Rethink Senior Lit: Reread The Best Books You Have

Dec 6, 2018

Come senior year, students ought to be reading the best books in the curriculum. Having arrived at the height of their intellectual powers, at least so far as high school is concerned, students should be diving into the books which will do them the most good over the spiritually disorienting four years which follow. Senior year, they ought to be reading Homer and Virgil, Milton, Plato, Dante, Augustine. Let us admit that there are classics and there are classics. Sure, Gawain and the Green Knight has survived the test of time and entered the Canon, but no one in their right mind would claim Gawain was more important than Augustine’s Confessions.

“But,” it will be replied, “how can any literature class include Homer and Dante and Milton? Homer was an ancient writer, Dante a Medieval writer, and Milton a modern writer?” By senior year, students have already taken an ancient literature class in which Homer was covered, and a Medieval class in which Dante was covered. To be honest, by the time a class hits twelfth grade, have they not already read all the most important works in the Canon?

Well, yes, but why not read them again?

At the moment, I am teaching Frankenstein to a sophomore literature class, and by this point in my career, I have lost track of how many times I have read the book. I suspect a dozen, but I could not say for sure. Every teacher has a sweet spot in his repertoire, and Frankenstein is one of my mine. The difference between teaching a book you know like the back of your hand, and teaching a book with which you are nominally familiar after a cursory read over the summer, well, such rival ways of knowing simply cannot really be compared. After reading Frankenstein the first time, I was not even entirely sure which characters were even related. On a first read, students were still correcting me, and I would sheepishly say, “Oh, these two are siblings? Huh. Did not catch that.”

When I teach the Comedy, I tell my students, “We are giving this book a first read. A good portion of it will go over your heads. We will encounter names you are not familiar with, and we will have to skip over them. You will be baffled by certain claims the characters make, and we will not have time to delve into all of them. Or many of them. This book is about as dense with ideas as literature gets. When you read it again in college, you will be able to get far deeper, but, in truth, this book is a massive, ten-thousand piece puzzle, and all we are going to do is find the flat-edged pieces which go around the outside.” However, probably none of them will read it again in college, not because they are slackers, but because I doubt most colleges ask students to spend much time in really old literature. Most of my students will read the classics I give them just once, and they will struggle to make sense of them, just as we all do the first time we read a classic.

However, what if we could give students a taste of the joy of a second read?

I believe classical schools need to put some weight behind the claim that great literature needs to be read over and over again. If this is really true, why not incorporate second reads into the curriculum? What could be more gloriously inefficient, more gorgeously unprogressive, than reading the same book a second time for a grade? What would convey the sheer gratuity of great literature better than an entire class which was devoted to nothing more than reading the greatest books one more time?

Before seniors go off to college, they ought to enjoy that moment wherein a man happily sighs, “This makes so much more sense the second time,” and who better to give them this moment than the same people who made them read those books the first time? Students would be far more inclined to read classic literature after graduating if they departed high school not thinking, “Classics are hard,” but rather, “Classics are hard the first time you read them.” After all, the tenth time you read Frankenstein, it is easier to understand than The Little Engine That Could. We do not want our sons and daughters going off to college, reading Don Delillo and Maya Angelou, and saying, “See, I can actually do this,” then thinking their high school lit teachers were always trying to teach them to juggle using chainsaws.

“But,” someone will argue, “won’t this lower the total number of books our students read, and don’t we want our students to have as diverse a background in literature as possible?” No. We don’t. And, what is more, a second read lit class might just be a good way of proving this to them.

A second read is not simply a deeper first read. A second read is a different kind of reading altogether, because the lesson of a second read pays homage to Heraclitus: a man never enters the same classic twice. Paradise Lost for the second time is a wholly different book than Paradise Lost the first time. Paradise Lost (I) is confusing, but Paradise Lost (II) has a lot of interesting details absent from Paradise Lost (I). The author of Paradise Lost (I) would have done well to try to imitate the author of Paradise Lost (II), because that fellow knew what he was doing. Why can’t more classic authors write like the Paradise Lost (II) author?

I, for one, want my students to meet that talented writer.  

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books to high school students at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the editor of FilmFisher and has two daughters, both of whom have seven names. You can find him on Twitter @joshgibbs. 

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