How to foster a love of reading and literary analysis

So Meg Cabot posted a rant today about mandatory reading lists, and how much she hated them, entitled “How To Foster a Hatred of Reading,” in response to a NY Times article entitled “The Future of Reading.” I think part of Cabot’s argument is sound—if you want to foster a love of reading in kids, forcing them to read isn’t the greatest idea. Kids aren’t exactly enamored with things that look like work, and mandatory reading lists are, well, work.

But I don’t think the problem’s with the mandatory reading lists, necessarily. It’s with the way reading is taught, and the way reading is dealt with culturally. I look at the conversations and attitudes surrounding books and reading here in the United States, and I see two common attitudes:

The slobs think the snobs think everything you read should be a work of literature that will enrich your life forever, and be a statement of art and the human condition. It should transcend trivialties like plot, and Make A Statement. These books are usually depressing, difficult to understand, and unpleasant in every way. The slobs think the snobs are fun-hating elitist pricks, and that they overthink and over-analyze everything. Slobs just want to have fun, dammit, and the snobs are pissing on their parade of dukes, Greek tycoons and vampires who, if they’re not sparkly and creepy, are gangsta-rap lovin’ dudes with PhDs in Vhiolent Chrime.

The snobs think the slobs are intellectually lazy, and don’t understand why you’d want to read something poorly-written, or that adhered to a formula. The snobs are oftentimes reluctant to recognize formula in literary fiction, and aren’t necessarily the clearest about figuring out where the line between entertainment and art lie, but dammit, it’s there, and they’ll know it when they see it (just like porn! Which, by the way, is what romance readers are reading). The snobs think the slobs have degraded their literary palates by reading too much trash, and worry about the social and political ramifications if you’re not reading the rights sorts of things.

Both sides are really annoying, because they both, by and large, have it wrong, even if they do get a couple of things right. I can’t help but wonder what Meg Cabot’s experiences with reading The Scarlet Letter and Wuthering Heights would’ve been if they hadn’t been sold, not only as homework, but tedious homework. The Scarlet Letter has become a joke—every kid knows it’s supposed to be a miserable, slow reading experience, and just about all except the most nerdly ones who relish dense stories are going to approach it as such.

I grew up in a household and a culture that emphasized academic excellence—sometimes pathologically so. But one of the blessings was how I was taught to approach what I thought of as Big Books. Every Big Book I read was like leveling up in a video game: it was proof that I was getting older and smarter. Reading the big, intimidating classics wasn’t a chore; it was sign that I was growing up, that I was getting smarter and more capable. I took statements like “You’re probably not ready for this book yet” as a challenge, and I’d pick it up anyway. Some of the books I disliked intensely (like Wuthering Heights, and anything Hemingway); but many others, like Madame Bovary, Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, Don Quixote, just about everything by Thomas Hardy, John Steinbeck or Mark Twain, and many other books on typical mandatory reading lists, I just adored and gobbled up before I was quite 16 years old.

I’m going to take the snob side for a moment, and say this: just about all the books on the mandatory reading lists have something enduring and important to say about us: about us as individuals, about us as culture, and about us as civilizations. They’ve stuck around so long because they represent fascinating and enduring looks into what people used to value and what people continue to value, and are capable of resonating with us centuries—sometimes millennia—after they were written. And most kids aren’t going to pick these books up on their own, because they’ve been represented as Hard, and Boring, and Unsexy. And, failing a culture that makes reading complex, dense books as exciting as leveling up in a video game, it falls on teachers and parents to show kids that these books are sexy and exciting, and if they’re hard, well, they’re well worth the work.

And now to switch to the slob side: it also wouldn’t kill to have the kids select their own reading material sometimes, y’know? The books may or may not be especially well-written, but they’re obviously compelling, and I’m a firm believer that pop culture has valuable and interesting things to say about the human condition, too. The most important aspect of teaching kids to read is how to read critically, and to recognize how books tell us a lot not only about the authors and what the authors are writing about, but about the readers themselves and how they process text and meaning, and we don’t need Moby motherfucking Dick to do that. (Incidentally: Moby Dick was a book I picked up fully expecting to hate, and ended up loving; others, like Sometimes a Great Notion, I expected to love, and ended up loathing. Such are the vagaries of mandatory reading.) Allowing the kids to select their own books introduces a great deal more diversity into the reading experience than a mandatory reading list ever could, because those lists tend to favor the dead, the white, and the male. There’s a quick, disdainful reference in the NY Times article to how kids, when allowed to choose for themselves, pick “plenty of young-adult chick-lit novels,” and I don’t think these people get it: the YA novels obviously speak to teenage girls in a way, say, The Unbearable Lightness of Being won’t—and can’t. And this isn’t a bad thing, or a good thing; it’s just a thing, and we need to recognize it and work with it.

