them since some were about prostitution. Now talk about bizarre.
    My favorite high school literature moment had to be reading the poem written in I think the 1400’s that talked about children no longer being respectful to their parents, and kids weren’t like that when we were growing up, and the High School teacher (hi Mr. Davis) pointing out that parents thinking kids were direspectful has been going on forever.
    Wow… now that I think about it, I still dwell on that today when my WoW guildmate (I’m 28, he’s 15) talks about “oh my gosh, the world is going to hell, did you hear about they found this baby in a suitcase in a landfill” and I try to point out to him that nothing is new under the sun (and I’m pretty sure that’s a famous quote from somewhere too).
    Sorry for blathering in the comments, I can’t stop myself!

    tankilo’s last blog post..tankilo: Social Media Club meeting just ended, and suddenly room exploded in conversations. You have to almost yell to be heard in here #phx

  11. An interesting post. Engaging in discussion and pushing students to think critically is part of good teaching. I don’t think “Lolita” would fly at my school. At far as age appropriateness goes it is a hard one to nail. Some argue adolescence has been extended into the early 30’s. If that is the case then it might be an inappropriate read. Then again you are teaching this to AP students who are probably on all accounts more mature. Clay you’ve certainly got guts! Good luck!

    Charlie A. Roy’s last blog post..Catholic Conscience in the Conceptual Age

  12. Tankilo wrote, “nothing is new under the sun (and I’m pretty sure that’s a famous quote from somewhere too).”

    The Bible , Book of Ecclesiastes, Chapter 1, verse 9. Check it out.

  13. Funny, though, Corrie, the internet, space travel, vaccines, and many other things are new – and they’re not really “under” the sun since Copernicus, right? So Ecclesiastes ain’t infallible?


    Your Blasted Secularist Friend

  14. Hi Clay,
    Thanks for including a link to Quoteflections which started this meme: high school daze to praise. I can agree with the spirit of your argument. Engage students with quality literature on topics which have relevance and meaning. Many of our senior students know ten times more on the topic of sexuality than we may think. The mass media has fueled their emotions and intellect and perhaps what they need is a place in which they can intelligently discuss this topic. Thus,your novel choice may be appropriate for a senior level class under the right circumstances.
    On the other hand, one has to be sensitive to the community in which one teaches. Just recently several well publicized cases in my area have involved teachers with students after hours in unacceptable situations. Scandalous to say the least and the public is understandably outraged.

    Do I want to take a chance and have the Parents’ Club down my neck for teaching an ‘inappropriate’ novel? The principal has enough fires to put out.

    Of course, the censorship debate arises occasionally for many different reasons, sometimes over trite reasons. It’s worthwhile to take a stand, but is it worth it for the study of Lolita? For that reason I think the novel should be left for post secondary study.

    Paul C’s last blog post..Masters Golf: Spring Ritual

  15. Paul, your first point (though it doesn’t address the specific reasons I argue that Lolita is now, more than ever, relevant to matters of online identity, online safety, and the over-hyped and under-thought issue of “online predators” (which is a euphemism, in a sense, for pedophiles, isn’t it?), I can take easily enough.

    But your second point is such a jarring apples and oranges transition that I can’t follow:

    On the other hand, one has to be sensitive to the community in which one teaches. Just recently several well publicized cases in my area have involved teachers with students after hours in unacceptable situations. Scandalous to say the least and the public is understandably outraged.

    What does teachers being involved with students after hours have to do with reading a novel for a course?

    More questions: What does “unacceptable” mean in your allusions? In a sense, you seem to illustrate my point by showing how examples of the dangers of “bad apples” stop us from thinking about, and promoting, the benefits of “barrel brimming with good ones.”

    As in church, so in school: any monsters will out, one hopes. And if only our kids were allowed to learn about these monsters through such novels as Lolita – and again, about their own responsibility in not encouraging them – maybe there would be fewer victims.

    Thanks for weighing in. Hope to hear more.

  16. This pop culture reference says it all. I can’t believe no one mentioned it yet. I quote Police:

    Young teacher the subject
    Of schoolgirl fantasy
    She wants him so badly
    Knows what she wants to be
    Inside her there’s longing
    This girl’s an open page
    Book marking – she’s so close now
    This girl is half his age

    Don’t stand, don’t stand so
    Don’t stand so close to me
    Don’t stand, don’t stand so
    Don’t stand so close to me

    Her friends are so jealous
    You know how bad girls get
    Sometimes it’s not so easy
    To be the teacher’s pet
    Temptation, frustration
    So bad it makes him cry
    Wet bus stop, she’s waiting
    His car is warm and dry

    Don’t stand, don’t stand so
    Don’t stand so close to me
    Don’t stand, don’t stand so
    Don’t stand so close to me

    Loose talk in the classroom
    To hurt they try and try
    Strong words in the staff room
    The accusations fly
    It’s no use, he sees her
    He starts to shake and cough
    Just like the old man in
    That book by Nabokov (SEE IT? HE RHYMED “COUGH” WITH “NABOKOV”)

    Don’t stand, don’t stand so
    Don’t stand so close to me
    Don’t stand, don’t stand so
    Don’t stand so close to me
    Don’t stand, don’t stand so
    Don’t stand so close to me

    Lindsea’s last blog post..Meme: High School Daze to Praise

  17. Lindsea – so THAT’s where the quote came from in Twitter!

    You mention another aspect of the adult predator issue: young people are attracted to older figures with some type of power, like teachers, politicians, musicians, etc.

