Dead White Dudes
Back in the mists of time (aka, when I was in school), I read a lot of books. I mean, I spent nearly all my time reading, but I also read a lot of novels for school. Times and reading lists have changed, but for the most part we only covered of the "classics" which meant a lot of books by dead white dudes (DWDs).
There were two problems: 1) I was mature for my age, but I was still a teenager, and 2) I was not an old white guy who lived in the 1800s (or whenever). Very, very little from those books resonated with me. I think we covered 5-10 books a year during all four years of high school AP English (yes, I read Lord Jim along with four other snoozers over summer break one year) and I can only think of one (Pride and Prejudice) not written by a DWD.
College was not much better. We had a 5-quarter humanities sequence which skimmed parts of the Old Testament, raced through a few Greek Philosophers, and then spent most of the time on Locke, Rousseau, and their buddies. Yep, 4+ more quarters of DWDs.
(I can only remember one book in all of my first 12 years of school not written by a white person — A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It did not resonate with me in a whole different way. Aside from the racial themes, I knew nothing about urban settings, the time period, or New York in general. I suspect I would appreciate the book more now.)
I think most school reading lists have moved on from this excessive focus on DWDs, at least a little. But part of what happened in my schooling was I sorta learned about theme and symbols and all that stuff, but since the books were just an exercise in tedium, I didn't really see the point. Yes, I could rattle off the green light at the end of the dock was a symbol for hope (because someone had written that in the margin of my used copy of The Great Gatsby), but I memorized what I needed to know and washed my hands of it afterwards.
Fast forward forty years. As part of treating writing as a career, I work on improving. So I was watching one of the conference presentations on craft, and the speaker pointed out that theme is the difference between watching a movie that's okay but forgettable and watching a movie that you remember weeks later.
And something clicked.
So I guess this is a letter to all those English teachers who were really trying their best but got stuck trying to get me to make connections that I was never going to make purely because of the source material.
I think I finally get it now.