This part of Cabot’s article actually made me sad:

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.

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.

Ultimately, I think I’m in favor of some kind of hybrid approach: have a mandatory reading list together with a bunch of books the kids get to pick for themselves. But more than that, I think we need to change the way we look at books and talk about them. I’m tired of the old dichotomies. Some of the most depressing books I’ve read have been romance novels (Devil’s Embrace by Catherine Coulter is deeply, deeply depressing, because holy shit that book is one long, loving paean to the joys of Stockholm Syndrome), and some of the most hopeful and uplifting, even if they have a pang of bittersweet, belong on many mandatory reading lists (most Austen novels, Far From the Madding Crowd, several Dickens novels).

I’m also a big fan of an approach that embraces the maxim that even though reading the book may not have been fun, thinking about it and talking about it certainly can be. (C’mon: most of y’all love the D- and F reviews best, and don’t even pretend that isn’t true.) The singular agony of having to suffer through a bad book, or a book we don’t like, tends to bring on passion and comedy in equal measure, and we need to tap into that. I think we need to free kids from the expectation that they Must Love This Book Or Else; honest reactions and dialogue about those reactions would be a far better teaching tool than some kind of rote “see Symbol X in Element Y” lesson plan.

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Random Musings

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  1. 1
    melem says:

    I don’t think Meg Cabot experience is an isolated case of a few miserable-ass, misguided English teachers, but a very common experience for studentas all over the world… There are just too many teachers who have either become too embroiled in the ‘arcane secrets of signs and symbols’ to be able to teach them to their ignorant students or too fed up with teaching the same book to another class every year.

  2. 2

    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.

    Cabot’s right that when one’s doing literary criticism one often cannot know for sure what the author “really meant” but by the same token, Cabot herself cannot know for sure what other authors intended and many authors have stated that they did mean to include particular symbolisms in their works. Cabot gives the example of “someone is going on and on about Arthur Dimmesdale and what Nathaniel Hawthorne really meant by naming him that.” If one looks at what romance authors have said/written about the way they name their characters, it becomes clear that many of them do choose names very carefully. For example, Lindsay Townsend’s stated that “I always try to discover if names have meanings and bear those meanings in mind as I write,” and Leigh Michaels in her book on writing romance advises that

    Not only can a character’s name help to show what kind of person she is, it can hint at the character’s history and background. It may even help in a minor way to foreshadow story developments or to push them along. If a character named Courtney is told that her birth father was an attorney, her mother’s action in choosing that name takes on significance and helps to convince Courtney that the story is true. (127)

    Valerie Parv writes that when she called the heroine of The Leopard Tree Tanith Page she “chose Tanith because it is another name for Astarte, ancient goddess of the moon; my Tanith is a UFO enthusiast” (43-44).

    Not all choices are as premeditated as this. Jennifer Crusie’s written that “the best of what we do comes from the subconscious soup that’s bubbling away beneath our logic” and when she accessed that “subconscious soup” via making collages, she was able to see more of the symbolism that her own subconscious had already put into the books she was writing.

    Symbolisms can work at a subconscious level, for both author and reader. Most of us have particular associations with particular colours, for example, and if a hero appears dressed entirely in black, we’re going to have a different response to him than if he was clothed from head to foot in beige. The author may not have to bother thinking that through, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some underlying meaning to the colour choice.

    I can understand that some people may prefer the symbolism to remain unexamined, as Cabot clearly does, but that in itself isn’t proof that the symbolism wasn’t placed in the text by the author, either deliberately or not.

  3. 3

    I’ve had great teachers and crappy teachers in both the government system and private system.

    A good teacher will show you ways to enjoy reading the chosen text. Or at least let you argue why it’s a steaming pile of crud.

    A bad teacher will make you feel like a failure no matter what’s on the reading list.

  4. 4
    Mary G says:

    I was incredibly fortunate that my mother was a total bookworm. She taught me to read before I ever went to school, by the time I was in grade 1 I was reading at a grade 4 level.  By the time I was in grade 4, I’d read every book in the school library… I drove the librarian bat-shit crazy, because mostly she’d be trying to balance buying new books for me, and buying new books other kids would be interested – the entire book budget shouldn’t be spend on one kid yanno?

