Required Reading: The Pros and Cons

I didn’t know how to read until I was seven years old.

This is a fact that sticks out no matter how far removed I am, and one that I’ve carried with me into adulthood. I can distinctly remember being in kindergarten, around 5 or 6, and feeling the miserable isolation that comes with not being able to read Hop On Pop out loud.  I can’t distinctly remember if there was mockery or teasing involved, but it seems likely.

Early into 1st grade, however, everything suddenly clicked. What had seemed impossible now came as easily as breathing. It was so easy, in fact, that I soon surpassed my peers in terms of reading comprehension and began to receive private tutoring sessions in lieu of English classes. Over the next few years, I had changed from the kid who couldn’t read to the kid who got in trouble with teachers for reading on the playground (yes, this actually happened). I was completely happy with my newfound status as a voracious reader (and I wish I had kept up that volume into present day), but it was only a matter of time before a grim specter reared its ugly head.

Required reading. What a terrible term it was. It wasn’t that I was being forced to read: I could get behind that. The resentment I felt was tied to the fact that I loved reading, but teachers and administrators and whoever else had all conspired against me to keep the books I wanted to consume out of my hands. This was little more than a minor annoyance through most of elementary, middle, and junior high school, since the required reading assigned to these grade levels was usually on the lighter side of 100 pages. I would breeze through these in a day, then go back to my own private stacks.

I can’t say how common this is, but is there a possibility that kids who are forced to read books they find dull, monotonous, and irrelevant are turning into adults that associate reading at large with those feelings?

Once I reached high school, however, the entire game changed. Required reading wasn’t easy anymore. The print was small! The chapters went on forever! Most of all, they were boring! By this point, my own private reading levels had dipped considerably, since my post-puberty self had many other things with which to occupy his time (namely girls and other intoxicants). But I still resented being told what reading was important, and, being the conniving slacker that I was, often skimmed just enough to pass the quizzes I knew were coming the next day. On more than one occasion I wrote an in-class essay on a book I hadn’t even opened up to that point. Make no mistakes, I was a bastard of a student, and probably one of the more confounding bad students because I seemed to do fairly well despite the iron resolve of my laziness.

There were required reads I encountered in high school that I loved. On the Road is more precious to me than perhaps any other novel I’ve read. The Great Gatsby may be the closest thing we have to the mythical “Great American Novel”, and I still consider Hemingway’s A Clean, Well-Lighted Place the greatest short story of all time. I am eternally indebted to the extraordinary teachers who introduced me to these wonderful works of art. However, as I get older, and re-read more and more of the classics that were foisted upon me in my high school days, I have to wonder: is this the best way to try and teach kids about the importance of reading, literature, and the written word?

Like I said before, I love On the Road. I first read it when I was around fifteen years old, as one possible selection on a required summer reading list. Getting loaded and hitchhiking across America sounded pretty good to me, and I tore through it, often wondering what it would have been like to live in an America that seemed so wide open and full of possibilities. Shortly after I turned 23, I found a copy lying around my house, and having some free time, re-read it. My experience had totally changed. I still loved the book, and I still found Kerouac’s writing impossibly beautiful and romantic, but my reading of the text had been completely reversed. The things I had once found invigorating and the lifestyle I had once envied now seemed desperate, heartbreaking and lonely. What I had once approached as a possible handbook for living I now held up as a tragic anthem to failed ideals and disconnection.

By that same token, I did enjoy Gatsby quite a bit when I was younger. Re-reading the novel at 25, I asked myself something I had never thought to ask before: why are we teaching books like these to teenagers? There is of course a wealth of information to be gleaned about writing and language from classics like Gatsby, and I stand by my conviction that these lessons are invaluable, but what is there in Gatsby for a sixteen-year-old to relate to? It’s a novel about failure, deception, love, loss, and the inability to escape one’s past. Perhaps I led a sheltered adolescence, but I have a hard time imagining a typical teenager finding much that speaks to him or her in the pages of Gatsby. And while I’m not advocating that our educational system capitulate to the whims of hormone-addled teenagers and only require that they read Twilight books, let’s face facts: teenagers, and teenaged boys especially, are extremely headstrong creatures, and liable to resist anything they are told they must do. I loved reading from the get-go, and continued to love books well past the age when anybody (save for editors) required that I read anything. I can’t say how common this is, but is there a possibility that kids who are forced to read books they find dull, monotonous, and irrelevant are turning into adults that associate reading at large with those feelings?

