ENGLISH 100: Ways of Reading

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(Now English 20)

Although the reading list for my section of English 100 required students to read works in multiple genres, I organized the course primarily around Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1965) and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865), two novels whose female protagonists are forced to develop their own “ways of reading” in environments that seem inhospitable, incomprehensible, and even hostile to their attempts to make meaning. Uncharacteristically, I did not organize my reading list in chronological order, starting the class with The Crying of Lot 49. I chose the novel because I think it is ideal for teaching specific critical methods––or rather, it is ideal for getting students to think about methods in meta-critical terms. Its seemingly endless referentialism and its paranoid (but well-supported) suggestion that everything might be connected through interpretive acts gave students considerable practice with formalist approaches. The novel both resists and rewards students’ close attention to the text, encouraging them to recognize recurrent strains of metaphor or allegorical names while also complicating their identification of what initially appear to be easy or familiar signs. The same aspects of the novel that invite close reading also expose the limitations of strictly formal approaches, and so Pynchon’s work is equally useful for teaching additional ways of reading. It also incorporates and comments upon other genres of fiction, including poetry and song, 17th century revenge tragedy, and literary criticism and historiography. Its invocation and blending of literary and cultural forms enabled productive discussions of intertextuality and allusion, teaching students how to recognize generic conventions for the novel and other forms while also showing them how modern (and pre-modern) writers might exploit and subvert them. Pynchon’s own mysterious biography and the variety of author-figures within the text itself helped raise important theoretical questions about authorship and biographical interpretation; from the 17th century playwright and 1970s director of Pynchon’s fictional revenge play, The Courier’s Tragedy to the enigmatic dead man Pierce Inverarity, the novel provides a complicated account of concepts such as audience reception and authorial intent. As the reader/protagonist and self-described “executrix” of Pierce’s will, Oedipa must confirm—in literal and figurative ways—the death of the author while simultaneously attempting to make meaning of the plot he has apparently set in motion. Moreover, the meaning of Pierce’s will improbably hinges on the plot of the fictional 17th century play, and more precisely, the presence of textual variants within early printed editions of this old work of drama. This aspect of the novel therefore opened up a surprisingly accessible way to teach textual and bibliographical criticism; though students often find this kind of criticism somewhat dry and obscure, the fictional play within the novel sheds particularly compelling light on the challenges that textual variants in literary works pose for reading and interpretation. Finally, the novel’s protagonist, her psychotherapist, and the novel’s setting in Southern California in the late 60s provide accessible ways of teaching the merits of feminist, psychoanalytic, and cultural criticism. References to drug culture, political protest, and the domestic boredom of housewives gained greater significance when we considered the novel within the historical conditions of its composition. Students wrote a formalist essay on this novel, but used the insight about reading that they gained from it to address later assignments requiring other ways of reading; after a historicist essay on The Tempest and a self-conscious analysis of the methods they had used in their English courses, they were prepared to write about Alice’s Adventures (or any other work they chose) in a final project from a critical perspective of their choosing.

 

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