Shannon: ramblings
  Reading for Pleasure

At conferences and on my blog, I often speak about my concern that many people stop reading for pleasure once they leave high school. I think there are many reasons for this, but one of the big reasons I've been able to identify is because of the curriculum in high school. Because the only books assigned to me in high school were "great works of realistic literary fiction written 50-2000 years ago" (or, "the classics"), I came to believe that as an adult, the classics were the only books considered good for me and that they should comprise my reading for the rest of my life. It may seem silly to some, but I truly believed that. I recently wrote about my reading history for School Library Journal. As I've spoken with hundreds of teen and adult readers these past years, I've been astounded by how many people's experiences mirrored my own. Because of this, I speak out about the need to include in the high school curriculum some books that are not the classics. I get a lot of questions about this theory, so I'll try to answer them here.

"What's wrong with the classics?"

Nothing is wrong. They are a very important part of our literary heritage and the foundation of all good literature. The problem I find is assigning ONLY the classics. What if the only books assigned in high school were horror fiction? Anyone who didn't like horror might be turned off reading forever. Also, keep in mind that Shakespeare was written for his contemporaries who didn't find the language at all difficult to understand. For many teens today, Hamlet reads like a foreign language. Those teens who struggle with reading, who are barely literate (a huge number), have a much better chance of understanding and actually reading a book written in more recent years, using language they understand. Mixing some classics with some recent works seems to be the best solution.

Also, the vast majority of the classics were written about adults in adult situations for adult readers (think of Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Hardy, Eliot, Faulkner, Wharton, Hawthorne, Miller). It's not surprising that a sixteen-year-old girl would have a hard time relating to or caring about those characters. I think we do teens a disservice by not providing some books with teen characters, whose lives reflect their own thoughts and problems.

Now for me, I loved discussing the classics in class (my English teachers were rip-roaring great at this). It was the highlight of my high school education, surpassed only by the fun I had in drama class. Although I really enjoyed discussing the classics, they weren't the kind of books I was eager to pick up on my own outside of class and pass a lazy summer day reading under a tree, or in bed until the wee hours of dawn because I couldn't bear to put the book down. By interspersing the classics with the kinds of titles teens are likely to continue to seek out after class, we have a better chance of promoting lifelong reading.

"But I love the classics! They changed my life!"

I think that's wonderful. There is absolutely nothing wrong with loving to read great works by Shakespeare or Hemingway or Joyce. I think what's essential, however, is recognizing that you are unique. Not every reader feels the same way. And by only assigning the classics, those readers who find the classics impossible to love (the majority in any classroom, if we can believe surveys and anecdotal information) may never get the chance to experience the joy of reading as an adult. By teaching some classics and some other genres as well, we have a much better chance of reaching everyone.

"But isn't assigning books other than classics to high school students the equivelant of 'dumbing down' the curriculm?"

I don't think so. I believe many of the genre, mainstream, and young adult books written today will be considered classics one day. There are so many good books. Why isn't The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time as beneficial and challenging intellectually as Portrait of the Lady? Why isn't Feed as important as Farenheit 451? Why isn't Persepolis as discussion-worthy as The Scarlet Letter? Or how about Much Ado About Nothing vs. Romeo and Juliet--is the tragedy always more important than the comedy? Humor can hold the world's greatest wisdom and is good for the soul. The idea that tragedy is more profound than comedy is amiss.

"Does this mean I can tell my English teacher that I hate the books assigned and refuse to read them?"

Don't you dare! I'm sure your teacher would like to hear your opinion (expressed respectfully and tactfully), but a student doesn't have the right to refuse assignments without paying the consequences. Besides, you just might fall in love with those books, or even if you struggle with the reading, you might really love the discussion afterward and it'd be a shame to miss out on that. If you want to do something productive about this problem, you could find out who in your district makes the curriculum and write a letter with your personal experiences and thoughts (expressed respectfully and tactfully).

"I think we must focus only on the classics in high school. They represent our great literary heritage and we can't lose it."

