May 3, 2006

Reading and today's youth

Obviously, if you're reading this, you have enjoyed the act of reading at some time in your life (and maybe you still do). You don't habitually avoid large blocks of text. I'm so involved in the writing industry, I sometimes forget that there are huge portions of the population who don't read. They fall asleep when they pick up a novel. They may be proud of the fact that they prefer videogames to books, or they may be embarrassed and pretend to tout some book knowledge based off of the few novels they read in high school English classes. Either way, these people have probably never had the experience of becoming absorped in a novel. They've never read a story that tugged their emotions in an unforgettable way, experiencing something very different from the sort of emotional impact that a good movie or game can impart.

I suspect the reading attitude is cultivated in high school (or junior high) for most people. I wonder how much reading I'd do if I had never picked up Pet Semetary in 6th grade. What if the first adult book I ever read was, say, Moby Dick? What if I'd never read Stephen King or Anne Rice? What if my only encounters with literature were Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and a handful of V.C. Andrews and Nancy Drew? Well, I'll tell you: I would hate to read. I would chalk it up to an overrated waste of time.

Really, I wonder at the approach high schools take. The classics are important ... but they're not relevant to most teenagers in 2006. To me, emphasizing the Bronte sisters in a 10th grade English class is the equivalent of emphasizing silent films in a class about cinema in general. All of the focus is on one long-ago era, rather than what's innovative and current. Maybe a classic book will have a profound impact on one teenager, somewhere ... maybe. But the way I see it, kids aged 10 through 18 need to experience the joy of reading before they choose to study classic literature. And studying the classics ought to be a choice. I've heard people make a fuss about losing Shakespeare in high school classes, but I think these people are worried about the wrong aspect of the reading problem. Given the choice between losing a few Shakespearian quotes as part of our cultural vocabulary (and that changes every year anyway) and losing millions of readers each year, I choose to lose Shakespeare in high school. This is not the death of Shakespeare. Every reader has a love, many readers love Shakespeare, and they will keep him alive. I'm sure that colleges will continue to devote classes to Shakespeare, and people will continue to study and perform his plays. Meanwhile, high school students would become less familiar with Shakespeare ... which may have the effect of rekindling an interest in his works. Now, if those same high school English classes replaced Shakespeare and the classics with some modern, popular authors, we may actually have more readers entering society.

And one more thing: Most of the bookworms I know, including myself, started out by reading fun, modern authors. We identified with characters who lived in the same society we inhabit. Later on, we read about other worlds and time periods. Now, in our adult lives, some of us read (and enjoy) more classics than any high school would assign. But while we were in high school, we preferred those modern authors, who validated our feelings about the world around us, and showed us characters like our friends and ourselves. That is how we became readers. To me, that is the most important point.

What does society lose from having fewer readers? Let me put it this way: Right now, there are some people who don't know how to navigate the internet or send an email. They've been unable to access computers, or they've purposely avoided them. You're a computer user. What kind of disadvantages do you see those people as having?


Anonymous said...


As a middle school language arts teacher, I encourage my students to read a variety of books in different genres, not just the classics. This year, for example, we have read Elie Wiesel's autobiography _Night_, Edgar Rice Burroughs' _A Princess of Mars_, Jim Murphy's history _Blizzard!_, and Jack London's _Call of the Wild_. Student can also write book reports about any book in any genre for credit. Not every teacher empahasizes the "classics" to the exclusion of all else.

Abby Goldsmith said...

Elie Wiesel ... that's some heavy reading for 6th graders! I found the content hard to take as an adult.

But I'm glad there are some teachers like you, who encourage kids to read books with characters they might be able to identify with.