For the sake of objectivity and nostalgia, I got in touch with the very patient woman who helped me through those dark high school years. Dr. Fran Hillyer retired from teaching some years ago, no doubt driven away by frustrating do-nothings like myself. She also had quite a bit to say in defense of required reading. “There are reasons why certain [books] have been pushed into high school. The Great Gatsby is a good example because it is uniquely situated in American history as well as in American literature. If you’re lucky, when you’re in high school you’re studying American history at the same time that you’re studying American literature, so when you get to Gatsby you can refer to all kinds of things… prohibition, manifest destiny, the American dream, class warfare… it’s just such a rich text in so many ways.”

This was one point I hadn’t considered: that certain parts of the literary canon fit neatly into a well-rounded high school education. “The meat of the book …some people are going to get it completely. Most of them probably won’t, but they’ve gotten something out of it that they wouldn’t have gotten out of a lesser work.” It’s a fair point: even considering those kids who do get The Great Gatsby or Catch-22 forced down their throats and grow up to resent it/swear off canonical literature forever, from an objective standpoint, they’re still a better person for having slogged through it. They’ve undergone self-improvement at the hands of a teacher, even if it was while kicking and screaming. Dr. Hillyer even took some issue with my supposition that the concept of “required reading” might turn off potential lit-heads. “Anybody who loves reading is probably not going to be scared away from reading by one book… Readers read.”

Perhaps this is the harsh reality: readers read, and by the time we get to high school, a choice has been made as to whether or not we want to continue to improve our literacy and take an active interest in reading, and even the best teacher will be somewhat powerless to stop that. When I asked Dr. Hillyer if she thought required reading ever had the unfortunate consequence of turning a kid off of reading or going back to the canon, she asked me pointedly “Did you do that?” The answer is no: I just picked up Crime and Punishment for the first time in ten years because it’s part of the canon, and I didn’t understand it at all when I was sixteen.

I can't say what it is that made me into a reader. Maybe it's something that's innate, or maybe it came from the household I was raised in. My parents are both avid readers (my father has belonged to a book club for as long as I can remember, and my mother goes through about five mysteries per month), so it just seemed to make sense that I should have my nose buried in something. Much in the same way I began reading newspapers (so I would know what the hell everyone was talking about at the breakfast table), reading was something that brought me closer to the people I loved. If kids aren't lucky enough to have reading pushed on them at home, it stands to reason that it should be pushed on them at school (this is, after all, where we traditionally improve young people against their will). 

In a best-case scenario, required reading forces a kid to slog through (or at least attempt to) a great book that they end up loving and later thank their teacher for introducing them to. At worst, a kid either refuses to read, or reads just enough so that they’ll stop being bothered. In the latter instance they’re probably better off for it, and in either instance the teacher is kind of at the mercy of the student.

I've often wondered how the teachers who were stuck with me did it. Teaching a 16-year-old kid about literature might be the worst job in the world, as it's incredibly frustrating, demanding work, and it is perhaps one of the most thankless and poorly compensated jobs available. Was my own high school English teacher resentful after all those years? The answer is no (and I hope it still is after she reads this article):

"That's why you become an English teacher...you say 'I want to share what I know with somebody else'...It would be nice to get [the material] through their skulls, but whether I get it through their skulls or not, I get to read it and enjoy it, and show how excited I am by this book... in high school, who's going to get anything, when it comes right down to it? All you're doing is opening a door."

What say you, readers? Are there books that you were forced to read in high school that you later loved or always loathed? Do you think required reading is a scholastic institution that ought to be preserved?

Image of On the Road
Author: Jack Kerouac
Price: $12.23
Publisher: Penguin Books (1999)
Binding: Paperback, 293 pages
Image of The Great Gatsby (A Cornell Edition)
Manufacturer: Scribner
Part Number:
Price:
Image of A Clean Well Lighted Place
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Price:
Publisher: Creative Education (1990)
Binding: Hardcover, 30 pages
John Jarzemsky

Column by John Jarzemsky

John is a freelance writer who has been with LitReactor since the days of its halcyon youth. You can check out John's blog, the poorly titled Super Roller Disco Monkey Hullabaloo!, for other reviews, random musings, and ill-thought out rants. He was recently published in Bushwick Nightz, a collection of short stories about the Brooklyn neighborhood in which he resides.

