Why "Required Reading" Needs to be Removed From Our Vocabulary
"The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed." James Joyce, "Araby"
Jhumpa Lahiri, in an article in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times on March 17, says that this sentence by Joyce is "... as perfect as a sentence can be. It is measured, unguarded, direct and transcendent, all at once."
Lahiri says that in college she always underlined sentences that stood out to her in books. She maintains, and I agree, that when rereading books, though we may be approaching them at different times in our lives and therefore interpreting them differently, the language of the book serves as a constant. Says Lahiri, "The best sentences orient us, like stars in the sky, like landmarks on a trail."
One of my favorite opening lines of a book comes from Steve Martin's "Shopgirl". Martin writes:
"When you work in the glove department at Neiman's, you are selling things that nobody buys anymore."
I bought the book based on that one sentence, before I knew anything else about the story. It made me laugh and made me think and I simply had to own it.
When I go through books I have read, their titles and covers remind me, not only of the stories they contain, but of the moment they first entered my life. In that way, my books are also my history -- a history whose details are a combination of words and events and feelings.
How sad, then, to live a life where reading is not a pleasure, but a chore. Where a book is nothing more than another assignment; something you are supposed to do, even if you don't want to. One of the most misguided aspects of compulsory schooling is the idea that all children must learn to read at the same age. Not only must they learn to read, but they must love reading.
But who can love something that is forced upon them before they are ready?
The ability to read is like any other developmental process; it varies from child to child. Just because one child reads at the age of four and another not till the age of ten does not mean the one is better or smarter than the other. Some children walk at 10 months of age, others not until they are almost two years old. We do not belittle the child who walks later or make them feel inadequate. The fact that children in school who cannot grasp reading in first grade are put in so called 'remedial' classes and made to feel stupid is shameful. And then people wonder why they don't enjoy reading?
Unschoolers have an enormous advantage in this regard. I admit that I was very skeptical that reading would or could be learned with no instruction. Maya always wanted to be told what things said and would ask me to read the letters of words she saw in taxis and on the street. She could read by the age of 4 and was into chapter books when she was 6. Ben would run to the other room if anyone even suggested a lesson in reading. He hated being 'taught' letters or words, and so he never had a reading lesson. He heard me read books out loud and books were always available, and one day when he was well over six years old he picked up a chapter book and read it; just like that.
Miraculous? It does seem so to the school-trained brain, but really it's just developmental.
Forcing children to read before they are ready is guaranteed to remove any joy they might have found had they been allowed to read on their own schedule. 42% of high school and college grads never read another book again once they graduate. That is a tragically high number, and we only have ourselves and our insistence on reading young to blame.
Even for those of us who spent our childhoods happily devouring hundreds of books, the sheer number of books that are required reading in college can derail us from picking up a book in our spare time. Being a double literature major, I read twice as many required books as most people in college, and some of them I really liked. However after graduating I was so burned out on required reading that it was almost two years before I picked up a book to read for fun. I even remember which book it was. I read John Grisham's book The Firm, published in 1991. I graduated college in 1989. Two years seems a very long time, but it is nothing compared to 42% of the people who never read another book again.
People are always writing about how to 'get' kids to enjoy reading. Well step one, two and three is to stop making them do it. Force feeding someone is not the way to get them to enjoy your food. Let it go. Have books available; read books out loud and trust that at some point -- if school hasn't beaten it out of them -- their curiosity will be piqued and they will want to discover the magical world awaiting them on the page.
Reading should be joyful and fun. The phrase "required reading" needs to be removed from our schools and our vocabulary. It turns out that people who don't read books are not only missing out on some great fun, they may be depriving their brains of vital stimulation as well. Another article in the same edition of the New York Times, by Annie Murphy Paul states:
The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction -- with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions -- offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.
Wow. How cool is that? All the benefits of a real experience without the peril. Fiction can, according to the research presented in the article, help us "better understand the complexities of social life." That's great. But we needn't start telling kids that reading is healthy and good for them. If left alone, more than likely they'll discover the joy of reading and the rest will be icing on the cake.
I'll end with another favorite quote of mine, this one from John Irving's My Movie Business in which he talks about his grandfather, who was an obstetrician with a flair for the descriptive:
In introducing one of his patients to the reader, Grandfather wrote: "Mrs. Berkeley had contributed nothing to the world except her constipation." That would be a fine first sentence to a novel.