16 March 2007

Annotated Literature

A clever piece in today's NYTimes on the benefits of annotated editions of classics. At first glance, I was concerned that the piece would laud an annotated edition over the simple text. But, thanks goodness, it does not. To imagine trying to read Pride and Prejudice with annotations the first time around, to try to suck in all the details and intricacies of18th century England, and as the author points out, there are a great many, could doom the reader to the popular claim that Jane Austen is dense and boring.

This is my complaint about most introductory literature courses. Introductory courses, or even more importantly AP level high school English courses, should emphasize engaging the reader in the rhythm of the text and the fluidity of the story. To give them the chance to feel the tension between Elizabeth and Darcy, Tess and Angel, Lady Chatterly and Melors. To force their eye from the body of the text to the annotations requires a disconnection that is to the detriment of the tale and, therefore, to understanding the initial purpose of the novel. While I am a firm believer in underlying themes of books and the novel as a vehicle for social criticism, I am also as equally a firm believer that the novel is itself, and above all else, a story. And because students today have a difficult time exerting their minds to other syntaxes or foregin vocabularies, the only way to make readers of them eventually is to help them see the light in the clouds.

Bravo to William Grimes for balancing the benefits of annotation and the limited role it should play in the life of a reader of classic literature.

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