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Comments

meghan1121's picture
meghan1121 from Chicago, IL January 11, 2012 - 1:14pm

Great post.  Like you, I was a ravenous reader from a very young age, and nothing I was forced to read in school could ever have turned me away from books.  I did have to read some stuff that I hated, but the required books that lit me up inside and changed the way I thought about the world vastly outnumbered the ones that left me cold.  I'm forever grateful to the teachers who "made" me read The Catcher in the Rye, Native Son, A Tale of Two Cities, Shakespeare's sonnets, and so many more amazing things.  I completely agree that even if students don't go on to be readers as adults, they're still getting something from reading these books, even if it's against their will.  I think it's just as important to a well-rounded education as math, history, or anything else.

Mr. B's picture
Mr. B January 11, 2012 - 1:41pm

I have very mixed feelings about required reading. As a high school English teacher, I have to give assigned reading, although I tend toward excerpts and shorter works (short stories, poems, etc.) rather than full novels (the one exception is To Kill a Mockingbird with sophomores). Frankly, a lot of what students want to read doesn't have much literary merit, and it's part of my job to expose students to works of literary merit. (By the way, I'll note that "literary merit" here is not simply another way to say "in the canon.")

On the other hand, I also have the responsibility to promote reading in such a way that students might be likely to read beyond the walls of my classroom and beyond the reach of our school after they graduate. I've largely adopted the attitude of Kelly Gallagher in his great book Readicide, which puts a high value on student choice in reading. I have a classroom library that I try to keep stocked with high-quality texts, particularly young adult texts (John Green is a staple of this section, as are other YA authors like Marcus Zusak, Suzanne Collins, and Carl Hiaasen, among many others). I also have more traditional texts like Hemingway, Hawthorne, Wilde, etc., as well as international and multicultural literature, nonfiction, and genre fiction (science fiction, fantasy, romance, etc.). Every one of my sophomores and juniors has to read two of these books independently each quarter for me (min. page requirement is 150 pages, which is really quite low for they should be reading in that period) and fill out a one-page sheet asking a random question about some literary element of the text. If the sheet convinces me that they really read the book, they get full credit; if not, none.

Ultimately, I think English teachers who don't promote reading for enjoyment are really shooting themselves in the foot in the long run, since you're just creating adults who are less likely to have a positive view of reading that they can then pass on to their children...who will then be the reluctant readers in your classroom (or other teachers' classrooms) later down the line.

Brendizzle Slice's picture
Brendizzle Slice from New York City January 11, 2012 - 1:57pm

It's definitely a slippery slope in the classroom.

A lot of what Mr. B says flows in my classroom (although I will have to pick up Readicide now) -- my library is stocked with books that I've collected over the years. Many lean more towards the traditional (Hemingway, Steinbeck, etc.), many are post-modern and science fiction (my one true love), and many are the high-interest, trashy fiction that kids love to burn through (either because it's popular, a friend is reading it, or the TV show/movie is good).

Nevertheless, I feel required -- not just by the curriculum, but by my own love for past literature as well -- to sometimes 'slog' through older texts with my classes. I want them to read Chaucer; I want them to read the Pearl poet; I want them to read Shakespeare -- and it has nothing to do with whether or not they'll get it: I want them to see what people have been reading for hundreds of years. When I hear that the words are different or that it's boring, I always remind them that there's  a reason these texts have lasted this long. If they were boring, we'd never have heard of them.

Again, it's a slippery slope: part of me wants them to read the past but part of me also doesn't care. As long as they're reading, that's all that matters. As long as I can have some intelligent conversation with them about a book they've picked up, I don't care. Seeing kids excited about reading makes it that much better, whether it's Shakespeare or Chuck Palahniuk or Walter Dean Myers or Stephanie Meyer. 

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words January 11, 2012 - 2:53pm

School exposed me to books I loved, books I loathed, I read some, faked a bunch, but never stopped reading. After my degree in English, I went back and read all those canonical books from high school - some were amazing (but I doubt I would have thought so during adolescence), some were completely unreadable (my hate-affair with Dickens comes to the fore), and some were good to get through so I knew what the hell everyone else was talking about.

