“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” As I reread the initial lines of Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre,” a feeling of familiarity came over me, a surge of memory.
And with good reason. As my husband and I have begun packing up our home, one of the things that I’ve marked as last on the to-do list is my rather extensive book collection. I’m willing to pack up almost anything else, but the blank shelves and blank walls are something I simply can’t bear.
A now-relative by marriage once came into our home, paused and looked at the shelves. “Why does anyone need eight copies of the same book?” He pulled out “Jane Eyre.”
Initially, the answer was simple: Different teachers require different editions. I always bought the required edition, even when I already had a copy of the book. It’s an anecdote I relate to my students during the first week of class. There’s a reason a specific edition is required.
Now, the answer has changed. Each time I teach a novel for a different course, I order the same edition I ask of my students. With each reading, and with each class, the book takes on new meaning. Coming upon the same passages that I’ve read over and over – and in the case of “Jane Eyre,” know by heart – I find a new source of meaning.
With each passage, not only do I recall the prior encounters that I’ve had and the friends I’ve shared discussion with, but I also read with a new lens: The narratives of my students and the theme of the course.
When I teach a particular novel, of course, I have certain ideas and concepts that I want to impart to my students. But, much more importantly, I also want to hear their thoughts. What have they gleaned from the text? What are they interested in or annoyed by? How are they encountering the text? And those encounters start to shape my reinterpretations of the well-worn passages.
I shared my philosophy with a colleague once, who was astounded that I use a new text each time I teach. She was even more surprised to find that I reread the texts as my students read them. Perhaps once I’ve taught the same literature course over and over, I’ll change my lesson prep. But for now, I enjoy the experience.
And I think my students do, too, because I think they can tell that I enter each class period with a fresh eye. I’m not relying on a notepad that has aged, with worn ink.
Because, after all, isn’t that the joy of literature? Aren’t we supposed to pick up each book and approach it anew? To take in the imagined world and let it sit with us in the moment, with each of our own subjective experiences? To let it wash over us, answering questions we didn’t even know we had, and allowing us to feel and experience thoughts and emotions we had never before experienced?
When we open a text, we experience not only the world that the author has created, but also the way in which the text speaks and responds to us, the reader. It’s a strange sort of dialogue.
It’s a dialogue I can’t wait to experience with my children. And so, for them – and for me – I’ll place my newly acquired ninth edition of “Jane Eyre” upon the bookshelf. And I’ll hope that it opens a new world, filled with imagination and emotion, for them.
Dr. Heather Bozant Witcher can be reached at email@example.com.