Friday, July 07, 2006

Booknote: I Hear America Reading

Title: I Hear America Reading: Why We Read, What We Read.
Compiler: Jim Burke
Publication Information: Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1999.
116 pages, including appendices.
ISBN: 0-325-00134-0
Genre: Nonfiction
Subgenre: literacy, reading, correspondence

In the book's introduction, Mr. Burke writes that he wrote his now famous letter to the San Francisco Chronicle in response to his sophomores who often complained about reading as a chore or as something to hate. Mr. Burke invited readers of his letter to reply and send the replies to his school for his students, and the result is the book I just read. Now, and this is a small rant on my part, I am sure Mr. Burke is a fine teacher. However, I know that students will often express their displeasure at the reading done in school not because they may be less than literate or hooked on video games. The real reason more often than not is that schools ruin the reading experience for a lot of young people. I know that if reading had not been nurtured at home, I probably would have hated reading on the basis of how it was done in school. For the most part, reading in school was a dissection exercise when it came to classics and literature. When I went on to be a high school English teacher, I heard similar things from my students. In some of those classes, we had to literally plow through Dickens or other canonical authors. In a way, what Mr. Burke's student says harshly about Twain's Huck Finn is not different from what some of my students said about Great Expectations. Unlike Mr. Burke, who feels challenged to explain "why students should want to read what the school district and state require" (2), I am more challenged by how to bring down the canonical lists. I may well be the wrong guy to ask about "classic" books since I have stayed away from a lot of them after my teachers inflicted them on me. Yes, it was literally infliction. I read Huck Finn in 6th grade, along with Tom Sawyer, and I will say the memories are less than pleasant. The thing is I have read some other Twain writings, such as his Connecticut Yankee, and I enjoyed those. But Huck Finn is not something I will likely revisit any time soon. I can brag I read it, and that's that. I am not saying that "classics" are not relevant. I would like to read some of Dickens's other novels, since I get the impression Great Expectations is not his best work (which makes me wonder why inflict it on students), but for now the experience has soured me for a while. In fact, there are some "classics" I do enjoy. But these works may not be as relevant to young people at a particular time. I probably would have appreciated Huck Finn a bit better if I had read it a bit later, but that was the curriculum, and I was stuck with it. There's more to literature than the usual lists, and I am thankful that some districts have gone for more diverse readings. Maybe when it comes to "classics," it is more how they are read, so as to minimize the "I hate reading" reaction. In my teaching days, my hands were tied as well. Given a choice, there were probably a few other better works I would have wanted to read with students who were not college bound (I taught both college and "non-college" tracks) than something like Great Expectations. I guess my point in all this, besides exposing a bit of my bias, is that when someone goes on to decry yet again the lowering of youth literacy, I will take it with a grain of salt. Just because they refuse to read Twain or Dickens or anyone else on the canon it does not follow their literacy is lowered. Maybe they have less of the common reference points we like to think about culturally, but it does not make them less literate. Find something interesting and engaging, and young people will read it.

At any rate, Mr. Burke's book is definitely worth reading. He has made a good selection of the letters he received that go from amusing to moving. In between the letters, Mr. Burke inserts quotes from various literary sources. I am sure that readers will find something in this book to help affirm their love of reading. It may even spark a desire to read for those who may not see themselves as readers. As an additional feature, the book provides a set of reading lists and a list of literacy resources.

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