If schools had coherent enough curricula that you studied Shakespeare in English around the time you studied 16th C English history, then it might all fit together in a cohesive big picture. Alas, that was never the case in any of my studies.

Nevertheless, the books in the canon are part of sharing in a culture. However, the principal storytelling art form in North America is moving pictures (film, television, youtube videos of cats). You can hardly blame people who would rather watch a story than read it.

JBee Keller's picture
JBee Keller January 11, 2012 - 3:00pm

I started reading like a madman in 4th grade. My teacher had the class reading aloud (how dreadfully painful an exercise in patience and empathy), Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary and Roald Dahl. I was so amazed at the possibilities found in these worlds. That same year I read all of the Chronicles of Narnia series. I was hooked. By the fifth grade I was reading old torn Stephen King paperbacks under my desk in science class and rereading the Lord of the Rings until the spines split on my Uncles beloved collection. Since then I have found tons of favorites and read everything I could get my hands on for the last 22 years.

About 3 years ago I stopped reading. I can't place an event to cause this and it wasn't like a day and night change; more
like steadily driving down your favorite strip of road at 85 miles per hour then suddenly running out of gas. I coasted for a while. I desperately finished small reads like Diary and Rant. I have read one book since then and it's not even a novel. Still, I felt accomplished at reading all of Zen and the Art of Happiness. All 145 pages.

I hate that I no longer read. I miss it so much. I still frequently buy books I love and even preorder some of my favorite authors novels. My bookshelf is filled with books I may never open. I feel like I am losing myself. I am not sure how this happens to an avid reader but it is crushing.

kittyfarts's picture
kittyfarts January 11, 2012 - 4:21pm

Having left high school my junior year to start college, I bypassed much of the required reading. Now I find this to have been detrimental to both my education, and my repertoire. Missing out on that exposure certainly limited what I read as an adult. I'm an avid reader and always open to suggestions on a new book or author, but I can't help finding myself lost when I'm trying to find new material on my own. Required reading would have introduced me to several more genres and presented more opportunites for me to develop my tastes, much the same way a parent makes their children try new foods to encourage a wide palate.

Luckily, my dearest friend loves foisting her book finds on me and through this I've discovered a love of science fiction, Hunter S. Thompson and so much more. Even my ex husband contributed, by turning me onto graphic novels and Chuck P. to name a few.

Some offerings have turned out to be stinkers, but overall I've enjoyed the exposure. I imagine the same would have been true in high school. For instance, I'm glad I read Dickens sophomore year and knew not to waste my precious book budget on him.

 

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like January 12, 2012 - 3:55pm

EDIT - what I originally wrote was kind of pointless and not in any way sarcastic, so I erased it

Mr. B's picture
Mr. B January 11, 2012 - 5:59pm

I'm going to follow up on two points from my earlier comment. One is sort of in response to Brendizzle Slice (although I'm going to assume that he didn't mean the implication that I'm taking from a few words of his post) referring to "high-interest, trashy fiction": I think YA lit often gets a bad rap for its worst - and often most popular - exemplars, books like the Twilight series (disclaimer: I've only read the first book, and even then it was a required text in a contemporary adolescent lit class I took). There is a lot of excellent YA literature, books like Looking for Alaska (John Green) and I Am the Messenger (Marcus Zusak) that are well-written and which are not so limited in their scope as to be unaccessible to adults. A lot of the books in my library are books that I've bought for my own enjoyment, many of which are YA books (with of course some other works: my last book haul netted the YA LGBT book Luna and the graphic novel Maus I, along with Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris and Reading Lolita in Tehran.) So I don't think the choice is high-interest tripe or low-interest genius; there are books that are of value which students  will find interesting enough to read.

The second is just a side point: I adopted my system of required independent reading this year after a workshop with Kelly Gallagher, and I have seen a dramatic increase in reading from students who by all rights would have been considered "reluctant readers," both in my class and outside. While I think part of this is increased choice, I also think part of it is the fact that the "required" part is minimized in this scheme. Many of my students read their books and then nearly forget that the reading was "assigned" (in the broad sense of "required to receive a grade") in the first place. I consider that a resounding success, personally.

