There’s been a bit of a kerfluffle lately (around the blogs I read, anyway) about how kids are taught about books in school (the originator, and some responses). It seems there’s a hefty population that received less-than-stellar English education, taking classes in high school and earlier that sucked all the fun out of books and reading.
I’ve always loved to read and grew up in a family where that was prized and encouraged, so there was never an issue in that regard. I read for class and I read outside of class. I stumbled and floundered and cursed my way through Dickens and Joyce, and then I went home and read what I liked to read. Oh, sure, more than once I was that asshole kid saying, “but how you KNOW that they MEANT to do this?” but it didn’t ruin reading for me. Far from it. For example, I wouldn’t have discovered Evelyn Waugh in high school if I hadn’t had to do a huge project on The Loved One – which still remains one of my favorite books, probably in part because I spent so much time with it, picking it apart and making sense of it for myself. That’s why teachers encourage their students to look between the lines – if you can argue your point, it doesn’t matter what the author “meant” to do. (We all know by now that any teacher who says his or her way is the only way is a moron…and if the blog comments are any indication, there are a lot of morons teaching high school English!)
Having that experience in picking literature apart can only help me as a writer. Now when I read, I read for enjoyment but also to see how other writers put their stories together. What do I like and why? Could I use that? Would I avoid it? What’s being said that isn’t being said? It’s important. I do rebel against it (constantly), but the thought is always there at the back of my mind. It doesn’t make reading less fun.
That said, I think the hyper-regimented, cut-throat competition of the reading classes many mention in the above blogs is silly and unnecessary. It’s one thing to have a demanding reading list, it’s quite another to make reading a contest for glory. How much of that can a young reader really retain? Are they savoring the experience or rushing ahead to get to the next pointless achievement? What about readers who are slow? Readers who struggle? It’s not “inspiring” for a kid to watch her classmates zooming ahead and being rewarded, it’s embarrassing. Why slap that connotation on books right away? At least let the kids make it to Dickens before they start to hate reading.
Karen Bender says it best:
I think children should fall into books, like a puddle of mud. They should be able to sit and muck around in a book, reading it for the passages they enjoy, for the messages they take from it—which can be very individual messages. I think they need to fall in love with books their own way. As parents, I think we should just have them around, sit and read with them. And stop worrying about when they’ll get to Harry Potter.