Friday, July 13, 2012

Reading about the reading life, July 13, 2012

A few items of interest on reading and the reading life for this. I do clip a few of these, but I don't always get to read them right away. Maybe I need to work on that, and maybe I could make this kind of post a more regular feature of the blog. Anyhow, here are this week's items.

  • Via NPR, on the topic of who might inherit your books, but what if they are e-books? It is an interesting question to me. While I have a small personal library, it is by no means valuable. It is the library of a reader, not a collector. I think I will be lucky if my kid keeps some and the rest get donated to some library that may want them. However, at least the books have the potential to be passed on and read by someone else when my demise comes. E-books don't really stand a chance in that regard. Between the obsolescence by design of e-readers, passwords (what if your heirs did not get your password), format changes, so on, odds are good your heirs are not getting your e-books any time soon. If you can learn about a person by the books he reads, you won't be learning a whole lot if you can't get into grandma's Kindle she may have left you, or, if you do get in, you may find out granny was one of those hidden romance/erotica readers (the kind who would not be caught dead with a print romance or erotica book but kept plenty of them on the e-reader). 
  • Greg Zimmerman, at Book Riot, asks what is a "summer read"? Personally, I never really understand the whole fuss over "summer reads." Maybe it is because I read throughout the year, so summer is no different than any other time of the year when it comes to reading. Also, I tend to read "serious" books as well as "light" reading any time of the year, so the distinction just does not work for me. Anyhow, feel free to read the piece and see where you stand. 
  • Via The Atlantic, to think there was a time when large stretches of the U.S. did not have a single bookstore. The article mentions that in 1931, there were 500 or so legitimate bookstores in the U.S. In contrast, today bookstores are facing extinction thanks to e-readers and other changes. The article also mentions a book by historian Kenneth C. Davis that I may want to add to my TBR list. The book is Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America. The book was published in 1984, so it is not terribly new, but The Atlantic author writes that "many of the changes that social media and the Internet are supposed to have wrought on culture are ascribed to the rise of the paperback."

Friday, July 06, 2012

Books I would want NOT taught in school: a small reflection

The headline of the article from Salon says "Reader Responses: Books You Want Banned." It makes it sound like they want the books permanently banned. In reality, it is an article about people expressing which they do not want to see taught in schools. This may be for reasons ranging from the ever infamous dissection that teachers shove down students throats to the fact that, well, the books just plain suck. In some cases, the tragedy is the book might have been appreciated by some kids down the road had they not had it rammed up their keisters by the schools.

Anyhow, in the interest of having some fun, these are the books I would certainly leave out of schools if I had my way. They would be optional readings because I believe to instill love of reading that dissection and the ever popular "let's all read the same book, at the same time, at the same pace, and heaven help you if you read ahead past the rest rest of the class" approaches are not the ways to do it.

On a disclosure note, if my four readers do not know this by now, I was a public school teacher many moons ago, and yes, I was forced to do the dissection, which led not only to a good number of my kids hating certain books. It also led to me hating books and authors to the point I will never read them again. So, I give a big "eff you" to those "curriculum specialists" who forced to get real creative and work around them to minimize the damage.

So, my (partial) list:

  • Anything by Dickens, but specially Great Expectations.
  • From now on, as far as I am concerned, you may NOT introduce Shakespeare with Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare has a lot of better plays, some actually pretty funny. Use one of those instead if you absolutely have to teach Shakespeare. And for the love of all that is holy, you better be willing and able to teach any and all ribald and bawdy references. Teaching Shakespeare, or Chaucer, or others without going into the puns, innuendos, etc. is like trying to swim with your hands and ankles tied behind your back. If you have to be squeamish, because heaven forbid the kiddies hear about titties or farts, you probably should not be teaching it then. Anyhow, the kids have already heard about the tits and farts anyhow.
  • The Spanish equivalent of the above is Cervantes. If you think Shakespeare's English is difficult (and it can be without some proper training), give Baroque Spanish a try. Cervantes does have various shorter works that may be more accessible. If you must, put Cervantes on a list with similar authors of his time. Don Quixote is good, but it is one hell of a reading odyssey to your average teen.
  • Lord of the Flies. Overdone at this point. 
  • The Scarlet Letter.
  • Moby Dick. If you have to do Melville in school, his short fiction is both more accessible and a bit easier to discuss.
  • Jane Eyre, Portrait of a Lady, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and similar.
  • Anything by James Joyce. Making any school student read this is just sadistic torture pure and simple. 
  • The Catcher in the Rye. This overrated tripe needs to go from any school. Heck, as far as I am concerned, this outdated teen experience book just needs to go. There is a reason the author pretty much went into seclusion after.
The article quotes a teacher who argues that if you are going to teach some of these books,  you need to do so with context: history, politics, social sciences, and in some cases, yes, this would include sexual information. To teach 1984, to pick an example, it does help to have some of the Cold War history in place, not to mention hooking up with current politics.  Having said that, some of those books taught in schools are just bad; you teachers and administrators are not doing kids any favors by forcing the same texts year after year.

If I had my way, there would still be some curriculum. Let us be honest here. The idealists who claim we can just let kids pick whatever they want fail to take into account human nature. If you let kids literally pick anything, all they would read is Dr. Seuss (no offense) and Curious George because they are easy. So, as teachers and librarians, we can and should set some parameters. Maybe a list, be it thematic, by authors, so on, and let students pick. For instance:

  • Say, you have to read some Shakespeare: here are some choices for your grade level. 
  • You have to read a dystopian novel? Pick from these, and the list does include contemporary as well classics. So both Brave New World and Hunger Games could get in, along with other things. How about V for Vendetta?
  • You have to read something that also deals with American history: so you can have various American classics, but also why not something like Watchmen, which if you look closely, does have quite a bit to say about 20th century United States? Notice I said about American history, not necessarily written by an American. Actually, such an idea could open other ideas such as how foreigners see the U.S. in literature for example. 
  • If you read the Bible in school, probably for some world literature class (I am assuming public school here. Parochial schools have "their way" of teaching the Bible), you have to read other religious texts as well and have contextual lessons to go with it. Again, this opens up history, politics, and other important subjects. 
  • More World Literature. Read something like Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, but make sure you provide a good history of colonialism and post-colonialism for context. In fact, a book like this can help you understand, with proper context, things such as why India and Pakistan pretty much hate each other. Read one of the dictator novels from Latin America, say El Señor Presidente by Miguel Ángel Asturias. With proper historical lessons, you can come to understand not only Latin American history but also U.S.-Latin American relations. Again, provide a list and go from there.
The point is there are many ways to promote reading while getting a good education without having to do the usual sleep inducing, fairly irrelevant, so-called classics that kids will grow to hate. Then again, some of my suggestions would actually take some work and planning, and in the era of teaching to the test and doing just the bare minimum, not likely to happen.

I can probably add a few more to my list, but the above were ones that came to me right away. So, what would you add to your list of books that should not be taught in schools? Maybe you want to defend something you read in school that most other people hate? As always, the comments are open.