The Case Against Reading Everything

Right now, I’m teaching “American Lit 1915-Present” for the last time. It’s the companion course to “American Lit 1800-1915,” which I’ll also never teach again. They are required courses for English majors who need to cover American Lit, but they were also designed to serve as electives. My colleagues and I have trouble covering the depth that we know our English majors need, without overwhelming students who are just looking to sample a bit of AmLit to fulfill a course requirement. So we’ve revamped both these courses, starting next fall. One new course will be “American Lit 1776-Present,” which will obviously cover fewer works than we can fit into 2 terms, but the benefit is we can be confident that any student who’s taken the course will have a clearer understanding of the scope of American literature. Another new course will be “Topics in American Literature,” which will allow us to go into some depth, without needing to cover a little bit of everything. I’m thinking of picking the focus “Literature and Government,” which could include “Rip Van Winkle,” All the King’s Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, Invisible Man (Ellison, not H.G. Wells) and Farhenheit 451.

Jason Guriel argues that telling student writers to “read widely” is misleading. Some reading is more valuable than others, and we can’t expect inexperienced writers (who are also inexperienced readers) to have developed a taste for the best literature. Guriel advocates instead that we encourage young writers to read deeply, rather than widely. Our new sequence of AmLit courses is designed so that we can give our students both breadth and depth, but without pressuring us to cover both at the same time.

Learning the craft of writing isn’t about hopping texts like hyperlinks. It’s about devotion and obsession. It’s about lingering too long in some beloved book’s language, about steeping yourself in someone else’s style until your consciousness changes colour. It’s Tolkien phases and Plath crushes. It’s going embarrassingly, unfashionably all in. (And, eventually, all out.) | To read widely—to flit from book to book, writer to writer—is to flaunt an open mind while never stopping long enough to fill it up. –Jason Guriel, The Walrus