Thoughts on the creaky, old required reading list

Recently, I encountered someone who, with some pride, stated that they had not read a book since grade school. They had skated through middle and high school by reading Sparks or Cliff notes on the required reading. Currently, the only books they own are a few inherited from their grandmother and they’re at a loss as what to do with them, since they “aren’t a reader”.

Weeks later, you can still hear the echoes of my jaw dropping at this revelation.

I wasn’t in a position to argue for reading and books at the time, and I don’t know that I would have gotten far with this person if I had tried anyway. Instead, I brought the story home to my dear ones and there ensued a discussion about required reading lists and what we saw as the root of the problem of keeping kids interested in books.

It would be very easy for me to point out the antiquated notions of canon that are evident in the lists of books high schoolers are required to read. In doing some research for this essay, I ran into many of the same worn titles I read when I was in high school myself. I was pleased to at least see a few newer titles, and a few more diverse books as well, on recent lists. Although I will say that AP students often get the “really good stuff” on their lists, which is a shame and likely doesn’t help anything.

The choice of books is a problem, but I don’t think that’s the root of what’s wrong with how English is taught, at least here in the US. Instead, I offer up this: in trying to teach symbolism and how to read critically, developing a student’s love of reading is neglected and buried.

A love of reading is what can carry a student through a dry text so they can unearth those deep meanings teachers try to reveal to them. But instead of instilling a love of story, we teach them to read critically. From a young person’s point of view, it seems that deep critical analysis and understanding the themes and metaphors of the book is what reading is all about and if they don’t enjoy that then they aren’t readers. “I don’t know what this means” quickly becomes “I don’t care what this means” and then we’ve lost them.

Books can be full of wonder and joy and even just be a blast to read. Popcorn novels count. Novellas count. Pop YA counts. Movie adaptations count. *ahem* fantasy and science fiction count. It all counts. But kids often don’t get to all that good fun stuff because they’re being taught at too young an age that books are dry, dusty things full of metaphors and themes that must be uncovered so you can show that you’re smart.

Here’s a potentially controversial opinion: you don’t have to be “smart” to enjoy reading. You only have to enjoy stories.

“But what about reading critically?” you may ask and to that, and a few other things like “how will they learn grammar and structure”, I say let us split English into two separate classes.

Let’s have a “writing class” where we teach grammar and composition, but also let’s throw in letter writing and resumes and essay writing. Let’s talk about journals and diaries and great speeches. There are skills that can be taught that can help students communicate effectively in the adult world that will come at them fast and hard.

Then we can have a “reading class” where we learn the various forms so we can recognize them, but let’s talk about reading for pleasure and what stories make us feel. Let’s read essays in this class that inspire and give insight. Let this class be more student driven, with a choice of books available so they can find what interests them. Get them reading first and then ask them to start telling you why they liked what they read and what they got out of it.

And can we please please please take weekly trips to the school library in this class? One of the great gaps in my own high school experience was the inaccessibility of the school library. It was never made available except in very small windows of time totaling no more than a few hours in the entire four years I was there.

Okay, before I sign off here I do want to talk a little about the actual required reading books themselves. There is no doubt that To Kill a Mockingbird is important for young people to read. Honestly, I liked that one myself. I also enjoyed Fahrenheit 451, and Brave New World was important and formative. But where I fell in love with Shakespeare, most of my classmates did not. They needed to be eased into it from a different angle, or given some other alternative. Perhaps I would have enjoyed Pride and Prejudice and fallen for Austen’s work sooner if I was handed that instead of The Return of the Native.

For all I can talk about my opinions on this, I know that it’s so much baying into the wind. I have no vote on school curricula or what books are deemed important or how and why certain texts are taught. Still, I hope that one day there will be a change and we, as a society, will determine that reading truly is fundamental, but is also fun and enriching and part of what makes us all part of the same human family.