“Relatable” Reading

There’s a popular trope among students (and many teachers) that the things people read should be “relatable,” meaning that stories should reflect the ideas, cultures, and even ethnicities of the readers. That, we are told, is what gets people interested, and helps them to enjoy and benefit from reading.

Hogwash. Balderdash. Baloney.

If the point of reading–of education in general–is only to wallow in a celebration of ourselves as we are, then what’s the point?

Some of the best reading experiences I’ve ever had–and certainly the ones that have mattered the most and stuck with me the most–are those that challenged me by presenting things that were not relatable. (I still remember sitting in some waiting room about a dozen years ago and passing the time by perusing a copy of Latina Businesswoman Magazine; it was a joyous glimpse into another world.)

There might even be an almost inverse relationship between the power of a text and the degree to which it resembles the life of the reader.

The pandering instinct behind the push to present more relatable texts to students is only going to stunt their minds further. After all, even for the selfie generation, staring at themselves eventually becomes boring.

If variety and novelty really are what we seek, the best place to find it–the most originally alien landscape for us today–is in the classics.

An article this week about Shakespeare in The New Criterion makes much the same point:

It always amazes me, this need on the part of our intellectual élite to make Shakespeare, in the words of the article—borrowed without credit, by the way, from the late Jan Kott—“our contemporary.” Isn’t it a kind of narcissism? A desire to look into the great artistic achievements of the past and to see in them only ourselves reflected back at us?

….But somehow people never seem to imagine themselves as actually learning anything from the great ones of the past brought back to life. They only dream of having their own prejudices confirmed.

At any rate, I know I do. Perhaps we would all do better to heed the words of Howard Jacobson’s contribution to this little Festschrift. Writing about The Merchant of Venice he observes that “The play’s the thing in Shakespeare—the interrelation of character our only guide to truth. What does Shakespeare believe? For all dramatic purposes, nothing. An age that tries as hard as ours to fall back into ideological credulousness—desperate to find answers in systems—more than ever needs Shakespeare’s skepticism.” But don’t those wise words amount to an admission that Shakespeare is not, after all, “our contemporary”—only someone who could, if only we would let him, provide a corrective to contemporary superstitions.

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