    Most of the books on the Queensland schools’ list weren’t presented as a “mandatory” list.  There’s the book you read for English class and then you’re expected to read X number of other books yourself.  I remember reading The Grapes of Wrath (hated that one, probably hit a bit too close to home being a farm kid), The Pearl also by Steinbeck (loved that one).  No Scarlet Letter in an Aussie school… we had “For the Term of His Natural Life” by Marcus Clark – which was roughly contemporary.  That one was a fun book (the language was hard for kids… I think anything from the 1800’s tends to be).

    I don’t think it’s reading lists/non-reading lists frankly that makes the biggest difference.  I loved books because I learned to read early and proficiently from my mother. I continued to love books because that’s what was fun and normal in our house (well… that and we had no TV from the time I was 6 until I was 17… and when you live on a farm 45 minutes drive from the nearest town there’s not much else to do)!  Among my school friends the ones whose parents were readers enjoyed reading. The ones who had trouble reading and generally hated it were those whose families didn’t value, enjoy or practice reading.

  5. 5
    MicheleKS says:

    I had a few crappy English and Reading teachers over the years (7th grade was the worst year for that) and they couldn’t make teach interesting if their lives depended on it. What I hated was the regimented discussions and point-by-point analysis required back then that was 99% boring crap. I think if you really want to make reading fun and intersting to kids then have the discussions fun and intersting as well- let kids speak their minds freely.

    Now, I didn’t hate everything on the assigned lists but some of it I might have liked more if the teachers had just handed the book to me and let me form my own ideas and opinions about it.

    But wait, we can’t have free-form discussion in a classroom can we? Kids speaking their minds might have more original thoughts and therefore might want to read and learn more.

  6. 6
    Kimberly Anne says:

    Man, what kind of miserable-ass, misguided English teachers did she have?

    Apparently, she had mine.  We were assigned The Scarlet Letter on a Friday, and I thought I would like it.  I scrambled to finish it before Monday, because I knew the teacher’s obsessive prattling about symbol, theme, and such would make me hate it. She had killed other books before.

    I hate To Kill a Mockingbird to this day because the teacher (not the same one) penalized you for original thought. If you didn’t parrot what he thought – automatic fail.

    I was lucky that my passion for books wasn’t destroyed by this crap.

  7. 7
    krsylu says:

    I read the NYT article just this morning, and have emailed it to my boss. I am a Youth Services librarian (without the MLIS) and have been an avid reader all my life. I totally agree with “Mary G” that growing up in a home that values reading helps to create children who love to read.

    My oldest, now 18, struggled with reading until the Christmas vacation during his 3rd grade year. He was REALLY frustrated with his difficulty because he saw how much I and my DH read and he felt inadequate. But, seeing how much we value reading, he persevered and over that vacation, some switch in his brain clicked. Practically overnight he became a proficient reader. If you ask him his favorite past-time today, he would say, “Reading” without any hesitation.

    From the beginning, we monitored his choice of reading, and encouraged him with suggestions, but largely let him go his own way. The only time I put my foot down about a book was when he was about 15 and brought home a book with a rather sensual cover. I asked to look at it, and after reading the front flap and skimming the book (especially the parts where the book fell open easily) I told him in no uncertain terms that he would not be reading this one. I was as vague as I could be, because who wants to discuss bestiality with their 9th grader?

    I am a firm believer in letting kids choose their own reading materials. I see the value in having a group assignment, to make it easier to teach literary criticism BUT I also believe that you have to let kids practice those skills on works of their own choosing. Otherwise, what good is the lesson?

  8. 8

    My oldest wrapped up middle school last year, where they used a sort of hybrid reading system.

    There was the mandatory reading, of course, complete with annoying essay questions, which made me point and laugh at my son. We suffered through them. Now it’s his turn.

    I swear there was one short story that was so unrelentingly depressing I wanted to fling myself in front of a bus, but instead I had to finish it in order to help him answer that most awful of questions: What is the theme of this work?

    But they also used the Accelerated Reader program. Every student sets a goal for the semester and then they’re free to read. Some books are worth 2 points, some are worth 30 points, but the kids get to choose them. Then something like ten minutes of each class—-along with a suggested 30 mins at home—-was dedicated to the independent reading. There’s a test, I guess, that proves the child read the book.