    When the powerful choose to take advantage of youthful followers, it is a betrayal of the worst kind. An adult predator is despicable; a teacher-predator breaks a sacred trust.

    Re. teaching Lolita: about 5 years ago, our HS (grades 11-12) English teacher used “In Cold Blood” as the basis of a class unit. The principal asked me to find examples of other schools using this book, and I did so. No parents objected to the choice of text. When we get back from Spring Break, I’ll ask the present teacher and our HS principal what the reaction would be if “Lolita” were listed as required reading. I can almost guarantee that murder would be deemed more suitable subject matter than sex!

    diane’s last blog post..Spring Cleaning

  18. Lindsea, I didn’t mention the Police song because it’s been old hat since it came out in the ’80s. I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make with it, though.

    Are you saying that you and I shouldn’t have the relationship we have via Students 2.0, via Skype, via Twitter, because of a Police song?

    Are you saying because Sting wrote about a teacher like that, all teachers are like that, and thus should be barred from treating young people to conversations outside of the classroom or sports field?

    Or are you trying to illustrate how easy it is to let pop culture stop us from thinking about all the ways reading this novel could teach our young how to navigate the much more porous world of 21st century online youth?

    If “sex sells,” as Hannah said, I’ll repeat: that’s secondary. Primary, again, is the substance behind the sizzle, the spaces it creates for reflection on teen and adult behavior alike.

    Or are we to just think Sting said it all, teachers should not be trusted, and students should stay in their own tribe until loosed ignorant into adulthood at 18?

    Clay Burell’s last blog post..Meme: High School Daze to Praise (For Mature Audiences Only)

  19. I know, Lindsea 😛 My 3 a.m. response didn’t communicate that. But what I was trying to do was draw you in a bit more into the purpose of this post, the issue: that a lot of people are too fearful to encourage other students to do what you’re doing on Twitter, etc, and are too fearful themselves to have the kind of interactions we have as two human beings, because they fear being accused of being like the teacher in the Police song.

    To me it’s one of The Issues today.

    Clay Burell’s last blog post..Meme: High School Daze to Praise (For Mature Audiences Only)

  20. With teachers like you, that fear is unnecessary. I trust you as a friend and human being, and that’s how I see you, not as teacher per se (although you are one of my favorite teachers). I’ve learned more from you when we relate in a friendly person to person way than I’ve learned from many teachers in a teacher to student way. I don’t like to fall into that authority versus subordinate role that so often creates the mold for student/teachers relationships. Almost like the Stanford prison experiment, I see teachers who can’t stop being in the position of power and talk to me like a person. A lot of times it actually shuts me off from what they’re trying to teach me, because, as you know, I am not one to accept authority for authority’s sake.

    The undeniable fact is that there are people who exist that aren’t as honorable as you or the other teachers I relate with. Maybe Lolita will become a proxy for students to talk about it and for awareness to be raised. It’s a definite possibility.

    It’s hard for me to relate to all of this, because I come from a pretty liberal school. We’ve read some books that were way more sexually graphic and, frankly, burnable. I’m still trying to understand how it must feel for you to have to combat this kind of ignorance at your school.

    And, thanks to this post, I’m much more enlightened.

    Lindsea’s last blog post..Meme: High School Daze to Praise

  21. I just (an hour ago) found Rule of the Bone in a thrift shop. I’m a high school English teacher rooting around for something to teach in the fall. I teach at a continuation high school where the kids for the most part don’t read. When they do, it’s because the book speaks to them. I’ve taught Noah Levine’s Dharma Punx, which is full of drugs, sex and punk rock and the kids like it, and so far I’ve gotten away with it. I use power point and scan whole novels onto slides one page at a time. We read the book together off the screen and answer the discussion questions I insert every page or two. It works. I tell you this because this method lets me edit out the most dangerous passages. (Dangerous to my credential, not to the students.) I doubt I could get away with teaching these books at a comprehensive high school. Lolita, my favorite book for many years, is beyond the pale and well beyond the reach of most of my students. Leave that sweet discovery for college or for some summer thrift shop browsing.

