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.