It's true, we should never turn our backs on the great works of the past that make us who we are. But aren't the books being written in the past 20 years also a part of our literary culture? Why are realistic fiction and tragedies often considered the only important books? What about comedy? Mystery? Noir? Comic books? Fantasy? Science fiction? Placing the classics in the position of “only good books in the world” is elitism. Is classical music good and jazz trash? What kind of class on American music would ignore hip hop, blues, and rock & roll? I took a film class in college, and we watched some silent films and films from Hollywood's golden age, and I enjoyed it tremendously. Then one of the students asked the professor what he thought about that year's Oscar nominees. The professor said, “I haven't seen any of them. I haven't watched any movie made since 1985.” Wow. I found that logic pretty scary. Why isn't the art our current society is producing as vital to understand and appreciate as what our parents' or grandparents' society was producing?

"Why should we pander to teens? We don't want them to be in a comfort zone."

Shouldn't reading be a comfort zone for teens? Isn't that the goal? I don't believe adding more variety to the curriculm means taking out all depth from their reading. I really do believe there are lots of books that are accessible and still challenging enough on many levels to help teens to think, question, and stretch their minds.

"But the classics are safe to teach. They've survived the test of time. We won't know if what's been written more recently is worthwhile until we see if it's still being read in fifty years."

I respectfully disagree, and I note that literature is a rare area where this kind of thinking is prevalent. Can you imagine teaching science class from text books written 100 years ago? What about history? The history of the Civil War, for example, hasn't changed in the past 100 years, but we would never teach it from a 100 year old history text book. We can trust ourselves better than that. The American Library Association is a wonderful resource for finding lists of great books of all genres.

Besides, we can't possibly teach all the great works. In high school I never studied Milton, Chaucer, Austen, Dante, Eliot, the Brontes, Faulkner, Melville, or many others. We have to resign ourselves to not exposing teens to all the great works in high school and pick and chose what is the most important. In my mind, one of the factors that should be considered is, will this book help this teen fall in love with reading? Is there a chance that this teen will actually read this book?

"Why do you hate the classics so much?"

Ack! I don't. I truly don't. I love Poe, Shakespeare, Austen, Kafka, the Brontes, Cather, Milton, Chaucer, Harper Lee, and many others, though some of these I came to love as an adult, not as a teen. But I do fear that if they are the only books taught, then many students will take that to mean that they're the only books out there, the only books that they should read. I certainly believed that. Balance is the key.

"So you think the apathy toward reading is the fault of English teachers."

Certainly not! I do believe that they have a unique and powerful position to change it and influence a new generation of lifelong readers. I have spoken with many English teachers about this problem, and I've come to understand many of the obstacles we have in changing this. Here are just a few:
  • College prep—Most English majors don't study anything but the classics and literary fiction in college. And certain titles are required for AP tests. (This is changing.)
  • Money—High schools already have multiple copies of, for example, The Great Gatsby, and can't afford to buy a set of American Born Chinese or Feed.
  • Parents—they studied those books themselves in high school and many get fussy when teachers introduce different books (I've learned, sadly, that even when most parents support a teacher, even one who gets angry about an issue can make life for that teacher very difficult)
  • Lack of control—In many districts, teachers can't choose which books they get to teach, and are told from a high level, or are given a master list to choose from. I don't believe curriculum should be set by those who aren't actually teaching.
  • Class prep—Teachers who have been teaching certain books for years already have the prep work done, and with huge class sizes and pathetic monetary compensation for their labor, they don't have time to prepare sections for entirely different books. We really need to start paying teachers and librarians for what they're worth. It's inexcusable.
  • Time for change to take place—Young adult literature, for example, didn't exist when I was in high school, so the only option was to teach books for adults. As this is a relatively new genre, it will take time for it to gain acceptance widely.
  • Inundation!—There are far too many books being published for those who set curriculum to know them all! They already know that Tale of Two Cities is a good book and certainly don't have the time to read through the thousands of new young adult books published each year to find a replacement.
  • Prejudice—Are the classics better? I've encountered deep rooted prejudice against contemporary fiction, young adult literature, and anything that is "genre," such as science fiction. This is society wide, not limited only to academia.
"Why is the burden all on English teachers? Shouldn't parents be responsible for getting their kids to love reading and find books they can read on their own?"

