Finally, a subject I feel passionate about that is too long for Twitter alone! What has set me off is a New York Times article Students Get New Assignment: Pick Books You Like. To which I say YES! It’s about time!.
I have strong feelings on this subject, but not from my own experience—for years my joking explanation of my vast ignorance of “good literature” was that I grew up in the Hawaii Public School System. Since those long-ago days Hawaii schools have truly improved in many ways, but I had big problems with the way literature was taught when my two children were in high school.
As I recall, middle school (and possibly down through elementary school) had a great system. At the beginning of the school year the students would receive a huge list of hundreds of books. They would simply pick a book off the list, read it, take a little computerized test to show they had read it, and do it all again. There were all kinds of books on the list and it wasn’t a challenge to find something each child could really get into. (Well, except maybe my son, but more on that later.)
But by high school, at least in the advanced classes, there were assigned reading lists. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I made it a habit to read most of the assigned books and discovered some real gems that I would never have picked up on my own. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible and Chiam Potok’s The Chosen come immediately to mind. The most amusing—not the book itself, but the way it played out—was Snow Falling on Cedar. This one was assigned as summer reading for my daughter’s incoming freshmen class. Neither she nor any of her friends showed any sign of starting in on it until I read it and reviewed it. “Wow, very nice story, but I’m pretty stunned the teacher would assign a book with such graphic sex to a ninth grade class.” Hmm . . . suddenly, the book was being read by lots of soon-to-be freshmen. The second-level punch line is that the teacher who assigned the book wasn’t there when class started. The new teacher read the book later in the semester and was stunned.
So those were the good experiences. The bad experiences were teachers who assigned dreadful “classics” and in too many cases analyzed them to death. Let me say that I have essentially no experience with “analyzing” books. I am not an English major. If English majors want to while away their time looking for themes and hidden meanings, well, have fun. But please let’s not inflict this (it’s tempting to say “perversion”) on high school kids. I have no objection to a good discussion, sharing insight, that sort of thing. But spending days and sometimes weeks tearing a book apart, diagramming it, acting it out, making more or less of it than it really is, does no student any good. I recall a nearly endless wrestling with The Masque of the Red Death that was horrifying to witness as a parent and called into doubt the psychological state of the teacher.
Personally, I felt the best way to go about teaching high school literature was to read a book, talk about it, move on. Even better if people could read books they like.
Okay, back to my son. He has never, from earliest days, had much interest in reading fiction. Gaming manuals, no problem. Non-fiction, that’s fine. Forums, sure. Even choose-your-own-adventures worked pretty well, but beyond that, it was pretty hard to find a book that he felt was worth reading. The astonishing thing about him is he has the vocabulary of someone who has read extensively his whole life. I don’t know how he managed that.
Being a writer, of course this bothered me (and continues to bother me!). I worked very hard to find books he could enjoy. I wasn’t snobby about it. He was very much into Michael Crichton’s Timeline for example. And I even got him to read my own Memory. (“Hey, it’s dedicated to you. You have to read it.”)
As an aside, he would also write the most scathing book reviews I have ever encountered.
But after all that hard work he wound up in an advanced English class in high school with a reading list that wouldn’t exactly make me want to keep running back to the library for more. The worst of the lot—and I know I am about to offend a lot of people who think this is a scintillating, truly wonderful novel—was Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man. As I said, I tried to read the books my children were assigned, but I couldn’t get more than a few pages into this one. My son impressed me hugely by reading the whole thing—but except for some Star Wars novels he has probably not read much fiction since. I am not saying I blame his English teacher and Ralph Ellison for this, but I do consider it a contributing factor.
Reading fiction needs to involve some pleasure for the reader. Even if the book breaks your heart or makes you cry, you still get the pleasure of a good story, along with the company of characters you appreciate. And of course not everybody will find this pleasure in the same book. So English teachers! We appreciate you–your bravery and fortitude far exceed mine–but please do not force our impressionable youth to read books they despise. We want to instill a life-long love of reading, not a life-long loathing.
So here is one enthusiastic vote for student choice!