Discouraging Comparison

Years ago, when I was in grad school, an erudite English friend lent me her copy of the Arden Hamlet, with her notes from her secondary-school Shakespeare class. The Arden editions have useful and copious footnotes, but I found my friend’s notes even more helpful. It was very hard for me to give her back her book, since I felt I learned so much from it. Buying my own Arden copy helped. A bit.

Currently, I’m reading To Kill a Mockingbird, and I still have the copy I read in 9th grade English class. My notes are in hot-pink ink, in a rounded script that is sufficiently different from my current one that I didn’t immediately recognize it as my own. But what’s most disconcerting is the pedestrian tenor of the notations and underlinings. They probably were quotes from my English teacher, a very nice man who also happened to farm hogs. When I re-read comments such as “shows Jem’s maturation” or “themes: empathy, prejudice,” I cringe. I very much wish my 9th-grade self had been more sophisticated, and not just in pen-color choice and script style. It’s humbling to compare these glaringly obvious notes with the memory of my friend’s more complex ones in her Hamlet.

I am familiar with the disappointment that my education was not what I wish it had been, and envy of my friend’s experience. Yet I console myself with a few things. One, I have taken responsibility for my own ongoing education, and have progressed at least enough to have moved beyond my 9th-grade understanding of To Kill a Mockingbird. And two, To Kill a Mockingbird, while a very good book, is no Hamlet. It’s a book that’s easy to teach, with clear themes and language. Hamlet is complex enough that scholars are still arguing over it centuries later. To Kill a Mockingbird might be appreciated in the coming centuries, I don’t think it has the subtlety to inspire similar debate.

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