Required Reading: Pros and Cons

First published in LitReactor on January 11th, 2012:

I didn’t know how to read until I was seven years old.

This is a fact that sticks out no matter how far removed I am, and one that I’ve carried with me into adulthood. I can distinctly remember being in kindergarten, around 5 or 6, and feeling the miserable isolation that comes with not being able to read Hop On Pop out loud.  I can’t distinctly remember if there was mockery or teasing involved, but it seems likely.

Early into 1st grade, however, everything suddenly clicked. What had seemed impossible now came as easily as breathing. It was so easy, in fact, that I soon surpassed my peers in terms of reading comprehension and began to receive private tutoring sessions in lieu of English classes. Over the next few years, I had changed from the kid who couldn’t read to the kid who got in trouble with teachers for reading on the playground (yes, this actually happened). I was completely happy with my newfound status as a voracious reader (and I wish I had kept up that volume into present day), but it was only a matter of time before a grim specter reared its ugly head.

Required reading. What a terrible term it was. It wasn’t that I was being forced to read: I could get behind that. The resentment I felt was tied to the fact that I loved reading, but teachers and administrators and whoever else had all conspired against me to keep the books I wanted to consume out of my hands. This was little more than a minor annoyance through most of elementary, middle, and junior high school, since the required reading assigned to these grade levels was usually on the lighter side of 100 pages. I would breeze through these in a day, then go back to my own private stacks.

Once I reached high school, however, the entire game changed. Required reading wasn’t easy anymore. The print was small! The chapters went on forever! Most of all, they were boring! By this point, my own private reading levels had dipped considerably, since my post-puberty self had many other things with which to occupy his time (namely girls and other intoxicants). But I still resented being told what reading was important, and, being the conniving slacker that I was, often skimmed just enough to pass the quizzes I knew were coming the next day. On more than one occasion I wrote an in-class essay on a book I hadn’t even opened up to that point. Make no mistakes, I was a bastard of a student, and probably one of the more confounding bad students because I seemed to do fairly well despite the iron resolve of my laziness.

There were required reads I encountered in high school that I loved.On the Road is more precious to me than perhaps any other novel I’ve read. The Great Gatsby may be the closest thing we have to the mythical “Great American Novel”, and I still consider Hemingway’sA Clean, Well-Lighted Place the greatest short story of all time. I am eternally indebted to the extraordinary teachers who introduced me to these wonderful works of art. However, as I get older, and re-read more and more of the classics that were foisted upon me in my high school days, I have to wonder: is this the best way to try and teach kids about the importance of reading, literature, and the written word?

Like I said before, I love On the Road. I first read it when I was around fifteen years old, as one possible selection on a required summer reading list. Getting loaded and hitchhiking across America sounded pretty good to me, and I tore through it, often wondering what it would have been like to live in an America that seemed so wide open and full of possibilities. Shortly after I turned 23, I found a copy lying around my house, and having some free time, re-read it. My experience had totally changed. I still loved the book, and I still found Kerouac’s writing impossibly beautiful and romantic, but my reading of the text had been completely reversed. The things I had once found invigorating and the lifestyle I had once envied now seemed desperate, heartbreaking and lonely. What I had once approached as a possible handbook for living I now held up as a tragic anthem to failed ideals and disconnection.

By that same token, I did enjoy Gatsby quite a bit when I was younger. Re-reading the novel at 25, I asked myself something I had never thought to ask before: why are we teaching books like these to teenagers? There is of course a wealth of information to be gleaned about writing and language from classics like Gatsby, and I stand by my conviction that these lessons are invaluable, but what is there in Gatsby for a sixteen-year-old to relate to? It’s a novel about failure, deception, love, loss, and the inability to escape one’s past. Perhaps I led a sheltered adolescence, but I have a hard time imagining a typical teenager finding much that speaks to him or her in the pages of Gatsby. And while I’m not advocating that our educational system capitulate to the whims of hormone-addled teenagers and only require that they read Twilight books, let’s face facts: teenagers, and teenaged boys especially, are extremely headstrong creatures, and liable to resist anything they are told they must do. I loved reading from the get-go, and continued to love books well past the age when anybody (save for editors) required that I read anything. I can’t say how common this is, but is there a possibility that kids who are forced to read books they find dull, monotonous, and irrelevant are turning into adults that associate reading at large with those feelings?

