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.