Nov 162010

I like to read. I read rather a lot, and of my own free will. I have enough books to stock a small and rather oddly balanced library. This is all rather surprising given that I went through the public education system, with it’s determination to make the students read books that seem to be designed specifically to bore the crap out of *anyone* trying to read them, never mind kids. I was reminded of this after reading this paragraph:

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is one of those unimpeachable masterpieces that scare impressionable high school students off reading forever. It’s the kind of symbolism-heavy, portentous tome that makes “reading for pleasure” seem like an oxymoron. After being forced to wade through Hawthorne’s dense forest of prose and weighty ideas about sin and hypocrisy, is it any wonder that weak-minded young people retreat into the unchallenging arms of reality television and Us Weekly?

One of the drearier aspect of “advanced placement” classes was that we had to read – and on strict schedules –  some profoundly dull pretentious crap. Much of the work of Dickens (“Oliver Twist” and “Tale of Two Cities” still send a shiver of boredom up my spine), a whole slew of Shakespeare, James Micheners “Chesapeake” (as memory serves we had two weeks to plow through 800+ pages), “The Great Gatsby,” etc… basically, if it was long, dull, packed with joyless symbolism. we had to read it and write an equally horrid report about it. Once I got lucky, and the class got to vote: either “The Hobbit” or “Hiroshima.” Go on, guess what we chose.

If it was labeled by someone, somewhere, a classic, chances are that some poor bored slob of a student is being forced to read it right now, and isn’t getting doodly squat from it. Sure, some of the “classics” are good… but for every well-translated and well-written version of some Greek myths kids get to read, they have to choke down a dozen books that were pretentious and/or boring when they were written a hundred years ago.

And then came the poetry. Ugh.

What did I get from that? I got this, above all else: the teaching profession needs to take a hint from the engineering profession. Basically, if the work at hand, be it a short story, a  novel or a poem, merits many hours of discussion and many more hours of tedious reports trying to find the “meaning” or “subtext” of the tale… then the tale wasn’t written very damned well. You can only read just so many stories where it turns out that A *isn’t* A, but is in fact a metaphor for B, before you decide that metaphors need to be tied up in a sack, weighted down with rocks and dumped over the side of a high bridge into a deep, fast-flowing river.

The world is full of books. So why do we make kids read the same type of dreary, dense tomes that we know they’re going to get very little from? Why “A Tale Of Two Cities” and not “War of the Worlds?” Why Hawthorne and not Ambrose Bierce? Why Michener and not Lovecraft? Why the dearth of science fiction? Why did I, as a third or fourth grader, have to discover Tom Swift on my own, rather than been introduced to it? Why did I never once read Heinlein as a class project?

Yes, yes, I’m sure a lot of people are going to go on about how some such “classic” is an important text in Western Civilization. And while it may be true that “Hamlet” is all kinds of historically important… it’s a friggen’ *play,* not intended to be read as a book. Equally important to Western Civ is Beowulf, but that is not read in the original Old English. Why? Because the kids don’t understand middle English. Well, neither do they understand the sort of antiquated Elizabethan English used by Shakespeare. Making kids (many or most of whom are tired from having gotten up before the sun in order to catch a bus that drove them forty-five minutes across town) read a text that they’re going to have to dissect line by line in order to make heads or tails out of what the people are saying is a good way to make kids *hate* reading.

I’ve been told numerous times that I write well. (I’ve also been told numerous times that my spelling stinks.) Maybe, maybe not. I know that I’ve never had anything really published, and not for lack of trying… I sent out a bunch of short stories back in my college days. Most of them have been mercifully lost… whenever I stumble across one or a scrap of one I shudder at the horribleness of it. So I’m hoping that I’ve improved. And I hope that what I write is easy to read, that the reader can make sense of it without having to resort to a dictionary, and that there’s no need for people to gather around and argue about “what the author was trying to say.” I know that from time to time some readers of this blog entirely miss the point of what I was trying to say (and you know who you are); and while some of that, I’m sure, is due to some readers just spoiling for a fight, probably most of it is due to me not saying what I mean with sufficient clarity. And you know what? If it’s a fault of mine that I sometimes do not write with sufficient clarity for the reader to understand the point… why the hell should I, or some poor junior high kid who’d rather be watching TV, or chasing girls, or playing baseball, or reading “Rocketship Galileo,” view as a “classic” some book that was *intentionally* written to be damn near impenetrable?