    I think it also helped foster conversation about books—-the kids would talk to each other about what book they were going to read next, and the teacher would make recommendations. When TK had ploughed through nearly all the available Clancy novels, his teacher turned him on to Cussler.

    I think it achieved a nice balance of stale mandatory reading lists and personal “leisure” reading in the classroom.

  9. 9
    Lisa says:

    2 thoughts
    First: I have always felt that non-readers were never presented with enough opportunities to read something that engaged their interests.  As you mentioned, assigned reading is nearly automatically booooring.

    I worked at a bookstore when the Goosebumps series was starting, and the number of people (not just parents) who complained about the kids reading “that trash” was depressing.

    I usually tried to say something to the effect of “But they’re READING and liking it!”  OK, not all kids used Goosebumps as the gateway drug to harder “better” reading, but so what???

    Second:  I can still remember with excruciating clarity the day in my high school sophomore year (late 85 or early 86) when the class started discussing Pride and Prejudice.

    The teacher had us open to the chapter that begins with describing Pemberly.  He turned to me and told me to explain “what does the description [of the grounds] tell us of Darcy’s character?”

    I had no clue.  He let me dangle there stammering “I don’t know” for what seemed like ages.  He had me re-read the passage and “try” again.  I felt so frustrated and humiliated.  Which feelings were compounded and heaped on with a huge dose of bafflement when the teacher FINALLY turned to another student and the kid rattled off all this stuff about precision and highly controlled and tightly contained and and and…

    Despite that effort by the teacher, I now adore Austen, but it took me years to overcome the nasty mental taste and try reading her for pleasure.

  10. 10
    Barb Ferrer says:

    My biggest problem with the mandatory reading lists, at least around here, is their homogeneity.  The majority of the books for sixth grade were some variation on eco-issues (the one exception was The Witch of Blackbird Pond, which my daughter saw and said, “Mom, I see you reading this one a lot, can I read that one?”).  The seventh grade books are all Holocaust books, the eighth grade books are also WWII-oriented, but all boy adventure books.

    I twitched, just reading the lists—I mean, I know there are good books on those lists, I’ve read most of them, but there is so little variation. With most of them also being incredibly depressing as well—way to foster a love of reading as enjoyment, school district.

    I’m glad that my kids read on their own.  I let them choose, for the most part, and I’m also grateful I have so many friends who are such wonderful writers and whose books I can recommend to my kids because the schools?  They’re kind of doing a suck-ass job of it.

  11. 11
    nutmeag says:

    I firmly believe my private school education allowed me to really love reading (I also have a book worm mother and we lived on a farm, so I’m sure those helped). Unlike the public grammar school system, we weren’t forced to read whole books for class. Instead, we had a reader that had tons of excerpts from popular, classic, and Newberry award winning children’s lit. And these excerpts we read together in class. What would end up happening is that we’d read one that I loved, then I’d go to the library and pick it up.

    We also had to visit the school library once a week, but we were allowed to pick out whatever we wanted, as long as it wasn’t too far under our reading level and wasn’t the same book every week. I also don’t think I wrote a book report until I was in the 5th or 6th grade . . . at least not for class. I think I wrote a few for extra credit, though.

    I wasn’t an early reader, but I’ve had a library card since I was at least five, and have never been without one. Reading is my world, and for that I thank my school. I got lucky.

  12. 12
    Carin says:

    I had the same kinds of lit teachers as Meg Cabot.  Even the ones I liked hit plot and symbolism SO hard that they sucked the joy out of the book.  I remember reading ahead like Kimberly Ann, so as to be able to finish a book before someone disected it. 

    I also remember arguing with a teacher about whether an author intentionally put symbolism into a story (The Great Gatsby, holy cow did my teacher have a two page list of symbols and themes!) or did we just find it after the fact.  And if the author didn’t mean for it to be there, should we really have to learn it.  (Yeah, I was one of those kids.)

    I’m not sure how it happened, but I think, like others mentioned, I saw the required reading list as a challenge, and spent a semester of independent study reading through some of the books on the list.  Picking my own books, even off the list, was a much better fit for me (and my teacher!). 

    As for the slob/snob debate…  I used to read books because I wanted to prove how smart I was (hence the independent study of tucking all that required reading in).  Now I read for two reasons… to learn something or for personal enjoyment.  There is enough crap in my life, I don’t need it in my reading material.  I’m pretty comfortable with myself now.  And my favorite discussions of symbolism?  Cover snark.  I’m very good at spotting phallic symbols now!

