Friday, August 05, 2011

Reading Lists, or not

Summer Reading

"We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are. Yet the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading…is the search for a difficult pleasure."    — Harold Bloom

Last Sunday Julia Keller had another of her Cultural Critic columns about reading books that I found thought-provoking.  It was titled "The ABCs of Summer Reading".Summer Reading, that is assigned reading for high school students, was the topic which reminded me that more than four decades ago when I was a teenager in high school we did not have assigned reading for the Summer.  That did not mean that I was not a regular at our local public library, the Matheson Memorial Library, where I had almost memorized the shelves from my hours of browsing.  Apparently students, particularly those that are planning to graduate and continue on to college, require more motivation in the twenty-first century in the form of suggestions, recommendations and, yes, even required Summer reading.  

Julia Keller takes the required lists to task for including books that she considers too "earnest and improving" and  otherwise age inappropriate.  In her words the books on these lists are not "fun".  Two examples she provides are Rabbit Run by John Updike and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  These are certainly well written novels, and with that she does not disagree, but she suggests that they may discourage teenage readers (boys in particular) from developing a love for reading; the adult perspective, she thinks, is not one that can be appreciated by the teenage mind.  Certainly I would agree that it is difficult; yet it is not impossible and it is certainly worth the attempt.   She recommends substituting genre fiction in the form of stories about those things in which a boy is likely to be more interested, say sports or animals, or books that are more age appropriate like William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow or James Agee's A Death in the Family.  

To her credit Ms. Keller recommends substitutes that are well-written classics in their own right.  However she sounds like those from the school of reading almost anything is better than not reading at all.  I suggest that a better approach, and that which the Summer reading lists she criticizes take, would be to encourage high school readers to challenge themselves to read the more difficult, "earnest and improving" books as a way to broaden and deepen their reading experience.  Perhaps this reading could be augmented by genre fiction on the side and with kudos to Ms. Keller I would heartily endorse her recommendation of The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (or most anything by that wonderful fantasist) as it was one of my favorites from my high school years.  And I did not need a Summer Reading list in order to read and enjoy it.


Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

I am not a big fan of required reading. If it is needed to motivate students to read during the summer, I ask that students be given a half dozen choices. No one likes to read the same books, and it's a lazy teacher who won't offer this. Just my two cents.

James said...

Thanks for your comment. I like your idea of providing choices for the student readers. Doing so may have met some of Julia Keller's concerns about the required reading list. I would agree with letting students choose as long as they read.