Let’s give the kids a break, and have them read some books that they won’t hate.


 Posted by at 8:29 pm
  • Jim Ward


  • Brianna

    I thought I was the only avid reader who hated the classics 🙂 I have always assumed that my saving grace was that I learned to read when I was three, before I got shoved into the public school system. I started reading well before some teacher put Dickens in front of me and said “Read,” so I learned to like it before I could be conditioned out of such a possibility.

  • Huron

    Hear, hear!

  • Michael Holt

    I’ll have a tall one in your honor, Scott, for penning such a delightfully accurate image of modern English Lit classes.

  • admin

    > accurate image of modern English Lit classes

    Well, I can’t say for sure that it’s accurate anymore. My time spent in English Lit courses was long, long ago, before The IntarWebs and largely before PC got a chokehold on education. So perhaps the bulk of kids these days aren’t forced to read 400-page-long dreary tomes decrying the present state of chimney sweeps here in Victoria’s Britain; perhaps they are given the option to read colorfully illustrated pamphlets extolling the virtues of Bibi The Sexually Indeterminate Penguin And His Two Fathers… but of course if the kids don’t want to read even that much, that’s ok because there’s no such answer as “wrong” anymore and we wouldn’t want to upset the poor little innocent snowflakes and here’s a trophy labeled Participant and we’ll celebrate that every bit as much as we shouldn’t celebrate the outdated fascist notion of “first place.”

    Or something.

  • admin

    > I thought I was the only avid reader who hated the classics

    Can’t say as I necessarily “hate the classics.” I found out once I got into high school that it was possible to find out the year before what you’d have to read the next year… and I read a number of those books in advance over summer. And you know what? They didn’t suck *near* as bad when I read them at my own pace with no requirements, as they did when I had to read them while also trying to cram algebra and history into my brain. *Perhaps* some of those I hated so damned much would have been better if I’d read them on my own.

    Even so, though, there’s not a chance in hell that any work by Dickens would have been as interesting, relevant or useful-to-inspire-a-love-of-reading as would have been, say, “The Probability Broach” or “Starship Troopers” or “At The Mountains of Madness” or “Lord of The Rings.”

  • kbob42

    I think that you need to post some of the stories that you wrote so that we can see how much you have improved. 🙂

  • admin

    > you need to post some of the stories that you wrote

    Ummm… no.

    Note how in other threads I express some distaste for X-Ray machiens that show you nekkid? Yeah, I got much the same feelign with my crappy prose.

    Two saving graces here:
    1) They were largely written on an early word processor program, and the computers and disks are long gone
    2) Most of them were written for someone else, and that was the only copy printed out. In all probability, those prints are long, LONG gone.

    The only ones I have were ones written for some creative writing classes I took as hour-stuffers in college.

  • Brianna

    Reading something because it was assigned never really affected whether I liked it or not. If I liked an assigned book, it was done in a day or two. If I didn’t like an assigned book… well, it was usually done in a day or two anyway, because it was assigned, but that didn’t mean I liked it. Only one I never finished was “Great Expectations” and I *really* hated that one.

  • admin

    > done in a day or two

    I’ve never been that fast of a reader (except the last 2/3 of “Tale of Two Cities” which I finished ina single evening because I’d lost patience with it and decided to just read the first line or two of each page). So it didn’t generally help that I had a limited time to read a book I had no interest in, while competing against other homework that I had no interest in.

    > Only one I never finished was “Great Expectations” and I *really* hated that one.