  13. 13
    Tina C. says:

    Among my school friends the ones whose parents were readers enjoyed reading. The ones who had trouble reading and generally hated it were those whose families didn’t value, enjoy or practice reading.

    Growing up, I was not only not encouraged to read, I was made fun of by various stepmothers for “always having my nose stuck in a book.”  I’m a voracious reader and I go through 2-4 books a week.  So, to say that I value reading is a bit of an understatement.  My kids?  Well, the oldest writes poetry and song lyrics, but if you asked him to read something for the fun of it, he’d laugh.  (I think Kurt Cobain’s biography was the only exception.)  My youngest reads if he’s absolutely bored (he got a lot of reading done in Iraq and I’m very happy about that for a couple of reasons).  As for my middle child, I have been pleasantly surprised to discover that she goes to the library quite often and has even joined a book club (to discuss them, not buy them).  This is a major change from her teenaged years when reading was only for people with no “real” lives.  My point is that reading isn’t necessarily engendered by your upbringing.  Sometimes you’re a reader no matter what anyone says or feels about it and sometimes you won’t read despite growing up surrounded by books.  There’s got to be more to it than whether or not your parents read—unless we just want to say, “Oh, well, that family doesn’t really value books and that’s why he/she doesn’t want to read and it’s pointless to try to find something that makes him/her more interested.”

    As for mandatory book lists, chalk me up for one that hated being told what to read and hated almost every book that was forced upon me.  (To Kill a Mockingbird and Turn of the Screw were the notable exceptions.)  My first experience with the mandatory reading list was Red Badge of Courage in the fourth grade.  This was also when I realized that the teacher would discuss the book ad nauseum and if I paid attention in class and took notes, I didn’t have to read the book to pass the test.  I learned several things by the time I graduated from high school:

    1) The Scarlet Ibis was a good story until we spent 4 days disecting ever tiny bit of possible symbolism in it.  Well, mostly the teacher would ask about the symbolism of this or that, tell us we were wrong in a frustrated tone of voice, and lecture us on what it really meant.  God, I hated that story by the end.

    2) I dislike, intensely, pretty much everything Hemmingway ever wrote—especially The Old Man and the Sea.  (See above for why.)

    3) I like Shakespeare better when I can just watch the play.  (See above for why.)

    4) Reading ahead frustrates the teacher nearly as much as not reading it all for some inexplicable reason.

    5)  If you take good notes, you can write a paper about a story or book and tell your teacher exactly what he/she wants to hear and get an A without ever finishing the thing.

    5) I would rather read about anything other than something off of some school reading list.

    I will say that I noticed that the reading lists were getting more diverse and balanced by the time my kids went to school, however, so maybe the education is beginning to get a clue.

  14. 14
    RStewie says:

    I think I’m echoing a little what others are saying here, but I think your aptitude for reading (ie reading faster and with comprehension) makes for a love of reading.  Most of the kids I know that don’t like to read, aren’t “good” at it.  Those that do, it comes easily to.

    But another huge factor is how much reading is emphasized in the home.  I buy my step son books I know he’ll read—he’ll get a book at every gift-giving opportunity (along with masses of other toys).  My neices and nephew all have extremely large collections of books, some classics, and some they’ve chosen for themselves.  My sister gave up trying to get her step-daughter to plow through the LHOTP series…and bought her age appropriate gossip-girlesque books, instead.  Which she still has to MAKE HER READ.  It’s a work in progress.

    I myself have no experience with mandatory reading lists.  In college we had some books we had to read, but I think by that time my love of reading had already become a part of me.  I don’t think they’re so bad, except to echo what Barb said:  SOO homogenous…my stepson is mixed, and to me it’s not fair to set him up with only examples of White writers and White experiences.

  15. 15
    Tina C. says:

    Apparently, I should have proofed a bit better:

    5) I would rather read about anything other than something off of some school reading list.

    That should be a number 6, not 5.

    I will say that I noticed that the reading lists were getting more diverse and balanced by the time my kids went to school, however, so maybe the education is beginning to get a clue.

    …so maybe the education system is beginning to get a clue.

