I can't be the only one who feels like the schools pulled a sort of bait-and-switch job on us when it came to reading. When I was in elementary school, they went to a lot of trouble to make sure we thought reading was fun, with bookmobiles and read-a-thons and tons of fun books about mice and motorcycles and phantom tollbooths. I had confidence that I could go to the library and pull anything off the shelf except a Baby-Sitters Club book and I wouldn't be disappointed.
This is one of those books that you could judge by its cover.
That was the bait. In junior high and high school, they made the switch. I guess they heard about how drug dealers give you free doses of the good stuff until you are addicted, and then once you are hooked, they start cutting it with 50 percent baby powder or something. Actually, junkies notice when you do this. And kids notice when you swap their fun books for boring crap.
So one summer you are reading A Wrinkle in Time or Fantastic Mr. Fox or whatever, and then you show up for your first day of school and BAM, The Scarlet Letter. And get on that pronto, kid, because we are going to talk about metaphors and symbolism in Chapter 1 tomorrow. I opened these books thinking they would be great and rewarding, like the books I was used to, but it was like biting into a delicious-looking cake and finding a bear trap. After my face had been so destroyed by so many bear traps (to continue the metaphor) that the greatest reconstructive surgeon in the world could do nothing to save it, I stopped looking at books as wonderful presents I couldn't wait to open and started looking at them with a sort of low-level PTSD.
This is when the flashbacks start.
Let me be clear: I still love reading good books, but since experience has taught me that there's about a 95 percent chance that a random (adult) book I pick up is going to be unenjoyable, I spend more time researching a book before I read it than I spent researching my house before I bought it. It's crazy to have to be so scared and wary of something I used to look forward to so much.
I think this kind of experience is part of why only 50 percent of American adults have read any novel, short story, poem or play in the past year, and only 54 percent have read any kind of book at all that wasn't required. There was a bump up from 2002 to 2008, which they think was related to Oprah's book club, or Harry Potter -- you know, things reminiscent of the "Reading Is Fun" campaigns they targeted at kids, which I guess we need for adults now.
I'm not sure if this is a farcical joke about a dumb reading campaign or a satire on the way they are actually marketing books to grown-ups these days.
And as a disclaimer, I know there's going to be people out there who loved The Scarlet Letter or A Separate Peace or what have you and feel like they got a lot out of it, and teachers who manage to get kids really engaged in discussing literature, and that is cool, but I don't think that's the common experience. Here are the sorts of things I think are going on a lot more often:
#4. High School Required Reading Sucks
The Scarlet Letter, Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations, Ethan Frome, Walden, Heart of Darkness, Madame Bovary, The Catcher in the Rye and The Sun Also Rises all suck. OK, that's just my opinion, but the average high school student -- hell, the average human being -- will probably agree on a bunch of those at least.
This cover is misleading because it is much more interesting than the book.
What really gets my goat is when people act like this is our problem. They say the reason we don't like these books is because we don't get it. Because we are stupid and like our stories spoon-fed to us with simple words. We hate to work our brains to think about deeper themes and ambiguity. We like our comfort zone, and we get confused and angry when asked to put ourselves in the shoes of people in different places and times.
They will say you are objectively wrong and the book is objectively good, and important. Maybe the piece of writing was a groundbreaker in covering a taboo subject, or maybe it introduced a new and important idea that influenced world events (Thoreau and civil disobedience), or is a great example of dramatic or situational irony or an unreliable narrator, or maybe it proves butt jokes are ancient and universal (Shakespeare).
I remember he created a character named Bottom who had an "ass"' head. Not subtle.
A lot of these may be good reasons why you should read the book, but they shouldn't be used to prove that the book is good. I'm not saying to strip all these books out of the curriculum or only make kids read things they enjoy. Life is hard and you have to do things you don't like. When you grow up, you will have to read boring/wrong things and listen to boring/wrong people from time to time, and figure out how to pay attention and understand their point of view, and that is a skill you need to practice. But when just about every single book on the reading list is something that makes the majority of your class go home and blog about how much they hate it, it starts to seem like a Fahrenheit 451-style plot to destroy people's interest in reading.
#3. You're Not Allowed to Talk Smack About the Books
Even if you love literature and had a pretty good high school reading experience, you probably can agree that at least one book you were asked to read (in your opinion) sucked. There might be excessive exposition, laughable imagery, characters intended to be sympathetic who are grating or characters intended to be grating who are so grating that you can't pay attention to the story (Holden Caulfield).
There are very few classrooms where you are encouraged to express this point of view, because I think a lot of teachers feel like if you admit to the book not being that great, then you open yourself up to the kids arguing that they shouldn't have to read it. I don't think it has to go there. I think teaching well-reasoned smack talk has a lot of value.
And not just if you get into a kung fu fight at work.
The stated goal of teaching literature isn't just to get kids familiar with famous books; it's also supposed to teach kids how to discuss stories and write intelligently. You teach them how to find symbolism and metaphors and hero's journeys and character arcs in an assigned book so that when they consume other media (other books, movies, long personal lies told by disturbed family members, etc.) in the future, they can point all those things out to explain why they're good or bad.
And to be totally realistic, most of the practical application of this would go to movies, because more people watch and discuss movies (or TV shows) than read books these days. This seems bad at first, because there are a lot of terrible movies and TV shows out there today. But there's a lot of very smart criticism and discussion of bad movies. I've mentioned Red Letter Media and their reviews before. You wouldn't think there would be anything to learn from the vacuous Star Wars prequels, but apparently there's a lot to point out about what specific elements of story and drama are missing, and a lot more intelligent observations to be pulled out of the movies than went into them, somehow.
So of course you don't want to let the kids get away with writing an essay about an assigned book saying, "It sucks, it was boring, Heathcliff and Catherine were stupid and annoying," even if you admit that Wuthering Heights is a piece of shit. But what if you let them write an essay that goes negative on the book as long as they make reasoned, intelligent points that show they understood the author's intentions and the methods they used to achieve them, and then explain why they think the author failed at this?
"I feel that Bronte was needlessly derivative in naming her main character after a cartoon cat."
They can't just say "The book was preachy" -- they'll have to say that a specific point was made "heavy-handedly," cite a passage they find particularly ham-fisted and explain which words and phrases they feel butcher the idea of subtlety. They'll have to explain why a certain chapter might have appealed to the author's contemporary audience by showing an understanding of those readers and their situation, before explaining what's changed in the intervening years to make that part of the story mawkish and cartoony. (Am I talking about Dickens? You decide.)
It's a lot more motivating to write something you really believe. When you look for supporting points for your assigned essay on which character in The Great Gatsby best symbolizes the American Dream, you'll probably be looking through your notes trying to figure out what your teacher wants you to say, and you'll learn how to repeat things people want to hear. If you're writing about why The Sun Also Rises sucks, your points will come from actual opinions you have and you'll learn how to organize your own opinions and express them.
Without using penis-shaped emoticons.
Even if the kids are wrong, like they say Shakespeare was a hack, being able to actually support that opinion with good points that show they really understand the material is pretty impressive. And the real world is full of murky issues (religion, politics, which character class is overpowered) where there's no authoritative adult to come in and say which is the "right" opinion. They need to learn how to back their shit up themselves when nobody else is there to back them up and tell the class they got the right answer. People who don't know how to articulate their reasoning just put down their stakes defensively and end up getting into a grown-up version of "Nuh-uh"/"Uh-huh." And it's not cute at that age.