    Only one I recall *really* not finishing, apart from To2C, was “Wuthering Heights.” Couldn’t get more than a page or two into it, at which point I just gave it up as a lost cause. Still managed to squeak out roughly a C on the relevant assignments… pretty good, given that I had no actual knowledge of the contents. One thing a lot of literature courses teach you to do is *bullshit.*

  • Dragon

    You talk about being introduced to literature that you like. Well, those classes are endeavouring to introduce kids to the broadest range of literature possible and that is usually from a canon which has been described at some time or other, “great”. You might not like it, they might not like it but education isn’t always about choosing the easiest path to knowledge. Despite what you may believe, your exposure to those classics will, at the very least, exposed you to different ways of writing and thinking. University education is not and never really has been about teaching you facts or theories or any of that stuff, its about exposing you to ideas and teaching you how to think about them analytically.

    9 times out of 10, I rather suspect most students if given a choice about what to read would reach for the TV remote control or some trashy tome such as “Twilight” and its sparkly vampires. There is a place for that sort of stuff but reading it doesn’t mean you’ll learn very much about literature or writing or thinking.

    Just ’cause you didn’t like what you had to read doesn’t BTW mean that others won’t. Reading, like beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder.

  • Russ Mularz

    Excellent points, Scott!

    I am an avid reader, and have been at least since middle school. Despite dealing with some sort of attention deficit disorder, Books have been one very good friend to me. One book I specifically recall having a problem with was “The Red Badge of Courage”. Horrible. One of very, very few books I’ve started and never finished. Don’t recall how I got out of actually having to finish it, but it still sticks in my mind all these years later.

    Experience with my nephews suggest things haven’t changed much in schools. All 3 of them hated reading. They had to read things they were totally uninterested in, and, on top of that, reading was treated more as a punishment than critical skill. Everyones heard the line… “Well, you want to be that way, than go to your room and read”. Doesn’t make it sound very fun! Wasn’t til after graduating high school that any of them got into reading.

    As to what is considered a “classic”, here is my take on it. The creative arts are chock full of liberal thinkers, both good and bad. Liberalism tends to favor the subtle, the ethereal, the philosophical over the practical, concise, and comfortable. There is also a tendency to elevate the status of things because of its age. Old doesn’t always translate to good, or worthy. As literature is one of the oldest of the creative arts, it has a long history of self-appointed “talking heads” telling the great unwashed masses what is good, and what is fit to be perpetuated down thru history.

    Having a well exercised imagination is also important to being a successful reader. I read a fiction book, and I’m picturing in my mind what each character looks like, locations, etc. Like enjoying a 200 page, 8 hour long movie. Imagination is not encouraged in todays student “mills”, so it’s hardly surprising that reading is more a post-education enlightenment.

    Sorry for being so long winded.

  • sferrin

    Wuthering Heights almost killed me. Fortunately I discovered dinosaurs, rocketships and airplanes around 5 years old and there were lots of books on them so I got hooked on reading early.

  • Bernie S.

    What is wrong with “Chesepeake”? I enjoyed it as a teen and recently reread it and enjoyed it again. 🙂

    I think your comments actually get to the heart of the matter. Assignments always come with a built in bias from the child about it’s merit because of their relative amounts of rebeliousness against authority. Add that to poorly taught concepts like theme, plot and characters and it is certainly demotivational. Dealing with the assignments on your own terms definitely would help that.

    I thought the best tool for my literature education was being assigned to write a short story after being taught the concepts of theme, plot, characters, etc without having to devine them from some tome first. It certainly made “Silas Marner” easier to swallow later that year. My small town education did try to teach us a little of the Old English in “Beowulf” and the Middle English of the “Canturbury Tales”. Can’t remember anymore but I think the exercise was more about language evolution than literature but it did provide enough context for understanding and relating to other books and stories later on in life.

    I don’t recall getting stuck on a reading assignment. I wasn’t able to finish “Master of Ballentrae” and “That Hideous Strength” but both of those were self started. I remember them both being insufferably dull and difficult to follow.

    My advice for reading is get children started early, make trips to the library part of the pace of life and provide books as requested. That is how I remember learning the love of reading and it seemed to be the recipe for many of my fellow readers as I grew up.

  • admin

    > education isn’t always about choosing the easiest path to knowledge.