  16. 16
    Natalie says:

    Larger issues of this post aside, for this alone…

    “Every Big Book I read was like leveling up in a video game: it was proof that I was getting older and smarter. Reading the big, intimidating classics wasn’t a chore; it was sign that I was growing up, that I was getting smarter and more capable. “

    …I will love you forever. This is a way to talk about those tough books with my kids that they’ll get. Thank you!

  17. 17

    My son is dyslexic and reading, for him, is a chore. Until he discovered JK Rowling. She made him read because he wanted to, and then he discovered Terry Pratchett. So I’d say that sometimes you have to “work up” to the greats, and you definitely need a wide reading experience to know why Dickens is great and some of his contemporaries aren’t, why Jane Austen is great literature, and Georgette Heyer is genre (superb genre, but nevertheless…)
    I hate and detest literary snobbery. It should come from the heart, not what you’re told. You should want to know more, not be forced to read about it. Great literature works on several levels, and if you’re happy with “Great Expectations” as a blisteringly good story, then that’s enough.
    My daughter loves literature, but her experience with Jane Austen reminded me of mine. I didn’t “get” Jane until I was in my late twenties. I think some of her subtleties pass the younger reader by, or rather, don’t address what people in their late teens are interested in. “Emma” bored me stupid, I couldn’t see the point. So perhaps there are ideal ages, too.
    For me, 13 was perfect for “Lord Of The Rings,” for instance.

  18. 18
    Cathy says:

    (Haven’t read the NY article or Cabot’s response yet, so sorry if I’m repeating either.)
    I had a mixed bag of English teachers.  The real gem was my 12th grade teacher, whose name I sadly cannot remember.  Even the books that I wasn’t interested in, plot-wise, he made interesting and helped me learn something.  And he taught the hell out of Hamlet.

    Other teachers, though, not quite so good.  I wonder if part of the problem is that the teachers themselves either aren’t interested in the text they teach, or are so tired of it, that the book loses all spark for them and it just becomes a regurgitated lesson plan.  I’m not trying to make teachers sound lazy or something, just that if I had to re-teach a book I didn’t enjoy every.single.year, I’d have trouble inspiring young students to learn to enjoy it.  It might be nice if teachers could pick the books for their individual classes from a large list, as opposed to assigning the same book to every 9th grader in the city.  That way, at least the teacher could pick books that he/she was more interested in personally, and might enjoy teaching a bit more.

    (By the way, enjoyed The Scarlett Letter, A Tale of Two Cities, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  Sadly, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings killed all Maya Angelou for me, and I can’t stand Steinbeck and Melville.)

  19. 19
    shaunee says:

    Tina C,
    I couldn’t agree more with #5 of your list.  I read Jude the Obscure at least 4 times in college for 4 different classes: 18th Century Lit, 19th Century Lit, The Gothic and Women in 18th C. Lit.

    Wrote many papers, got several A’s and do this day can still quote from that book.

    Never finished it. 

    I remember thinking that the title was weird and after reading the first 50 pages, wishing to god that Jude had remained in obscurity.

  20. 20
    Nancy says:

    I am going to agree with Meg Cabot 100%.  We must have had the same teachers.  GACK!  I hated reading…until I was in my 30’s and discovered romance.  Every book on the required reading list was depressing and horrible.  Don’t even get me started on the ones about dogs.  WHY MUST THEY ALL DIE?!  Just awful.  I got tired of being disturbed and depressed, and I was certain that all books were like that.  Well, no thank you then. 

    I volunteer in the elementary library at my kids’ school, and I make this complaint constantly.  Our educational system is making our kids hate reading.  I know it made me hate it.

  21. 21

    I remember thinking that the title was weird and after reading the first 50 pages, wishing to god that Jude had remained in obscurity.

    I wanted to beat Jude’s head against the nearest wall. And his beloved’s, too. When it got to the “Old Father Time” bit (you know the bit I mean) it became the first book I ever hurled out of a window. Wallbanging was too good for it.

    But that in itself is great because I had a reaction to the book, and because of what I’d been taught, I could say why I didn’t like it. And it’s great because it provoked such a reaction.

    I grew up in a working-class environment with lots and lots of books. We couldn’t afford central heating, so we had big tall bookshelves and books by the yard, to help insulate the large house we lived in. I just worked my way through them, no clue which was a “classic” and which was “trash.” I found that out for myself. Still love the Leslie Charteris “Saint” books, especially the early ones, to this day and I discovered a love of the hard-boiled detective novel, particularly Hammet and Chandler but with a side order of Spillane.
    My parents regarded books as cheap entertainment, which they were and are. So I’d already read most of the classics when I started studying English, which is pretty useful, and I had the breadth of knowledge to be able to compare books and put the set book in context, also a useful thing.
    Education got me out of the working-class grind, so I can’t be sorry I had it, or that I had teachers who tried hard to get us to pass the exams we needed to get on to the interesting bit – real life.