  22. Fabulous argument. As a student who has experieced things Dolores has, it only makes sense to me that teachers teach these concepts in school. They most likely are presented with sexual behaviours in and out of class anyways, so why stop with one of the most beautiful books written in the past century?
    Unfortunately, even in my AP classes, many students haven’t even heard of Nabokov. They can’t move past Twilight and an idealistic notion of a “romantic realtionship.” No where in Lolita is an explicit act of sexual nature described. It is merely mentioned, whether as a plan or a past action. But nowhere in the novel does Humbert say anythign along the lines of “We just had sex, after having sex…” etc. He says “making love.” To me, that sounds much more honest in emotion than some vampire who can’t read his lovers thoughts. Think of how poor Humbert felt, when he first met his child-bride and could barely touch her, let alone read her thoughts.
    At the same time, I’ve always felt Lolita herself to be the antagonist, despite Humbert’s behaviours. In reality, with a book like Lolita (or really anything my Nabokov), there are endless topics to be studied stylistically, contextually, and structurally.Isn’t this the point of an AP class? In depth discussions on all aspects of a work and its effects on a book like Lolita sounds much more interesting than plowing through The Scarlet Letter (because with teen pregnancy rates now, its subject is hardly as shocking as an episode of The Secret Life of the American Teenager). Students in AP classes are supposed to crave higher learning, not trudging through outdated topics, books they hate. They want real, and, from someone who knows it, trust me that Lolita is as real as anguish, desperation, and love will ever get.


  23. I find this exchange very interesting indeed. I’m currently teaching Lolita at a 4-year university, mostly upper-division, non-English majors. It think the content of the novel is well within their “abilities”; that is to say, they can certainly ‘handle’ it. However, I adamantly disagree with Clay that Lolita is “lexically and syntactically suited for students’ reading levels, and don’t require the historical background and cultural literacy that really only comes in any deep sense with age and college (or other advanced studies).”

    If you look at Alfred Appel’s annotated version of Lolita, first published in the early 1970s, you will find nearly 150 pages of footnotes; many of the notes are several pages long themselves. To suggest that historical, cultural (and literary) background isn’t “required” in reading this novel indicates a very superficial grasp of the novel’s complexity. I read Lolita several times without footnotes and got a decent understanding of the text of course, as I’m sure your students do. But with allusions to authors such as Poe, Joyce, Shakespeare, Coleridge, Greek mythology, Conan Doyle, fairytales, and countless others, coupled with innumerable French idioms and myriad other cultural references, to suggest that this novel doesn’t require historical or cultural (or literary) background certainly misses the point Nabokov was trying to make.

    While I agree with you that it should be taught in High School, especially to AP students (I’m a reader of AP exams myself), I cannot agree with your simplistic view of the text as one so “suited” to students who lack the necessary background to understand the complexities and subtleties of what is surely one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

    1. TML, are you claiming that Lolita doesn’t stand on its own as a piece of literature without 150 pages of footnotes? That it doesn’t reward a reading just on the levels of plot and character and language?

      I hope not.

      As with Lindsea above, we’ll have to agree to disagree on this. I think you’d kill the pleasure of reading the novel for many students who don’t want to become English professors.

      This is a complicated discussion to have when discussing high school students. I’d say more if your tone weren’t so annoying.

  24. Clay,

    Of course I’m not claiming the novel doesn’t stand on its own without footnotes…as I said, if you’d read my entire post and actually understood it, it’s one of the greatest novels of the 20th century and should be taught to high school students–I’m actually agreeing with you–but apparently you missed that point. My entire point concerned your claim that the novel is

    “lexically and syntactically suited for students’ reading levels, and [doesn’t] require the historical background and cultural literacy that really only comes in any deep sense with age and college (or other advanced studies).”

    I disagree with that claim. As I said in my first comment, I think they should read it and will likely get a good deal out of it as I did when I first read it. However, anyone who thinks they “get” the novel without reading an annotated version that took years to compile, including interviews with Nabokov himself is missing a great deal–as I suspect you are.

    I’m not suggesting at all that you teach the annotated version to high school students…but merely that you recognize they’re only getting a fraction of what’s going on in the text. The games, the allusions, the puns, and so much of the humor are all lost on them. Yes, of course, the language is exquisite, the characters tragic, the plot disturbing, yet powerful, but those are only one level of a novel that has more complexities than they can imagine. Teach it to them, yes, but why not clue them in to the breadth of its genius?

    And if you’re going to insult people who disagree with one small point of this whole thread, perhaps you ought not to share your thoughts publicly; keep your thoughts private, then you’ll only be annoyed by yourself.

  25. I too teach AP lit and I couldn’t agree more. I ditch the cannon of “dead white guys” for the most part, and began teaching more edgy,although still rich in depth, novels. One my kids really liked was The Road by Cormac Macarthy. Distopian, but much more compelling than Ayn Rand’s rankings or other older books within that theme. I have not read Lolita, but perhaps I should.

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