    Ah, but here, it *should* be. If school is in the job of educating kids, it should do so in the easiest, most cost effective way possible. Do we try to teach the shortbus kids tensor calculus in Latin using cuniform notation? No, because those are unnecessary layers of complexity for a subject beyond the students. Ramp down the methods and the goals to match the practical capabilities of the students. Figure out what you want the students to get out of an education, and determine the fastest, easiet way to get them there.

    > your exposure to those classics will, at the very least, exposed you to different ways of writing and thinking.

    Yes, *horrible* ways of writing. Consider: who the hell would write like Shakespeare *today?* Very few, and they’re probably writing in Klingon.

    > University education is…

    … not the subject of this debate. Universities can teach any damned wacky thing, and the students can opt out. But teaching *kids* is the subject. Teaching kids to hate literature becuase you dump horrible, dreary, incomprehensible literature on them is the subject.

    > There is a place for that sort of stuff but reading it doesn’t mean you’ll learn very much about literature or writing or thinking.

    And tell me… if you give a classroom full of bored kids a book that they’ll *hate,* what will they learn… other than they hated the book, and possibly by extension books as a whole?

    Yes, sparkly vampires are pretty damned lame. But you know what? Books like the Harry Potter series have done far more to inspire a love of reading among children than a million classroom assignments on Dickens or Bronte.

    > Reading, like beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder.

    And like beauty, there are some pretty generally accepted “standards.” Put Scarlet Johannson, Mother Theresa, Jessic Alba, Helen Thomas, Angelina Jolie, Eva Mendes and Nancy Pelosi in a lineup and tell a thousand guys to arrange them from most beautiful to least… you’ll get a lot of variations in the details, but I’d bet good money that you’d see some pretty clear agreement on which ones went on which side.

  • admin

    > What is wrong with “Chesepeake”?

    “Here, kids is your next assignment: 850 pages to be read within the next two weeks, a report due at that time. What’s that? You have a major history report aslo due then, and math finals to study for? Too damned bad, this is more important.”

    > The creative arts are chock full of liberal thinkers, both good and bad. Liberalism tends to favor the subtle, the ethereal, the philosophical over the practical, concise, and comfortable.

    Here’s the thing: in engineering, it’s vitally important to say what you mean, and mean what you say. Words tend to have specific definitions. But in the literature most often forced upon kids as “classic,” the authors too often seem not only incapable but *unwilling* to say what they mean. At the very least, too many teachers were bound and determined that the story wasn’t about what the story was about. An engineer who wrote a final test report about a multi-stage solid propellant sounding rocket, but in the form of a 19th century bodice ripper, would be quickly out on his ass.

    Hell, sometime Way Back When, we had to write short stories, and one of mine was one of several picked for redistribution to the whole class (my name was, fortunately, redacted). It was at that point that I began to realize that much of literary criticism was utter bullcrap, as the teacher started yammering on about “what the author meant by X” and many of the students actually started dreaming crap up… and getting praised for it. When I wrote “X,” I friggen mean “X.” And since there’s no practical way to tell that an author meant “Y” when he wrote “X,” basing grades on how well you dream up “Y” proved to me that the whole assignment – and the mindset that went along with it – was rubbish.

  • Milkman


  • Pat Flannery

    It seems like someone figured out that list of “classic” books around 50 years back, and it can’t be changed for any reason, because anything new is _bad_
    The South Park episode where they had to read that controversial modern classic “Catcher In The Rye” and after getting pissed as hell about what wasn’t in it and then write “The Tale Of Scrotie McBoogerballs” in revenge hit the nail right on the head.
    Dickens has been particularly well treated by history, considering at the time he was writing he was considered a emotionally manipulative hack writer.
    Oscar Wilde made the perfect remark about his episodic magazine tear-jerkers when he said: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”

  • Michael Holt

    This is what happens when eight-year-olds read Lovecraft:

    This probably sufficient to encourage a truly bright teacher to provide Lovecraft to the kids. What I see as important is that they followed directions and came up with different things.

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