  22. 22

    Probably echoing pretty much everyone here, but I grew up a bookworm and remain one to this day. But there were always teachers who tried to ruin them for me—my eighth-grade teacher almost succeeded in ruining Romeo and Juliet, a play I’ve loved since I was nine, by focusing exclusively on minutiae. Thankfully she didn’t succeed.

    The oddest example, however, came a few years later, in tenth grade. This teacher was otherwise wonderful; she taught me Hamlet and The Taming of the Shrew, and then somehow proceeded to three weeks of torture involving The Old Man and the Sea. Now, to be fair, this might have been Hemingway’s fault and not hers. I never even finished that book. I still don’t understand why people insist on forcing it upon students. I was one of those students who liked trying to pick books apart to figure out how they worked (I’m now finishing a PhD in English. Who’s surprised?). But when she was going on and on about Christ symbolism in Hemingway, all I could see was a story about an old man who couldn’t catch a fish.

    I do think it makes a massive difference if kids are choosing what they read. But they need to begin with the basic assumption that reading can be entertaining, and not everybody has that.

    As for book snobs, people keep assuming I’m one. Then they take one look at my bookcase and are forced to reconsider.

  23. 23
    Jill Myles says:

    I have to echo Meg Cabot’s sentiments – I loathed anything that was required reading. And being in honors classes? MY GOD, there was so much of it. I cracked more copies of Cliff Notes and muddied my way through symbolism bullshit essays far more often than I ever opened up The Grapes of Wrath, Tess of the D’Urbevilles, Macbeth, or any other brutal type of book of that nature. Why should I have to spend endless hours reading that stuff at home? Even worse, when we got back to class to analyze it, the conversations would inevitably go like this:

    Teacher: So, give me your impressions of the book. What did you think he meant when he said X? There are no wrong answers, I just want to get your impressions.
    Student: I think he meant Y.
    Teacher: No, that’s wrong…
    (Um, seriously. How are there no wrong answers but your answers are wrong?)

    The best experience I had reading something in high school? I had a coach that taught social studies and government. On the first day of class, he pulled out 30 copies of All Quiet On The Western Front, gave us each a copy, and told us to read. We did nothing but read that class period, and every class period after for 2-3 weeks. We couldn’t take the books home with us – we were just supposed to sit quietly and read. Any discussion that we had about the book came at the end, and it was just chatty, and discussed how the story fit in with the real history.

    That was the best book I’d read in high school, hands down.

    I remember that

  24. 24

    I grew up as the only one of four kids who loved to read.  I read anything and everything I could get my hands on.

    Fast forward to now, and I am a mother of seven who rarely can find time to read, but still tries.  My kids love to read (or love to be read to for the really young ones). However, I have one daughter who was never much of a reader.

    I worried. 

    Then she picked up a Meg Cabot book.  She’s now read all of Meg Cabot’s books along with books from other authors and I am often having to repeat myself to her because she is too engrossed in a book to hear me. 

    And I no longer worry.

  25. 25
    Edie says:

    I hated 85% of the books that we studied at high school, sorry Thomas Hardy was number one of the hate list. (though I got one of my highest literature marks ever on that book even though I basically tore the thing to shreds.)
    Now I was a voracious reader, in my small country school I read every single reader that school had and took all English related classes I could. But I still hated all the allocated books except for TKAM, John Marsden, Heart of Darkness, and Much Ado.
    I think there really needs to be a balance of classic and popular to instil a love of reading, I feel as much can be learned by studying popular stuff as well as classics.
    I think for many the over-analysing does kill the classics and the joy of reading for some. And frankly there is always going to be a number who do not like classics and never will, my sheepish hand is in the air on that one.

    I remember one book that got 90% of the class reading and fully involved in class discussions and that was John Marsden’s Tomorrow When the War Began, now this is not a literature masterpiece, but it had a teenage voice and it was something we students related to and I think it was the most successful book studied that year and I feel the majority learned a lot more from the study of that book, then the classics we did. Though it wasn’t on the main list.. lol

    And I am rambling badly, but hopefully there is a point in there somewhere?

