Monday, April 12, 2010

Reading is Fundamental

For the past couple of days, I’ve been compiling a list of every book I can remember reading. I’ve done a lot of it through memory and more by searching for lists of “books you should read before you die.” So far, I’m closing in on 300 books read in my lifetime, going back to Harold and the Purple Crayon. I’ve got no idea what the first book I ever read on my own actually was. The accomplishment of reading that first book didn’t leave a mark, but the impact of learning to read has had a tremendous impact on my life.

There have been a few surprises as I’ve looked at the growing list. Interesting clusters of books by the same author that show where I became enamored and read a great deal of a particular writer before moving on. Hemingway and Faulkner both appear on my list with multiple titles, as does Woolf. I also feel a sense of satisfaction at the number of women writers (thanks, in large part, to lit classes that focused on women writers and exposed me to many fine writers I would never have had the pleasure of getting to know). Non-western writers make the occasional appearance, as do writers of diverse ethnic heritages. I’ve also got a nice smattering of science fiction/fantasy, I’m happy to say, so my list isn’t comprised exclusively of Penguin Classics titles.

Though, I am pretty well read in the classics having read the Iliad and the Odyssey as well as the Aeneid, the Inferno, many, many Greek plays and histories, Canterbury Tales, and Beowulf. I’ve also read an extensive amount of Austen. My next step in reviewing the list is to look up publication dates so that I can see what time periods I haven’t read yet. I know I’m pretty thin on the 1700’s and there are some pretty interesting books there. I also haven’t read a great deal in the early 1900’s, though I’m great with Modern writers.

Which is the interesting thing about this exercise: seeing where there are gaps in my reading time line and my reading geography.

What’s also been interesting is to see how many of these books I read during high school and college. I started doing this list because I was trying to remember the reading list from freshman English in high school. My memory says we read 13 books that year, and I’m closing in on the full list. So far, I remember reading The Iliad, The Odyssey, Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, Watership Down, Romeo and Juliet, The Human Comedy, Animal Farm, Siddhartha, Night, and Grendl. Other possibilities are A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1984, and Heart of Darkness, mainly because I remember reading them in high school and think they might have been during Mr. Johnson’s class. During high school, I also read: Canterbury Tales, Wuthering Heights, Huck Finn, Great Gatsby, Grapes of Wrath, The Sun Also Rises, The Sound and the Fury, Death in Venice, Crime and Punishment, and so many more. Books I remember very clearly to this day. Books which became a part of me and who I am today in a way no current reading does. They etched themselves on my DNA. I’ve already talked about the influence Catcher in the Rye had on me even though I didn’t recognize it until I reread the opening pages of the book a few months ago.

Creating this list has also saddened me a great deal as I think about the books my older son isn’t being exposed to in his high school experience. They’ve read two novels this year - Nectar in a Sieve, which is a YA novella, and Animal Farm. After he finished Animal Farm, we gave him 1984 and Brave New World to read. He devoured both books. I know that there is a great deal of effort on the part of the schools to keep the kids interested in literature. Although, actually, that’s not true. The schools have emphasized “reading,” with required amounts of time the kids needed to read each night and reading logs that had to be filled out and turned in (which we could never remember to do). A couple of years ago, the elementary and middle schools instituted a new “Accelerated Reader” program that rewards the kids with points for each book they read. Sounds good, but you get points by passing a multiple choice test, and the kids with the most points get awards. When they first started using AR, reading became a total competition, with kids reading lower level books so they could get the points. When our older son read A Tale of Two Cities in 8th grade, it asked ridiculously pointless questions like what was the color of the heroine’s dress in a particular scene. My son failed the test. This was after having an in-depth discussion with me about the influence AToTC’s had had on another book he was reading for class. So I know he understood the book on a deeper level.

There are actually two points I want to make here. One is that I think the schools are missing the difference between encouraging reading and understanding (and loving) literature. One does not necessarily lead to the other. While I think encouraging kids to read as many words as possible may have a place in the lower grades, by 8th grade, the kids should be learning to talk about literature and how to really read for deeper meaning. Asking about the color of a dress (unless it is truly symbolic of a larger theme in the novel) is irrelevant and misses the point of reading a book like A Tale of Two Cities. And learning to read deeper isn’t necessarily a function of reading a lot. It’s something that needs to be learned and takes practice to do well, but the schools aren’t doing this. They aren’t even trying to show the students that there are different ways of reading a text. Believe me. I work with the kids often enough to know. It blows their minds when someone shows them what else lurks behind the text. They get excited about it. It makes the books more interesting. And they want to read more.

My second point is this: I know the schools are trying to make reading more engaging for the students. I know they face lots of competition from computers, TV, video games, texting, and just kids being kids, but I am worried the schools are squandering good opportunities to engage the students with challenging work. I know, sometimes school ruins books for people. I agree. I will never be able to read Herman Melville because of my junior year in high school, nor can I read Heart of Darkness (or even think about it) without feeling the chagrin of having to have read it THREE times in four years (high school and college included). I hate, hate, hate that book. But…what my list showed me was the importance of that exposure. And I think this is what the schools are abdicating by trying to use more engaging texts or limiting the number of books they ask the kids to read. The exposure is important. Letting the kids know the full range of written works that are available in the world, even if they don’t understand everything they’re reading, is important. Challenging them to read more complex works is important. Risking that they will dislike something or hate it even, is important (we tell our kids it’s okay not to like something, you just better be able to articulate why you hate it to us). And it’s important to teach them how to read and that they aren’t stupid if they can’t understand what’s been written. Heck, I read Ulysses, but the only way I got through it was to read a chapter, listen to a recorded college lecture by a leading Joyce scholar about that chapter, then re-reading the chapter, and finishing off by re-listening to the lecture. And I still don’t understand all of it. But…I now know why it had such a tremendous impact on the way stories are told now, and I can see its influence when I’m reading other work and can talk about the novel quite well. But…give me a multiple choice test on the book, and I’ll probably fail.

1 comment:

hep said...

Conrad's Heart of Darkness? I only ended up reading it once in school, and now that I am reading King Leopold's Ghost I am finding that I have to go over it again to compare to the true history.

I agree with you on most of this. However, I will note that other subjects have been way more rounded out than when I went to school, for instance the sciences are way more in depth, even when I was at BES and Lipman it was all worksheets, and the one science project I remember was a stripped down version of Project Green Thumb. No rocketry (ie newton's laws of motion), no genetics (ie dna pairs and info exchange, cell genetics, etc) and def no actualized physics until the end of high school. So while I mourn the loss of a wider lit program, I think they are at least expanding in some areas. I just look at it as parents having to take on more of the responsibility in afterschooling the kids educations.