Ok, so you know that article I linked to in the blog post before this one?
It's apparently started going haywire out there and people left and right are posting things.
Meg Cabot says this.
Candy at Smart Bitches says this.
And as for me, I think I fall solidly in the middle of them. "Classics" are good, but reading freedom is even better. To understand my point of view, I think I need to give you the short history of my experience with reading.
I have very smart parents. They are educated and well-read, and one of the first things they did was talk to me. They talked to me a lot. I could recite my vowels before I could say any words. I spoke at four months, and was speaking in full sentences by eleven months. I was an advanced child.
And my parents read to me, too. Lots and lots of stories, of every kind. I could recite my favorite fairy tale, "Titty Mouse and Tatty Mouse" when I was a year and a half old, my mother tells me. My parents fostered this in me, and my mother taught me to read when I was three and a half. I haven't stopped since.
But here's the important part of this story: they never told me what I could or couldn't read. They very, very rarely removed books out of my reach. I can think of a handful of examples, including several Harlequin novels that my mom wouldn't let me read when I was eleven. But other than that, they never yelled at me about what I was reading. They told me about books they liked, and they sometimes read to me still, even when I was much older. We talked about things I liked, a lot. And we talked about the books I hated.
They never, ever told me that I had to read a certain book because it was important and it would tell me something.
As a result, I always, always read above age level. I've said before that I read JANE EYRE when I was ten. I read HAWAII by James Michener when I was eleven (at my mother's recommendation). I plowed through most of the YA section before I entered middle school, and was firmly into adult books by that point.
And then I encountered English teachers. Granted, I had a few good ones, but most of them were terrible. Lest you think this was a problem that started with middle school and above, I'd like to point to the example of my sixth grade teacher:
We read THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE in our gifted and talented sixth grade class. We were all smart kids. I had read the book literally years before. I love that book. And my teacher WOULD NOT LET ME SPEAK ABOUT THE BOOK BECAUSE THE OTHER KIDS MIGHT NOT HAVE READ IT YET. I wanted to talk about it, to discuss it, to engage in it and explore the allegory and the writing. I wasn't allowed. It was infuriating.
The pattern continued in later years, although I was allowed to talk about the books or plays at least. We read A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM in seventh grade, ROMEO AND JULIET in ninth grade, JULIUS CAESAR in tenth grade, MACBETH in eleventh grade, and HAMLET in twelfth grade. I like them all, even JULIUS CAESAR. But you have to understand that I was bored to tears in all those English classes because I had plowed through a good portion of Shakespeare when I was about eight years old. (I particularly liked THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR at that age, although I'm not sure why.)
And then we had to read the required books, which continued to bore me. Things like A SCARLET LETTER, OF MICE AND MEN, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, and JUDE THE OBSCURE. I was so bored in my AP English class in twelfth grade that I downloaded the list of "recommended books" from the AP website and started reading through it alphabetically.
Which all adds up to the fact that there are certain authors and certain books that I despise because school tainted them for me. I have no suggestions how to get rid of this dislike, nor do I suggest trying to dissuade me from my dislike of the following authors and books.
Classics That I Love To Hate:
Charles Dickens (except for A CHRISTMAS CAROL)
A SCARLET LETTER
NECTAR IN A SIEVE
JUDE THE OBSCURE and everything else by Thomas Hardy
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT and everything else by Fyodor Dostoevsky
I'm sure there are others, but those are the classics that I love to hate. I have classics that I love, but I'd like to point out that I read all of these before we touched them in school, and many of them we never, ever encountered in an English classroom.
A short, non-inclusive list of Classics That I Love:
Anything by Ibsen, but especially "Hedda Gabler" and "A Doll's House"
"Miss Julie" by August Strindberg
Anything by Shakespeare
Anything by Jane Austen
Anything by Louisa May Alcott
JANE EYRE by Charlotte Bronte
THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD by Zora Neale Hurston
Anything by J. D. Salinger, but particularly CATCHER IN THE RYE
BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley
THE GODS THEMSELVES by Isaac Asimov
THE SECRET GARDEN and A LITTLE PRINCESS by Frances Hodgson Burnett
THE CANTERBURY TALES by Geoffrey Chaucer
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee
1984 by George Orwell
THE FOUNTAINHEAD and ATLAS SHRUGGED by Ayn Rand
If it hadn't been for my parents' influence, I wouldn't have known how much fun books were and searched for the classics that I love.
If it hadn't been for my English teachers, I wouldn't have had to read the classics that I love to hate.
I think there are arguments that can be made for either side, but I strongly prefer the principles by which my parents raised me. You can say that puts me more on Meg Cabot's side, but you also have to remember that my parents had these books in their home. They had read some or all of them, when they were students. I read Shakespeare at my aunt's house, in a giant volume she had of all the plays. I was exposed to classic books as naturally as I was exposed to any other book.
But what about kids who don't have parents like me? What about kids who weren't exposed to books, both high-brow and low-brow? Should they have mandatory reading in school still? Should the goal be to introduce them to books and have them discuss them altogether? Or is the new method in the article the way that reading should be taught? Or is any required reading just a way of forming even more Classics We Love To Hate?
Thoughts are welcome!