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The Glory of Kings: Why to Teach Hard Books

Caught in the school year’s relentless current, and bracing against the looming rapids of holidays and vacation, teachers at this time of the year can drift so easily into the eddy of covering curriculum and marching through plans. But we must remember that it’s students, not books, we are really teaching, and that the most treasured classroom moments often come when we defer the question or assignment we’ve set before them to draw out the confusions and complaints they are whispering among them.

These past few weeks I’ve been teaching Spenser’s Faerie Queene to juniors and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to seniors, so the whisperings have been many. There’s befuddlement with Elizabethan English, and befuddlement with literary modernism; trouble deciphering Redcross’s actions through the stanzas of inverted syntax, and trouble tracking Marlow’s movements through his wandering, layered narrative; incredulity towards the stiff straightforwardness of Spenser’s allegory, and incredulity towards the passionate pointlessness of Kurtz’s horror.

The students, bless them, have been faithful in their reading and pondering, and our classroom conversations have been fruitful. I have not handed out lists of reading strategies, but have tried to model reading along with them, opening up the texts and talking through their twisted prose and subtle symbols. But as we drew towards the end of the stories, the lingering question was still being whispered: With all due respect for the classics and whatnot, why are we reading such hard books when there’s plenty of others to choose?

Going by the thought that asking students their own questions is a most powerful pedagogy, at the beginning of class one day, I voiced that question, and we talked about it.

it is the glory of authors to conceal the meanings of their books, and the glory of readers to search them out; only by fulfilling these tasks do authors and readers each experience the fulfillment of our roles.

They first suggested that reading hard books grows our minds. This seems to be their default response, echoing what they’ve heard from teachers of math, logic, literature, or whatever other subject might be perceived as remarkably demanding and minimally relevant. I concurred. The next hard book will be easier because of the struggle with this one.

In a similar vein, we discussed that reading hard books grows our virtue. We tried to list the specific virtues being practiced: perseverance, attentiveness, dutifulness, submissiveness—this list could stretch long.

Then I asked whether truths hard won are any more valuable than truths easily received. For it’s striking that, once we actually crack the shell of the text, its meat often proves simple and palatable: Spenser’s syntax is difficult, but his message is as familiar as Sunday school. Why not go to Sunday school and skip Spenser?

Here the students themselves wanted to argue; they did not want to trade what they had learned of holiness from Spenser for what they could learn of it in Sunday school. Yes, the journey towards insight had been difficult—but that very difficulty seemed to prepare them to receive the truth, like the hungriness at dinner after a day’s labor or the openness of tilled soil to rain. Without appetite, a person might refuse the most delectable feast. Reading hard books rouses the appetite for their truth.

And further, they felt that they’d learned the truth more wholly through the difficulty. By taking the long, hard road of the text, they had discovered, not the isolated insight, but many of its implications, connotations, and alternatives, as well. Like Redcross or Marlow himself, they knew, not merely the House of Holiness, but the dangerous woods around it; not only Kurtz’s outpost, but the serpentine river that led to it. Is not knowing the way to truth as important as knowing truth? Can the truth and its geography be separated?

Later, thinking on our discussion, I remembered Solomon’s wisdom: “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter” (Proverbs 25:2). I have long loved the harmony this proverb pictures. God’s glory is to layer truth, beauty, and goodness so abundantly and so deep that we could never mine it all: within hard stone, He strews gems; within the loveliness of a flower, He hides tiny kaleidoscopes of cells; within the softness of a child, He stores the wisdom of the Kingdom. But the glory of the kings of men is to seek all this out—to contemplate, if never to comprehend, the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God, His unsearchable judgments and inscrutable ways (Romans 11:33). Analogously, perhaps, it is the glory of authors to conceal the meanings of their books, and the glory of readers to search them out; only by fulfilling these tasks do authors and readers each experience the fulfillment of our roles.

And, if the analogy is true, then surely it trains us in that which it represents. Learning to pursue the glory of the reader will train us to pursue the glory of kings; learning to love the glory of the author will warm us to love the glory of God.

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