rstern's picture
rstern January 11, 2012 - 7:37pm

I am 38 (I'm much younger than that sounds) and was required to read, among others, The Great Gatsby and Lord of the Flies in high school. Rereading both of them in the last few years (Gatsby I reread twice) I can now see from real life experience how powerful and telling of human nature those pieces of literature are. I've known people like those characters. Back then it was way over my head. I loved Catcher in the Rye, but I think that was the only one. It wasn't until a few years ago I discovered books and how raw and enlightening they can be. I'm still confused as to why it took me so long to figure out. The funny thing is I did have a slight love affair with reading in my early 20s when I discovered Kerouac (especially On The Road); Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest) and Tom Wolf (Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests and Pump House Gang). Those books are what inspired me to move from the East Coast to California almost 15 years ago. Now I would count among my favorites (Josh Bazell, Chuck Palahniuk, Daniel Woodrell, Ethan Canin, Bret Easton Ellis, Stephen Elliott, (even though he gives me deranged dreams) Carl Hiassen, and whoever really wrote God Hates Us All, to name a few. I can't remember who wrote Puff and Black Dog (if those are truly their titles because I can’t find them on the internet anywhere) but they were awesome too. These authors/books, for me, seem expose a side of humanity that no other art form can touch. I discovered I have little patience for books that don't pull me in and keep me there. I either cast a book aside or devour it. There isn't a whole lot in between. If it takes me more than 3 days to read a book, chances are I'll never finish it.

Sophia's picture
Sophia from Dallas, TX is reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog January 11, 2012 - 8:58pm

Gosh! John. I thought someone would have commented on the yoda-like wisdom of your high school English teacher. I certainly was impressed. Thanks, Fran

Tish77's picture
Tish77 from Central Qld, Australia is reading something different everytime I log in... Currently The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank January 12, 2012 - 1:30am

As another English teacher here, I see the point in required reading. I forced children to read The Catcher in the Rye, and they could deal with that. Because I live in Australia, relevant texts are essential so I could never understand The Great Gatsby being included in the curriculum. Also, get ready for this, I can't stand that book! I don't relate to it either and I think it's pretentious (please don't kill me for that one!). I also teach Drama so I give out required reading there too - Shakespeare, Brecht, Sophocles, Beckett - they have to endure it all! But I think because I love it, they are very accepting.
Great article!

Sam Sturdivant's picture
Sam Sturdivant from Hayward, Ca is reading Murphy January 12, 2012 - 3:45pm

I hated required reading all the way up until my sophomore year of high school. Mr. Sanchez, as strict as he was, had excellent taste in literature. That year I read To Kill a Mocking Bird, Animal Farm, A Seperate Piece, Black Boy, and I Heard the Owl Call My Name. He gave daily reading quizzes and every time you'd fail you'd get a detention. Even though my main motivation was to not get detention, the books actually grabbed my attention, and I didn't have a problem trying to retain the information. I ended up reading The Great Gatsby my senior year, but like others I had trouble relating to the material, and didn't really pick anything up from it. It seems lately whenever I pass it on a bookshelf, it's always calling my name, so I think I'll be picking that one up again soon.

Tom Corsillo's picture
Tom Corsillo from New York is reading Perfume: The Story of a Murderer January 13, 2012 - 12:43pm

I loathe nearly every book I read in high school, right up until senior year. That's when I was able to take English electives and selected as one a course called "The Philosophical Novel." We read Crime & Punishment, The Trial and A Clockwork Orange...and I believe The Alchemist was on our syllabus, though we didn't get to it.

 

...I loved the books in that class. The teacher I had for that class was also my homeroom teacher the previous year (part of the reason I chose the class). That Christmas, he gave each student in his homeroom a book as a Christmas gift. He carefully selected a different book for each student according to his personality...a book he thought they would like but hadn't read before. He gave me Fight Club, which was my first introduction to Chuck (the film came out that same year) and introduced me to a whole new idea of what a novel could be. Later, after I'd graduated, I asked him to recommend additional authors, and he introduced me to Irvine Welsh and Alex Garlan, who became two of my favorite authors. 

 

Point being, when this teacher was able to choose books, he chose books that I found exciting and really wanted to read. And they were the only books I found exciting and wanted to read. I've since gone back and read or re-read some of the classics with a more discerning eye and better appreciation of literature. And I think this is the way to do it. What is the point of having students read the classics if it will serve only to build resentment? Why not foster an appreciation for literature that will inspire rather than deter them? A true fan of literature will likely come around to the classics eventually and with a better capacity for appreciation. A person who resents literature will close his eyes to everything.

