One of the things you quickly learn as a teacher is that if you are going to adequately challenge your students, you always have to raise your game one step higher than theirs. For most of my teaching career, this hasn’t been a problem. That isn’t to say my students were dull so much as it is to point out that they didn’t have any experience with reading and thinking about a text. My preparation for days when we would talk about reading would be to quickly read over the chapters and pull together something to get them thinking about the major aspects of the text.
Now that doesn’t cut it.
I’ve been teaching my AP class for not even a month yet, and we have just started on our first novel, The Sun Also Rises. As I’ve been going through the text, I’ve been annotating heavily. This is something I haven’t done in years. I’d forgotten what a difference it makes.
I’m a practiced enough reader that I don’t need to annotate to understand a text. Generally, I get what it’s trying to say. I pay attention to the language. I appreciate the beautiful sentences. But close reading lets me take part in the structure of the book. This is something I regularly do with my own fiction, but I’d forgotten how enjoyable and how enlightening it can be. How clear it becomes that a good writer is careful with every word and phrase.
Consider, for instance, the first mention of bull-fighting in The Sun Also Rises. Bull-fighting is symbolically very important in the text, but plays little role in the first part of the text. The first time Hemingway mentions it he has one of the characters say, “Nobody ever lives their life all the way except bull-fighters.” This seems throwaway when reading off-hand, but when you understand this is a book about aimless people flowing from one situation to another and when you consider how bull-fighting and a bull-fighter factor into the book later, it becomes filled with import. It’s the kind of thing you can only appreciate with close reading and it’s another reason I’m happy to be teaching this class.