No offense, high-school English teachers, but you're ruining books for everybody. Or, more to the point, the people who designed the curriculum are making you do so. That five-paragraph essay everyone learns in their teens—with its bland thesis statements and subtheses and supports, its redundant conclusion, its refusal to allow the lonely word "I"—makes literature into dead-minded busywork rather than the stuff of life. The college students I have taught in fiction and composition courses arrive almost uniformly with no notion that fiction can be fun or interesting or, perhaps most important, relevant to who they are as human beings.
This makes editor J.C. Hallman's The Story About the Story series, now on volume II from Portland-based Tin House (352 pages, $18.95), more than just a beautiful read, although it very much is. The series is in its own way important to the world. Because if there's any justice out there, it'll eventually find its way into those dull high-school curricula.
To counteract the joyless misreadings and picking of scabs that have become today's literary criticism, Hallman is collecting writing about books that is every bit as personal, humane and emotionally rich as the books themselves. Zadie Smith's essay about reluctantly allowing herself to love Zora Neale Hurston—allowing herself to even acknowledge something like the "black experience"—is affecting enough it brought (manly, stoic) tears to my eyes even though I'd already read the essay in her 2009 book, Changing My Mind. Seattle writer David Shields' appreciation of Bill Murray, "The Only Solution to the Soul Is the Senses," is as tragic as it is funny. And Martin Amis' obituary for the great misanthropic poet Philip Larkin is a classic of the form, an ode to a death that was "as comfortless as the life." In the end, Amis writes, Larkin told his doctors "to tell him nothing—to tell him lies. It is said that Evelyn Waugh died of snobbery. Philip Larkin died of shame: mortal, corporeal shame."
The essays in this book are also mortal, corporeal. There is shame in them, and joy, and sadness, and there is love. They are, like the literature they describe, alive with possibility. Vivian Gornick's little piece about Grace Paley leaves one knowing precisely why children scream on a roller coaster. It is not from fear or joy, exactly. It is the pressure of the world upon them: When one is filled with so much feeling, so much sensation, it must somehow escape.
READ IT: The Story About the Story II, edited by J.C. Hallman, will be published by Tin House Books on Oct. 15.