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading Tons of LGBT nonfiction so he can judge a literary contest January 15, 2012 - 9:30am

I take a hard-nosed position on this: there should be required reading in English classes because some books are widely – I mean, widely – considered to be landmarks and others are not. Gatsby is one of them. I hate Hemingway by and large, but every high school student should have to read The Sun Also Rises or A Farewell to Arms. The Last of the Mohicans should be required, as should Another Country. Why? Because these are a few of our country’s greatest literary achievements, and every educated person should have the experience of reading them.

I don’t give a damn about whether students “relate to” the novels they are assigned. Do math teachers wring their hands over whether their students “relate to” trigonometry? Do chemistry teachers cry when a student can’t “relate to” the periodic table of the elements? Hardly. It’s standard curriculum stuff, and the kids have to know it or else they fail. You’re expected to know a certain body of work in a variety of disciplines at the end of high school, and it has nothing to do with whether or not the students derive pleasure from the material.

This isn’t to say that that’s all they should be made to read. I cried over A Separate Peace, and so did my nephew, many years later. If I was teaching high school now I’d assign We Need to Talk About Kevin.

At the same time, I hated My Antonia with a passion, and I wasn’t quiet about that fact in class. Emerson, Thoreau… loved them! Did I care that some of my classmates were bored? Nope. Neither did my teacher, thank God.

To end this diatribe: I faced a similar issue as a film professor. Certain students would groan at black and white movies. It didn’t matter if it was Notorious, or To Have and Have Not, or Broken Blossoms, or The Last Laugh. What a crummy professor I would have been if I had catered to what they “related to” and showed them nothing but action movies made in the last 10 years. Oh, poor things! They’re bored! So the fuck what?

Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade January 26, 2012 - 12:54pm

Many schoolchildren love movies and hated the required viewing of movies in their high school classrooms. I believe many people are the same about the required reading as they are about required viewing, not to mention required listening (staff meetings, conference calls). As a lifelong reader who grew up without any friends who loved reading like I did, professed hatred of reading a book was voluteered to me by practically everyone who saw me reading a book.

All my friends who claimed to hate reading loved some book dearly. Usually it was not fiction "of literary merit." They loved biographies, they loved informative non-fiction texts, but not fiction of literary merit. An unprovable point but one which I've long suspected - from all the friends who've told me how they "hate books," what I've taken away from these friends is that artful literature with telling description, symbolism, irony, and so on simply confuses them. When they encounter artful prose, the point of the passages escapes them. And, they really don't like to work at gaining meaning.

People like my friends I've mentioned who've been assigned required reading in H.S. and come away with a professed hatred of books - I suspect they hated not understanding an artful, demanding work of literary merit and then being tested on their understanding of these texts.

(But really - who am I to judge? I've never really understood my non-reader friends. I loved even my required reading with few exceptions, none that I can recall...)

Dorian Grey's picture
Dorian Grey from Transexual, Transylvania is reading "East of Eden" by John Steinbeck March 29, 2012 - 2:41pm

I read Lord of the Flies last year in high school. I skimmed most of it and Spark-noted the hell out of a lot of the chapters, but I liked it well enough. A few days ago I picked it up, thinking I would probably like it a great deal more if I read it for enjoyment, and I was right. I can't tell you how enthralled I am from reading it, and now I can really love the story, the characters and the descriptions. Re-reading it has been such a great experience and now I can't wait to re-read books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Animal Farm, and once I finish The Great Gatsby for school I would love to read it again.

Pearl Griffin_2's picture
Pearl Griffin_2 from Portland, Oregon is reading Les Miserables December 2, 2012 - 12:07pm

I believe in required reading, but it doesn't always have to be canonical. Ender's Game is right up there on the list with Les Mis, Jane Eyre, and Hamlet. My job as a teacher is to challenge my students to think more, to think better, and in order to do that they need exposure to ideas that they might not otherwise give a second thought to. When I was a junior in high school I took creative writing instead of Honors English, and I regret it because I missed out on American Lit (plus the writing class wasn't that good), and still haven't read Great Gatsby, The Crucible, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath, Death of a Salesmen, and so many other great stories. As a reader, a writer, and a teacher, I have confidence that I'll make it to several, if not all, of those books, but many people stop reading entirely when they are no longer required to do so. Forcing students to read books they would never pick up is the same as forcing them to learn the quadratic equation: they may never use the information again, but act of doing it left them with better reasoning skills, or if nothing else, more folds in their brain. Or at least that's the goal. 

