Reading and discussing a book is easy, putting a book aside is difficult. After a class has spent four weeks reading Frankenstein, Pride & Prejudice, A Farewell To Arms, or what have you, what do you do? How do you say “goodbye”? While I am sympathetic to classes which bid farewell to this or that book with a themed party, such parties aren’t exactly doable six or seven times a year. What is more, I find the sort of wrap-up discussion which opens with the teacher asking, “What are your take-aways from this book?” often lack clarity and quickly drift away into vague opinions and feelings.
At the same time, I am not in favor of a highly rigorous final discussion in which the book is outlined, or all the themes are reviewed, or the plot is recapitulated, as though a grammatical retention of the book were paramount. I like a good essay to wrap up a book, but, I don’t like to conclude a book with thirty minutes of some recent scholar’s take. It’s hard to say “goodbye” to a book well. The teacher wants a bit of a review, a bit of an interpretation, a bit of time for the students to reflect, but managing all of this in a one-hour class is difficult.
Yesterday, my sophomores finished reading Pride & Prejudice. Today, I handed out a collection of proverbs on the subject of love which I took from The Oxford Book of Aphorisms, which is thematically arranged (as most good books of proverbs are).
Here are the proverbs I gave them:
Absence sharpens love, presence strengthens it.
When we are not in love too much, we are not in love enough.
-Comte de Busy-Rabutin
I have every reason to love you. What I lack is the unreason.
Love makes mutes of those who habitually speak most fluently.
-Madeleine de Scudery
It would seem that love never seeks real perfection, and even fears it. It delights only in the perfect it has itself imagined; it is like those kinds who recognize no greatness except in their own works.
When a plain-looking woman is loved it can only be very passionately; for either her influence over her lover is irresistible, or she has secret charms more powerful than those of beauty.
It would be impossible to ‘love’ anyone or anything one knew completely. Love is directed towards what lies hidden in its object.
It is a certain sign of love to want to know, to relive, the childhood of the other.
To the lover the loved one appears always as solitary.
If love is judged by its visible effects it looks more like hatred than friendship.
The value of a thing sometimes lies not in what one attains with it, but in what one pays for it—what it costs us.
Very broadly speaking, Pride & Prejudice is about love. It is about a great many more things, and yet it is a romance. Had we just finished reading Les Miserables, I may have given students ten quotes about vengeance. When we finish Frankenstein a month from now, I may distribute a set of proverbs about fatherhood. Regardless, I distributed these proverbs, read them all through, and then asked, “Which one of these immediately grabbed you?” When a student volunteered to answer, I followed up by asking the student to paraphrase the proverb. And then I asked the student to illustrate the truth of the proverb by an appeal to Pride & Prejudice. “Explain Pride & Prejudice in such a way that I see the truth behind, ‘I have every reason to love you. What I lack is the unreason.’”
I find this manner of addressing a great book far more satisfying than asking students to bear the full weight of responsibility for “saying something interesting” about it. Students who have just finished reading a book often do not have interesting opinions about it—they simply haven’t had enough time to mull it over. Instead of forcing students to say something interesting, though, give them interesting opinions about the text and see if they can figure out why the opinions are interesting. Merely providing them with a commentary on the book (a decent one, even) won’t accomplish this.
With such a wrap-up session, students come away from the book with fresh confidence in the book’s profundity, and they see deeper truths hidden beneath mere facts of the plot.