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How to Approach a Great Book

You are teaching, say, King Lear.

You want to get the kids involved in the story without distracting them with analytical stuff (what I have come to call “dead puppies”).

So you ask, do you think King Lear should have divided his kingdom among the three daughters? Or “do you think Lear was a fool?” Or “Should Edgar have killed Edmund?”

And you compel them to consider both sides (after all, he did divide the kingdom among them; why did he? Were there good reasons for it? Against? What were the consequences? What advantages was he seeking? How does it compare with what Edgar and Edmund’s father did? Etc. etc.)

Stuff like that. I’ve always found that two things happen as soon as I ask a question like that:

  1. A bunch of students take a side
  2. They start reading more closely to defend it.

And I’m pretty convinced that’s what good reading is. Stories are by nature moral because they turn on decisions and actions. There is no need to “moralize” or highlight the moralness of a story because it would be like highlighting the wetness of water or the airness of air.

To ask whether a character should have done something is to ask the question the author of the story was exploring himself. If that is true, you align perfectly with the nature of story, thereby understanding story itself better, and you open up the heart and soul of Story (not just the story) to the student. And you “make it interesting” because you address what matters most to humans: right and wrong, wisdom and folly, truth and falsehood, etc.

In other words, all the benefits of reading follow in the wake of this question and it’s almost effortless.

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