Thursday, June 30, 2011

Required reading

I'm a big fan of reader choice. I think that one of the best ways to get kids enthusiastic about books is to let them choose their own reading material (allowing for some parental guidance of young children). I read tons of books when I was growing up, mostly books I selected myself. The only time reading was a chore was when I had to read what I didn't want to: textbooks, mostly. I loved some of the assigned novels we read in school (Catch-22, The Sound and the Fury) and despised others (All Quiet on the Western Front, Babbitt). I barely made it through A Tale of Two Cities when I was required to read it.

Seeing how reading could flip from delight to chore when I, a book addict, was forced to read something, I can only imagine how hard it is to promote literacy in children who have nothing but long lists of required reading. Who are dosed with books as if they're medicine. Whose only exposure to books is compulsory. And so I hope there's always room for reader choice--if we hope to have a literate society, that is.

Yet, I do see the value of occasionally having to read something you wouldn't have chosen for yourself, of slogging through a difficult text. I still challenge myself now sometimes, perhaps as a leftover lesson from the days of required reading. I reread All Quiet on the Western Front, Babbitt, and A Tale of Two Cities as an adult. I wanted to give them another chance--to see how my view of them might have changed (or not!).

The verdict:

I ended up enjoying Babbitt a lot, rereading it, and moving on to Sinclair Lewis's other books--a couple of which (Main Street and Fresh Air) have become real favorites.

I didn't like All Quiet on the Western Front much better the second time around. I'm not sure what it is--the hopelessness? The narrative distance? I conclude that it just isn't my cup of tea.

I had mixed feelings about A Tale of Two Cities. I still found it to be slower going and less fun than much of Dickens's other work. But it's worth reading because of Madame Defarge. I had completely forgotten the whole bit about the knitting, and when the meaning of her knitting was revealed, it knocked me sideways and upside down. If Dickens had been in the room then, I would've applauded him.

How we feel about books isn't just about the books, of course--it's about who we are. That's why people can disagree so much about a book, why one person can love it and another hate it. And since we change throughout our lives, our feelings about books can change over time, too.

Has required reading brought any gems into your life? Have you read a book that you really didn't want to read, but later were glad that you did?


  1. Required reading brought a lot into my life. Few books made me as angry as Sound and the Fury, which I threw down the school hall when I finally figured out the title reference, but it somehow got me to read more Faulkner on my own, including the short stories that I truly enjoyed. I did like Tale of Two Cities when I read it for a high school class, and it is Madame DeFarge who hooked me, as did Sidney Carton's nobility. On the other hand, long before the term was coined, Wuthering Heights was way, way to emo for me. And Moby Dick--talk about dead boring! Billy Budd, though, that worked.

    It's too bad there isn't a way to require students to read the first, say, 50-75 pages of a classic, and then allow them to abandon the rest if they simply can't get into it. That would give them enough of a taste to know if they want to read further, as well as to have some sense of a book that maybe they will return to later. I also think it would be a great idea to have other titles that could be options, that cover similar ground (whatever that ground might be), but are written by contemporary authors. That would give students an option, as well as a chance to see, maybe, why the classics are important--which is that they provide us with shared references and are part of our common culture.

  2. Most of my English classes in school had two novel studies: one was a book the whole class was required to read, the other was a novel we chose ourselves. The required books were hit-and-miss for me. Hated Lord of the Flies. We had to read quite a bit of John Steinbeck, hated that, too.

    When we did "your choice" novel studies, sometimes we had free reign of any book we wanted, sometimes we had to pick out of a selection. I LOVED getting to pick my own book, since I could pick a YA I was already crazy about, but it was one of those "choose out of a selection" novel studies that introduced me to Animal Farm and, later, 1984. So, so, so grateful to that teacher!

  3. I don't like required reading either. My son is 9 now, and he's the same way. He'll read voraciously if he chooses it, but it's pulling teeth if he doesn't choose it.

  4. I agree with you about All Quiet on the Western front. I had to force myself through it. I can understand the reasoning behind reading it and what it tries to tell us, but SO not something I would ever choose to read.

    Assigned reading introduced me to Huxley's Brave New World, which I still love and is probably my favorite of the books we read in school. Because I changed schools, I ended up having to read The Grapes of Wrath twice and hated it both times. (I did read East of Eden as an adult and loved it, so my Steinbeck experiences aren't all bad.) I also really liked Rebecca by du Marier.

  5. Thanks for weighing in, everyone!

    Words--Interesting idea in your 2nd paragraph. Education is very check-the-box oriented right now, and I don't know if the idea of trying something or doing it partway has even been seriously considered.

    Sound & the Fury got to me so strongly that I read it in one weekend and even had a "book hangover" from it. I bogged down in Moby-Dick during the essay on whiteness, where I felt like Melville was belaboring the point. Also, it was like nails on a blackboard to science-minded me whenever he called a whale a "fish." But two people whose judgment I respect have recommended Moby-Dick, so I think I'm going to try it again sometime.

  6. Becca--I think the "choose from a list" option is a good middle ground. In fact, it's how I found THE CENTAUR, still one of my favorite books.
    I did love LORD OF THE FLIES, but it was never required reading for me!

    Alexia--I hope your son has plenty of chances to do the free reading he loves. It's so sad when education turns kids OFF of reading.

    Shana--I loved EAST OF EDEN, too! And REBECCA! Neither was required for me. We had to read THE PEARL, which was okay, but not one of my favorites. I keep trying to read THE GRAPES OF WRATH and bogging down.