Jov Ati Ram's picture
Jov Ati Ram from Manila, Philippines is reading Greek Drama December 2, 2012 - 2:51pm

I don't like "required reading", primarily because in practice it seems to be an indoctrination device rather than a window to what the author was thinking. In college, I enrolled in a World Lit class, and we were compelled to read Ramayana, Chaucer, Dream of the Red Chamber, Camus and Rushdie. While I did pick up some of my reading leads later on from there (Camus became an instant hit for me), I didn't want to slug through 450 pages or so of archaic English with so many obscure cultural references - over and over again. It's not because I like airplane reading more (I don't), but because there are a lot of cultural references to study if you catch them all, and I don't think it would fit into a semester if I had gotten even three of these books and read them in full. 

Having said that though, I appreciate the fact that reading these books is required exactly because of the cultural references that point to learnings in the culture of that place at the time. But again, I think it will do better if only fractions of the works were required to be read. It may seem like a serious out-of-context quoting hazard, but it's REQUIRED READING anyway, a set curriculum of reading, which points to select lessons. If the student wants to challenge what's quoted, they can read the whole text in their free time. Of course, teachers can't just quote from Ramayana and conclude in class that what was said in the quote describes the entirety of the work - that would be unfair to the work itself. 

Another thing: the discussions in literature class - for me the very point of the class - need to be truly open discussions, because literature only achieves its teaching power when it evokes reactions, counter-reactions, and consensus. Required reading does not in itself ensure this, so pushing for all-out required reading for the purpose of teaching cultural learnings is somehow misguided.

For literature majors, though, required reading must be required. From cover to cover - and even beyond. These guys should do research on all the cultural references on their own, from references to other works - it's their profession. 

Meg Pierce's picture
Meg Pierce from San Diego, but live in Togo for now. is reading Half of a Yellow Sun December 11, 2012 - 7:46am

Grapes of Wrath was one I kept starting in high school and never got around to finishing. I picked it up later as an English teacher and found it a really interesting read. As an English teacher, I try to choose books that students can relate to, and that reinforce their studies in other classes. On the other hand, when I was in high school, I found the characters in books I was supposed to relate to, like Catcher in the Rye with its rebellious teenager, annoying and unlikable. I do think it's our job as teachers to assign books that give students something to think about, because even my most advanced readers often choose words that while having a more advanced vocabulary are the literary equivalent of made for tv movie.

Baby-Haroro's picture
Baby-Haroro from Santa Barbara is reading Wicked April 9, 2014 - 10:42pm

I have been an avid reader since I was little, and nothing makes me happier than to have a book in my hands, but words cannot describe how much I loathed the idea of required reading. I despised almost every book assigned to me until my last two years of high school. The Great Gatsby was interesting enough to actually get me to finish it, Lord of the Flies was surprisingly good, and Of Mice and Men was not such a hair-puller. None of these got me excited to read them, however.

The one book that really got me was the last book assigned to my class in my senior year of high school. The book was Last Days of Summer, and it hit me with such force that I was left speechless. I am a dedicated fantasy reader, so Last Days of Summer -- being a coming-of-age story involving baseball and the war -- was completely out of my comfort zone. My teacher gave us her little spiel that we always heard about how students loved the book, and I was aprehensive, to say the least. I was hooked from the moment I started reading it. Never have I laughed so hard while reading a book. Never have I cried so hard for a character -- yes, not even when Sirius and Fred died! Never have I been so engrossed in a story that had been required of me to read. After finishing the book, my mum found me, a mess of tears and heartbreak, and had me spill all of my feelings to her. The way that book grabbed hold of me and made me feel in such an extreme way stunned me, and caused that book to become my second favorite piece that I have ever read.

Fangirling aside, what I am trying to say is that I completely understand the widely spread dislike towards required reading, but sometimes the teachers will actually get it right. As an abuser of the only-read-what-you-have-to-in-order-to-pass-the-quizzes method, as well as sometimes being guilty of never even opening the book, I would sincerely recommend giving the assigned books a try; you never know what you may end up loving.