somehow, i still like to read
Posted September 3, 2009on:
So there was an article in the Times over the weekend about teachers who let their students choose the books they read as part of a larger debate on the merits of required reading. It’s an interesting idea: the value of reading a book collectively and discussing it critically vs. not wanting kids to hate reading because they can’t get into the old classics. The article presents this as an either/or but I basically come down in the middle. Why not take both approaches?
There’s something about a required book that gets students up in arms. The classics are like lima beans: you know they’re good for you, but you just don’t want to consume them, or you don’t like them because you’re a kid and you’re not supposed to.
I’m, of course, a freak, because I went on to study English literature in college, so clearly required reading didn’t get me down. I was also on the AP track, and I had some teachers in high school who were basically like, “Yeah, you guys are smart, let’s futz with the curriculum,” so I wound up not reading some of the books that every other kid in my school read (No Homer or Of Mice and Men or Gatsby for me. Instead, my freshman English teacher let me read Rebecca.) I had the same teacher for 2 years of AP English who assigned independent reading off a pretty lengthy list, so there were books from the canon, but you got to choose. Some of what are still my favorite books of all time came from that list: Jane Eyre, The Sound and the Fury. I thought The Scarlet Letter was interesting (which I know is a wildly unpopular opinion) but couldn’t really get into The Catcher in the Rye (same), so I was at least thinking about the books as I read them.
And it’s not like I have anything against teenagers reading trashy books, either. I was reading Danielle Steel and pulpy mysteries when I was in high school, too. So I can see the value in letting kids read what they want so that, at least, they’re reading.
But I had to read a lot of assigned books, too, and somehow Lord of the Flies (which I read as a sophomore and hated) did not kill my love of reading. Maybe by then I’d gained enough perspective to say, “Well, I don’t like this book but I might like the next one the class reads.”
On the other hand, reading a book in high school just kills it for the most literate among us. I finally read The Great Gatsby my senior year in college and loved it. There was a clear divide in my class, though; those that had read the book in high school hated it, those that were reading it for the first time loved it. I was talking about this with a coworker who is reading it now, and she said, “I read this in high school, but I didn’t understand it. I like it much better now.” Which makes me think that maybe we’re teaching the wrong books in school. (Example: I read Great Expectations in high school and then again in college. I actually understood the book the second time. Although, come to think of it, I didn’t really like it better.) I mean, these books weren’t really written for high school kids.
And there’s a larger debate here about what should be in The Canon, which is largely full of dead white guys. I think there’s some expansion on that front: Chinua Achebe and Toni Morrison are popping up on required reading lists, for example. And I’d bet contemporary readers would get a lot more out of The Bluest Eye than they would from My Antonia.
But, anyway, my point is that, although some of these books are a slog, they are still classics for a reason, and I think students should read and discuss them while also having some discretion over what else they read for class. Sometimes you need a palate cleanser.
So. Meg Cabot posted a rant about how much she hated all assigned books in school. I think she had bad teachers, or was predisposed to not like all things assigned because they were homework. She says:
I don’t think there should be mandatory reading lists in school. I cannot think of a single book I enjoyed that I was required to read in school….
…with the exceptions of books I had read before they were assigned to me in school, like To Kill A Mockingbird, and Catcher in the Rye, which were then ruined by someone going on and on about all the “symbolism” in them, and what the authors really meant, which, as an author myself, I can tell you–THE PEOPLE WRITING ABOUT THESE BOOKS DO NOT KNOW. Seriously. THEY DO NOT KNOW WHAT THE AUTHOR REALLY MEANT AT ALL, AND ARE MORE THAN LIKELY WRONG. THIS IS WHY THESE AUTHORS ARE IN HIDING.
O… kay. I’ll admit that I had some doubts about the symbolism in Lord of the Flies when we read it in school. My teacher at the time was teaching out of the Cliff’s Notes (not kidding) which went a long way towards convincing me that she was full of nonsense and that this was about nothing more than some boys on an island. I get the Hobbesian premise of it much better now as an adult. Sure, you can’t really know what the authors intended. Faulkner thought The Sound and the Fury was a mess, one of his worst books, for example. (But, see, I’ve read essays about the book by Faulkner. I wrote a thesis on Toni Morrison and used as support for my arguments real actual quotes from interviews where Toni Morrison explains what she meant in her novels. So sometimes you can know! Crazy!) Sure, there are misinterpretations, but I think there’s value in talking about books, too, in looking at them with a critical eye and culling out larger meanings.
But I’m a nerd that way, I guess.
SB Candy’s response is right on, for the most part. She responds to the above Meg Cabot quote:
Man, what kind of miserable-ass, misguided English teachers did she have? Because I feel that any teacher worth her salt would’ve taught the readers that sometimes, what the author meant and what the author expressed aren’t necessarily the same thing, and that reading is both personal and interactive—it’s a highly solitary activity, in that the reader generally reads alone, but the reader is engaged in a dialogue with the text itself. Reader insights may not have anything to do with what the author meant, and may have everything to do with the reader’s own experiences, and you know what? That’s OK. In fact, that’s great. Language is slippery, and meaning is even slipperier, and we all have something to contribute to the dialogue surrounding books and the reading experience.
I mean, maybe I’m an exception, because I grew up in a house full of books and I’ve always loved reading. And my shelves at home are about 60/40 Literature/Trash, with the romance novels shelved next to the classics sometimes, and that, to me, is as it should be. I think both have value. Thus it seems wrong to say, “Oh, hey, kid, here’s a Gossip Girl, now you don’t have to read Wuthering Heights.”