Monday, August 25, 2008

Why Kids Don’t Read

I don’t have this problem. I introduced my kids to literature by reading to them a whole lot when they were babies and toddlers, and they were fascinated by the sound of the written word, the delightful illustrations in children’s books, and by having their imaginations stimulated. I can remember each of their first favorite books.

Spot’s favorite book was a cutout, cardboard book with beautifully illustrated pictures on how to get dressed. It was called Teddy Dresses. Teddy had a lot of trouble figuring out the difference between socks and mittens. Spot used to laugh and laugh at Teddy’s troubles, but I noticed he also took the book to bed with him sometimes and was very carefully (and correctly) clad the next day.

Bunny’s favorite book was the timeless Cat in the Hat. She was lulled by the rhythm of the words, and enthralled by the pictures. She pored over the pictures when I was too busy to read to her and memorized the placement of the disgruntled fish, Things One and Two, and the posture of the misbehaving cat in each drawing.

Doodle’s favorite was a freebie book we got either through a school program giveaway or from some other freebie source, back when giving away kid books was a big thing. It was called Snug Bug. Snug Bug was a mischievous little antennaed fellow who played in all kinds of people places and had to be tucked into bed by his bug mom. It was a good bedtime story; he invariably wanted to be tucked into bed just like Snug Bug.

They’ve all read their way through the Harry Potter (Doodle’s first grade teacher was a good egg – she liked that he was bringing “big, chapter books” to school because it sparked a competitive spirit in her other students and made them want to improve their reading skills, too) several times; they’ve read the Eragon books (and weren’t impressed); they’ve read stories by Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson, Anne McCaffrey, Agatha Christie, Nancy Atherton, Stephen King, Meg Cabot, Frank Herbert, Janet Evanovich, Lincoln Child, Douglas Preston, Mercedes Lackey, C. J. Cherryh, Diane Duane, Larry Niven… The list of authors whose works they enjoy reading for pleasure is endless. They come by it honestly because I am a compulsive reader, and I’m pretty sure it’s contagious.

One thing these books all have in common is that they are fun to read, not because they are all silly, although some of them are, not because they are all adventure stories, although some of them are, but because they are written with social, emotional and intellectual skill. They don’t bludgeon the reader over the head with ham-fisted moralizing or coma-inducing manifestos on social ills; they allude to them, assume prior knowledge, or analogize, something which seems to escape learned and erudite literary critics, who frequently seem to assign science fiction, horror, suspense, cottage mysteries, and other forms of popular fiction the automatic label of “unworthy fluff”. What these critics seem to be missing is that it takes an open and agile mind to make a point without sticking that point painfully in the reader’s eye.

What writers whose books are frequently read for pleasure understand, it seems to me, is that people read during their leisure time because they want to go to a magic show, not church. We want to be entertained, enthralled, surprised, amazed, see something new, see a new twist on something old, see something through different eyes, and we want it to be easy to enjoy, we want the escapism inherent in becoming engrossed in a book to be smooth and deftly managed; we do not want to have The Point hammered through our “idiot” skulls like a railroad spike driven home with sledgehammer obviousness.

It’s not that common literary themes are not addressed in popular fiction, it is that they are not painted in such broad strokes that they obscure the art and magic of good writing. It is as easy to understand racism from reading Asimov’s Caliban as it is from reading To Kill a Mockingbird. One is considered “classic literature”, but the other is dismissed as “only science fiction”. The former draws the reader into a world which has not yet existed, requires no additional research, whereas the latter requires the reader to learn more about a specific time period with which they may not be familiar, in order to understand The Point. Which one do you think kids would enjoy reading more?

I have yet to figure out why writing a five-page paper on the literary themes in The Good Earth or To Kill A Mockingbird is considered of greater intellectual worth than doing the same from an examination of The Mote in God’s Eye or The Dragonriders of Pern. The intellectual work is more sophisticated with the sci-fi and fantasy books because The Points are subtler. I do understand that it would not be in accordance with a standard expectation of having read “the classics”. I would argue that “the classics” need some amending. It’s not wrong to think outside the paradigm, which is, in fact, something we’d like to encourage in our children.

And, I’m not alone in my thoughts. An article by a private school English teacher in Sunday’s Washington Post, entitled “We’re Teaching Books That Don’t Stack Up” makes this argument, to some extent, as well.

Way back in the Jurassic, when I was a freshman in college, I took an introductory English class. The grad student teaching the class would habitually put a quotation on the board from some literary work – not all were from standard classics. He’d ask if anyone was familiar with the quotation, and my spring-loaded arm would shoot into the air. After a week of this, and the usual skills assessment first paper, the teacher had me come in to his office, and a few other teaching assistants and a professor or two and I conversed in a general manner while I was waiting for my TA to explain why I was there.

It turned out that he was getting departmental permission for me to go on independent study. I’ve written about this before , but what I haven’t said is that I wrote my research papers on science fiction short stories. It wasn’t a problem either; it was a joy, and it was a joy to me because I didn’t have to hack my way through archaic English, characters that didn’t interest me, situations that were insipid, painfully historical, or drenched in one or another overpowering Points. I got to read what I wanted to read, but I had to make good on that by using the skills of good literary analysis. What I read wasn’t important, how I read it was.

I suppose I didn’t understand at the time how unusual that permission and resultant independent study was in the context of English studies. I retroactively applaud that TA, and the English department professors, for being astute enough to understand what the real Point of studying literature is – to enjoy the magic show while being able to unravel the magician’s tricks right down to the equipment, props, and the foundations of the stage itself. But it all starts with the lure of the show, doesn’t it?

