I just discovered that one of my heroes and greatest influences on my teaching career has passed away. Stephen Booth died in November of 2020 - but I did not know until yesterday. Thursday, I attended a talk on the importance of deep reading - and as the presentation progressed I kept thinking about Stephen and his writings, lectures, and discussions on the importance of words.
After the talk, I looked up Stephen - I wanted to know what he thought about the speaker. That's when I found out.
The first time that I met Professor Booth, some 30 years ago this summer, he asked if he could help me with my luggage - and I asked him if he wanted a piece of gum. He looked at me, paused, and said that he "hadn't chewed gum since 1946".
Going against everything that I had been taught since grammar school - Stephen Booth said that great Literature is all about the words. Not the story. Not the paraphernalia, the detritus, or the ideas - it's about the words. When I finally "got it" - and it took time - I never taught the same way again.
"Joe," he asked me. "What is it you love about your favorite painting?" I thought of Van Gough's "Starry Night". I took a moment, but I replied, "The colors, the brushstrokes, the texture".
"Ahh" - he said - "not the story..."
In 2010, in one of the proudest moments of my entire life, I was given the honor of giving the introduction to Stephen Booth before his lecture at the Folger Shakespeare Library. I will end this remembrance - not with my words but with those of one of my students, (after our lesson on Stephen Booth's Literary Criticism) which also ended my introduction then.
“This guy is ridiculously amazing. We were talking about how when we look at art, we see colors, textures, patterns, etc. And that is what makes art great - it’s not until later that we see some sort of story or whatever. I completely agree with this argument. Colors and patterns attract us - shiny things rather than dull things, bright things rather than dark things, big over little. But then we talk about literature like it’s the same thing - that we should see these textures. Yet, most of us don’t. We see the words and we try to put them together to create a coherent meaning. Maybe that’s why we don’t all write like Shakespeare and we don’t all see these things that Stephen Booth sees. " Miranda Huang