For the sake of objectivity and nostalgia, I got in touch with the very patient woman who helped me through those dark high school years. Dr. Fran Hillyer retired from teaching some years ago, no doubt driven away by frustrating do-nothings like myself. She also had quite a bit to say in defense of required reading. “There are reasons why certain [books] have been pushed into high school. The Great Gatsby is a good example because it is uniquely situated in American history as well as in American literature. If you’re lucky, when you’re in high school you’re studying American history at the same time that you’re studying American literature, so when you get to Gatsby you can refer to all kinds of things… prohibition, manifest destiny, the American dream, class warfare… it’s just such a rich text in so many ways.”

This was one point I hadn’t considered: that certain parts of the literary canon fit neatly into a well-rounded high school education. “The meat of the book …some people are going to get it completely. Most of them probably won’t, but they’ve gotten something out of it that they wouldn’t have gotten out of a lesser work.” It’s a fair point: even considering those kids who do get The Great Gatsby or Catch-22 forced down their throats and grow up to resent it/swear off canonical literature forever, from an objective standpoint, they’re still a better person for having slogged through it. They’ve undergone self-improvement at the hands of a teacher, even if it was while kicking and screaming. Dr. Hillyer even took some issue with my supposition that the concept of “required reading” might turn off potential lit-heads. “Anybody who loves reading is probably not going to be scared away from reading by one book… Readers read.”

Perhaps this is the harsh reality: readers read, and by the time we get to high school, a choice has been made as to whether or not we want to continue to improve our literacy and take an active interest in reading, and even the best teacher will be somewhat powerless to stop that. When I asked Dr. Hillyer if she thought required reading ever had the unfortunate consequence of turning a kid off of reading or going back to the canon, she asked me pointedly “Did you do that?” The answer is no: I just picked up Crime and Punishment for the first time in ten years because it’s part of the canon, and I didn’t understand it at all when I was sixteen.

I can’t say what it is that made me into a reader. Maybe it’s something that’s innate, or maybe it came from the household I was raised in. My parents are both avid readers (my father has belonged to a book club for as long as I can remember, and my mother goes through about five mysteries per month), so it just seemed to make sense that I should have my nose buried in something. Much in the same way I began reading newspapers (so I would know what the hell everyone was talking about at the breakfast table), reading was something that brought me closer to the people I loved. If kids aren’t lucky enough to have reading pushed on them at home, it stands to reason that it should be pushed on them at school (this is, after all, where we traditionally improve young people against their will).

In a best-case scenario, required reading forces a kid to slog through (or at least attempt to) a great book that they end up loving and later thank their teacher for introducing them to. At worst, a kid either refuses to read, or reads just enough so that they’ll stop being bothered. In the latter instance they’re probably better off for it, and in either instance the teacher is kind of at the mercy of the student.

I’ve often wondered how the teachers who were stuck with me did it. Teaching a 16-year-old kid about literature might be the worst job in the world, as it’s incredibly frustrating, demanding work, and it is perhaps one of the most thankless and poorly compensated jobs available. Was my own high school English teacher resentful after all those years? The answer is no (and I hope it still is after she reads this article):

“That’s why you become an English teacher…you say ‘I want to share what I know with somebody else’…It would be nice to get [the material] through their skulls, but whether I get it through their skulls or not, I get to read it and enjoy it, and show how excited I am by this book… in high school, who’s going to get anything, when it comes right down to it? All you’re doing is opening a door.”

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