I sent my daughter, who is majoring in English, a link to the article referenced above. Here’s her response:

“Thanks, Mom! That was really interesting. I can totally identify with this article, too. When we read The Scarlet Letter junior year, I automatically geared myself to hate it due to past experience, and therefore failed to enjoy what I now realize was actually a really good book. So much of what we have to read for school is obviously good literature, but they make it horrible by dragging us through it by reading aloud and mixing it in with so much depressing literature that we can't identify the great works anymore. I realize now that Great Expectations really wasn't that bad, but since I went into it EXPECTING to hate it, that's exactly what happened.”



Amber in Albuquerque said...

I'm pretty much in agreement here although, as an English Lit major, I prefer shall we say "the standards" to sci-fi. That, however, is a personal preference not a judgment on the merits of any given author. I would take Janet Evanovich, Isaac Assimov, or Borges over J.D. Salinger any day any way.

What your daughter said also makes a lot of sense. I've been giving a great deal of thought to current arguments for raising/lowering the drinking age. My answer is "raise them all" (drinking, voting, driving, military service, etc.) because as our life expectancy is extended, so is our youth (or so it seems to me). Fifty is the new forty and all that. With that in mind, I just don't feel that many people (let's say my age on down) have the life experience to really appreciate some of "the classics" until they are older. I've been revisiting some of them on audiobook recently and I've found that for both the ones I enjoyed in high school and the ones I didn't most of them resonated much more now that I have loved not wisely but too well, lost loved ones, had children, etc. I think we're expecting too much from today's (and my generation's) high school students to have them really 'get' The Good Earth (and that ASSUMES it's even worth 'getting'). It would be much better for both getting kids reading more and understanding literature better (the hows and whys) if they could read decent writing without all of the 'dead white guy' baggage.

This opens a Pandora's Box of who is a 'decent' writer and who is a hack, but at least that would get people (kids and teachers) reading and thinking.

Amber in Albuquerque said...

Must've been a good post. I'm still thinking. I'm thinking about the Pandora's box. Can we teach kids "literature appreciation" without the classics (or with less reliance on them) and what do we lose (or gain) by eliminating the classics from the teaching of literature?

I think we can teach "literature appreciation" without relying on the classics too much. That might free up teachers to find novels, poems, and plays that resonate with today's young readers. I could see offering a class in the "nuts and bolts" where the teacher used some of his or her own selections as examples, but encouraged the students to analyze what engaged them.

While I respect the "turning a living, breathing work of art into a lab experiment" sentiment presented in the Washington Post article. It's too easy for students to use this as a cop an excuse for not doing the intellectual work necessary for explaining why their selection is literature and not garbage (I hope we can agree that, genre aside, some writing just stinks).

I was asking myself what we would lose, in terms of cultural literacy, if we simply focused on the nuts and bolts and getting kids to read and be able to both write well (creatively or otherwise) and tell the difference between good writing and bad. I'm afraid lots of folks aren't going to like the answer. It's nothing. We lose nothing. In the age of Google or Wikipedia, literary references and analysis of the classics are available with a few strokes on the keyboard and clicks of the mouse. Quite frankly, I've come to the same conclusion about learning to tell time on an analog clock. It's becoming arcane.

The important thing, in the age of Google and Wikipedia, is being able to read and being able to sift the wheat from the chaff. To tell the good writing from the bad. To distinguish what is factual information and what is marketing. To evaluate subtle metaphors and recognize when someone is bludgeoing you with one and to ask yourself why they would be doing such a thing (to sell you something, to influence your vote)?

Some kids will eventually want to read the classics and there's nothing wrong with that either. But if we're truly trying to educate today's kids we need to acknowledge how the world has changed and, rather than longing for some educational/literary Mayberry, address the importance of literary learning while offering reading material that helps rather than hinders the learning process.

Anonymous said...

My kids read b/c I introduced literature to them at an early age. i am paraphrasing your first line. My question is, what if they still didn't like to read? i too introduced them to literature, took them to reading time at the library and book stores, read to them, introduced them to comics, etc. i love to read, always have several books around, plus newspapers and my kids hate to read!! I don't know why! They do. and they do not struggle to read either. I am writing this because the inference is that your kids love to read because you introduced reading to them at an early age, therefore if my kids hate reading I must not have done so, or at least not the right way.

BoS said...

I think it takes more than introducing them to reading when they are little -- sorry I wasn't clearer about that. I think kids also need to learn to read for fun, on their own, so that they don't get soured on reading and consider it a "chore" or "assignment". And, I think that encouraging children to become lifelong readers can be enhanced by changes in the boundaries in assigned reading.

My point in including the link to the article by an English teacher was just that -- that assigned reading does not help to make children eager readers; instead it often turns them off of reading for pleasure because so much of assigned reading is heavy-duty and socially meaningful without being entertaining or engaging for the children.

It is a conundrum -- we parents get our kids are charged up and eager to read, we haul them to the library, we stock their shelves with juicy, fun books, and the school clobbers them with depressing literature (not always but often), thereby pulling all the joy and fun out of reading that we parents spent so much time infusing into them.

I think there's a happy medium with room for reading for pleasure, reading for academic purposes, and reading for literary enlightenment somewhere in there -- and it's not being successfully achieved all that often.

I don't have the magic key to it, and if anyone else does, I'd be glad to hear what they feel it is.