  26. 26
    Edie says:

    You know with all the rambling in the previous post, I simply could have said I agree with Candy, that a hybrid would probably be the best way to go.

    *headdesk*

  27. 27

    Meg’s Right.

    I know from personal experience. The first piece I ever had published nationally was a short story titled My Mother, Unusual in a Normal Sort of Way, that was published in Merlin’s Pen, a national magazine of student writing. Hey, it was extra credit in a jr. CP English class. And basically it was easy to write. All I did was cobble together a string of different incidents from real life about how my mother handled things.

    My English teachers were so thrilled when it was published that they ordered copies for every student and we read it in class together. (Nothing like airing dirty linen in public…especially for a teenager.) What absolutely and totally floored me was when we started reading the discussion guide produced by the editors of the magazine. “How did the author use exaggeration and hyperbole to deepen character?” Huh? WTF?

    I turned to my best friend behind me in class and said. “What exaggeration and hyperbole? That’s really how my mom is. It’s the truth.” She shook her head and said. “I know.”

    So Meg’s right. Sometimes the snobs and literary educators don’t have any effing clue what the author really meant. They are projecting their self-worth into the story by eschewing the concept that perhaps the author was just telling a story rather than trying to secretly encode some vital “deep inner meaning”.

    Which leads me to quote Mark Twain: “Of course truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”

    Regardless, I have one child that totally loves to read (and literally goes through my recycle box digging out the draft print outs of my books in progress) and one that has to be forced to read because he’s still struggling – unless I read Harry Potter or some other book because he likes that I give every character their own voice.

    Having done some teaching, I would still agree with Meg. I’ve seen it in action. First you have to hook the kid on the experience of reading – loving the way pictures form in their mind from the words. Then let them broaden their appreciation and try different things.

    If you give a kid Hemingway to start with and tell them this is a good book, it’s rather like handing a prime rib to a six month old. Sure they can gum it, eventually, but are they really going to appreciate or enjoy it? Probably not. Strained peaches would be far more appreciated.

    Just my .02

  28. 28
    Kim says:

    Unfortunately, I would say that Ms. Cabot had the same kinds of burned-out English/Literature teachers I did. I remember vividly being made to memorize classic poetry line-by-line, in order to regurg it for the class. It sucked all the joy out of every single poem we read.

    And I also distinctly remember a pop quiz on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, wherein the first question was “How many times did the author use the word ‘divers’ in chapter one?” And although I didn’t then and don’t now know the answer to that question, I do know that it did NOT make me want to read more for that class.

    I think older kids probably do need some sort of guide, but for the younger ones, when you just want them to read? Let them read what they want. They know it’s dreck, but it’s enjoyable dreck.

  29. 29
    Julie says:

    I agree wholeheartedly that it’s all about the teachers. Too many teachers get hung up on the “right” way of looking at a work to the point that disagreement is not tolerated. My kid went through some soul-sucking English teachers in high school, only to find one in his senior year that brought the joy back. And now he’s in college, learning the lesson that the tenured professor is ALWAYS right, even when he/she is wrong. Don’t get me started on that one…

    (Captcha is cars67. Here’s hoping Kid’s car will start this morning so I don’t have to drive him to class.)

  30. 30
    fiveandfour says:

    This is one of those things I’d never thought much about until I saw it debated during one of Michael Dirda’s reader interaction days.  Since then, it has weighed on my mind at various times. 

    I came to realize that nearly every English teacher I’d ever had just about ruined reading for me.  I, too, read just about whatever I wanted and took on reading “above myself” as a challenge.  Then I’d get to class and have things I’d loved turned to ashes.

    The good teachers, though – they were worth their weight in gold.  They were able to take something we *should* read and make it something we *wanted* to read.  To me that speaks as much about assigned reading lists as it does to how teachers are matched to their subjects and how bad teachers are allowed to hang in there and keep doing a bad job.

    At the stage that I realized how bad some of my teachers were, I also realized how I had a rare privilege in being one of those “talented and gifted” kids because it meant I got to choose projects for myself.  We were given the luxury of choosing who/what we read and presented, but we were also given the responsibility of doing the critical analysis and making it count. 

    I can’t imagine why such an educational experience couldn’t be more widely applied.  Those lessons that nurtured the skill of thinking and analysis turned out to be the most valuable of my entire student career for a variety of reasons and did more than I can say for preparing me both for college and for working life.

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