Yes! The ideal solution: Parents get involved with their children's reading—they read aloud to their little kids for years, take them to bookstores, get them their own library card, read a broad range of books themselves so they can recommend good reads to their older kids. Of course this would be wonderful! But we all know that though this happens in many homes, it's just not the reality in many others. And the kinds of parents who would tend to read an author's site like mine are the kind who do get involved in their kids' literary lives, so I have little chance to influence those parents who need to hear the message.

That's why I speak about high school English classes. Here is a venue where a change can be made, and I have a much higher hope of reaching English teachers than I do of non-reading parents. So many English teachers are tackling this issue already and doing an amazing job. But I do know and have been told about many who don't, who believe that classics truly are the only books that should be taught or even recommended to teens. And I don't blame them a whit. I was an English major in college. The only books we studied were those considered part of the Western canon. And with horribly large class sizes, hundreds of papers to correct, and so little parental support, how on earth can these teachers be expected to keep up on all the new books being written let alone create new lesson plans and find funding to buy new books?

"Then do you have any recommended solution?"

Yes, I have one. Librarians. The majority of librarians I've met are just so amazing. They read constantly, have lists and lists of books they're dying to recommend to the right reader. I've spoken with many high school librarians about this, and one solution I've heard often is this: When their school has an opening in the budget for buying new books, instead of requesting new copies of Lord of the Flies or replacing the set of The Scarlet Letter whose bindings have fallen off, the librarians recommended purchasing a new title of young adult literature, something with some humor or adventure, a teenage protagonist, something written in the vernacular that still has substance and is discussion worthy. Keeping all the other books they knew and loved to teach, the teachers in that school introduced that one new book that year. I've heard testimonials from several English teachers who did this and were so thrilled with the results. I know there are so many hurdles with this, including parental objections to new books and district mandates. But I think if it's at all possible, it's really worth it.

"In my classroom, kids can choose from a list of books in different genres, and I teach old and new works. I'm not going to stop teaching from the classics."

And I wouldn't dream of suggesting it. To my mind, you're in an ideal classroom. However, that's not the norm everywhere. Also, I've noticed that the “classics only” classes tend to be grades 10-12.

"I can't change even one book in my curriculum, and even if I could I'd prefer to teach only the classics. Still, I do think kids should read whatever they want for fun outside the classroom."

I've spoken to many teachers in your position, and what's worked for some of them is to recommend current titles to their students for outside reading. The American Library Association has great lists to recommend. Many teachers I know have a small library of young adult literature in their classroom, and even though they can't teach those titles in class, just having them there and recommending them is giving them your authoritative stamp of approval. I think this is a wonderful way to expose kids to different kinds of books if you can't include them in the curriculum. As well, it's nice to shake up the classics a bit, opt for the more accessible over the tragic or normalist. For example, why not teach a comedy like Midsummer Night's Dream instead of Macbeth, if possible? Would your district allow Little Women or Jo's Boys instead of Tess of the D'Urbervilles? To Kill a Mockingbird instead of The Sun Also Rises?

"I don't think you have any right to talk about this, since you're not a teacher."

Okay. I'm sorry. I am going to continue talking about it, though. I feel passionately about this topic because it affected my life for years and the lives of so many of my family members and close friends, as well as scores of readers, young and old, that I meet all over this country. I take lots of advice on the drafts of my books from my editor and close friends who aren't writers, and I tend to think getting insight from someone outside my profession is a good idea. I hope my thoughts here are helpful.

Please feel free to email me your own thoughts and personal stories. I'd like to expand this area and make it useful for teachers and anyone else interested in this issue.

My stab at a recommended reading list for high school English classes.

Books and journals for further study.

Here are the blogs where I've talked about this topic. There are lots of comments, people who agree and disagree, and great personal stories.

The older the better?
Two case studies
A story for everyone
The slippery upward slope
Laurie's take
Seuss for the teenage mind
Have you hugged your teacher today?