To ‘Howl’ at Discomfort

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“A well-read woman is a dangerous creature”
                                                             — Lisa Kleypas

I first stumbled across Allen Ginsberg by accident; I had been browsing lyrical videos of poems online when ‘Howl’, one of his most well-known works, popped up under the ‘recommended for you’ bar. I clicked on it somewhat naively having never heard of the man before, nor his work. The poem, I found, was a mesmerising vortex that revealed all, no matter how painful.

For a while I wondered why I hadn’t come across him sooner, why I hadn’t studied the likes of him in English class (or why his name hadn’t come up despite being friends with William S. Boroughs and the lot). Of course the answer was simple; a girls’ only (and presbyterian) school has to be careful what they show their students, everything (I imagine, for it may not be the case) is censored.

It got me thinking about the books, the works, we were exposed to. As I was a part of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program we were required to explore various cultures outside of our own, this led to us reading widely about various topics, some of which seemed almost inappropriate (female mutilation in ‘The Woman at Point Zero’ by Nawal El Saadawi ). We were made uncomfortable by Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ as we put ourselves in the Handmaid’s shoes, and Albert Camus’ Outsiders where we lingered wondering at the narrative.

And it was fantastic! All those stories we read that made us feel uncomfortable, it was for a reason, they made us think. We may not have realised, as I didn’t at the time, that that’s why we felt that unease, but I truly believe it was. Previously we’d read ‘safe’ texts, works that wouldn’t frighten us, speak of topics we’d yet to be exposed to or ask us to question our society and the things around us, and suddenly being asked to do just that was frightening in a sense, though I doubt any of us truly registered the emotions we felt.

I quite strongly believe that the purpose of storytelling is provoke thought, be it good or bad, to inspire or to teach. Had I not done the IB I don’t believe I would have read half the things we did which, I think, is fantastic. But still I can’t help but wonder how many masterpieces the teachers shook their head over (both in the past and in the present), deep in discussion, citing them too vulgar or profound for our naive feeble minds?

Literature can very easily broaden one’s world views, even in minuscule amounts, or so I’d like to believe, I’m sure it’s not as simple as I make it out to be. Literature, however, links us almost intimately with those beyond our reach, their stories are glimpses into their lives, their cultures and thoughts. And that’s empowering, for both sides, for those that wrote the stories and the readers that then read them.

‘Why do we read?’ the question asks, ‘To see,’ I respond. 

What sort of stories were you made to read at school? Do you/did you agree with those that were chosen for you? What are some stories or authors you wish you’d discovered earlier? What would you have done differently if you were in charge of the English curriculum for the you of the past?

Janna

Photo by Dave Bledsoe

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7 thoughts on “To ‘Howl’ at Discomfort

  1. dragonflylady77 says:

    We had to read The Outsider by Camus in high school for our literature class. I HATE that book. I’ve been out of high school for quite some time and I still can’t think of that book without feeling uneasy.

    I had to read A Handmaid’s Tale as part of my Literature of the Commonwealth class at university and I enjoyed that book (and that class).

    Over the years I have come to realise my brain struggles with non-fiction books (probably why I didn’t do so well with my studies). Never did manage to read the book the marriage counsellor had given me, I got stuck on page something and couldn’t read further. I did read a book by Dr Bill Bass about the creation of the Body Farm and thoroughly enjoyed it. And I love Mary Roach too.

    But you know what? I haven’t read any of the ‘classics’ that we were supposed to have read by the end of high school. All those fame French authors just never appealed.

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    • jannakaixer says:

      I wasn’t too fond of the book either but it introduced me to some important ideas (existentialism for one, as well as dualism as a literary device).

      The Handmaid’s Tale is a fantastic novel, I ended up writing my extended essay (which, as the name suggests, was a long essay, 4000 words to be exact) on the symbolism and Biblical allusions within it.

      It’s interesting that you came to that conclusion – I’ve found the opposite; over the years I’ve realised I can thoroughly enjoy non-fiction books, sometimes more so than fiction ones. The Body Farm? Sounds a little morbid!

      I haven’t read many of them either, I suffered through Pride and Prejudice last year, loved Jane Eyre the year before but other than that I’ve only recently started reading what we call ‘classics’.

      Thanks for the comment!

      Janna

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  2. dragonflylady77 says:

    The Body Farm book was very interesting. I’ve always liked reading crime novels and been intrigued about it since it was mentioned in a Patricia Cornwell novel.

    Ha! I love Pride and Prejucide. Could NOT get in to Emma, at all. Never tried any books by the Brontë sisters.

    I stay away from historical fiction and biiiiiiig books lol

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Maximilian Majewski says:

    That was an intense poem, I must say.
    I remember that we read ‘The old man and the sea’ by Hemingway. It was for my German IB class, and it had a profound effect on me. I haven’t read it again since then. Maybe I should, but this time in English.

    This seemingly simple story of a man venturing out to see in his small boat, is a beautiful tale. The adventure he experiences thereafter was truly inspiring and exhilarating. I would even say it has mythological properties, like being an odyssey to rekindle his luck.

    If I were in charge of the curriculum, I would introduce a few classic science-fiction novels of course. Some Philip K Dick, for instance. Some Asimov and Clarke probably too. You know how much that genre means to me. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • jannakaixer says:

      It is quite intense, I think that’s why it appealed to me so much. I still haven’t gotten to read any Hemingway though I’ve been meaning to (my Mum keeps pushing me to as she’s just finished reading The Paris Wife by Paula McLain and wants me to read it too) so when I finally come round to it I’ll make sure to read ‘The old man and the sea’. Did you take German as a language A class? You should definitely read it again (I’ll Tweet you a link for an English version I found)!

      Of course! It’s certainly a genre that doesn’t pop up in the classrooms too, I would have loved to read some science-fiction especially since, and this is rather embarrassing, I don’t know any of the authors you’ve just mentioned. Science-fiction is a fantastic genre and I love the way you described it in your last blog post (still haven’t gotten over that!) as ‘the perfect convergence of escapism and philosophy’ (read more: http://www.maximilianmajewski.com/blog/2015/2/01/a-little-more-on-science-fiction).

      Thanks for the comment!

      Janna

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  4. Maximilian Majewski says:

    Ha, thanks for mentioning my blog post. I think I’ll make sure everyone cites my name, when they use that sentence. 😛

    Thanks for the link to the English version. Now I have to find time to read it again. Good thing, it’s not a long one.

    Yes, I took German as a language A class. I’m German orginally. Funny enough, it wasn’t my highest grade. English was.

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    • jannakaixer says:

      No problem, you should totally make sure they cite your name when they use that sentence! Time is always so hard to find, my to-read list seems to be growing exponentially whilst my days are shrinking, I can’t imagine what it’ll be like once Uni begins. That is quite good – though, from what I read, it looks like it would require a lot of thought, perhaps more so than a longer story.

      That would have been interesting, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to take a language other than English as Language A in the IB, I was given the opportunity to do Hungarian as my Language A by correspondence but I turned them down (I write in English so it makes sense for me to study it). Well done on that then!

      Janna

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