Why Required Reading Needs to Change
My mother always read to me when I was a little kid. There was hardly ever a night where my mom would skip reading to me a short little story before I fell (or tried to fall) asleep. But at the same time, as I grew older, reading gradually became more and more “uncool”. I began to see it as a chore and a dorky thing to do into my teens after I'd meticulously read Goosebumps books and Animorphs when I was younger. In high school the only novels I cared about were the three unofficial Terminator 2 continuations written by S.M. Stirling and the occasional Stephen King (both admittedly kind of dorky), because they were all I found on the front shelves of Barnes & Noble outside of school, and all that excited me in the least. The cause for my distaste in literature? The answer was always “They made us read that crap in school.”
Required reading will always be instituted in English classes. It always has been, as well. But one can't help being fourteen and being bored to complete emotional detachment when reading The Joy Luck Club or The Odyssey. Novels like that didn't compute with me, having been raised by constant electronic stimuli and medications that kept me from ever being able to say I was completely sober. And yet they never had us read any novel that was written past the early eighties as required reading, with the exception of The Giver and Ordinary People, which I loved personally. In fact, the only novels I cared about which were read in school after elementary school days, and which held within my memory willingly, were Ordinary People, To Kill a Mockingbird and Nineteen Eighty-Four. All else seemed so irrelevant to my life or the generation I knew, but above all else, the language and characters were more relatable. I understood Conrad in Ordinary more than any other character I had read up till that point because of several reasons: His language was similar to mine, I grew up in a Northwest suburb of Illinois just like him, I too had thoughts and comprehensions about suicide, saw a therapist, and my family was relatively dysfunctional. I also found myself attached to the characters and looked up to Atticus in Mockingbird. And the language made it easy for me to do so, coming from a younger, simpler voice. But while I love The Great Gatsby now and gain great influence from Fitzgerald, it just flew over my head at seventeen.
The biggest problem I always had with the English department of my schools was that they taught the classes the importance of all we read, but never why they were important. When you're a selfish little thirteen-year-old in middle school, you don't care a bit about what happens in Of Mice and Men unless you can willingly escape into a story that has nothing to do with you, which I can safely say is impossible; every kid saw themselves in one or more characters in novels like Harry Potter at some point. Perhaps it was easier for some students to forget themselves, but never for me. I needed relevance and thrived on a narcissistic need to read something that appealed to myself or at least my times.
I think teachers need to give students context for the old classics; students need to feel like what they read has something to do with the way the world relates to them. Teachers never cared about telling us that, and the past never truly seemed to affect our world. Instead, it was always trying to get us to memorize what kind of car a character was driving or where someone had traveled next after a little argument so we'd pass the little fill-in-the-blank tests. We were never told how the character of Gatsby represented a lot of the rich people that still carry on today, but rather were asked about what the green light in the distance represented, trivially. In my senior year of high school, the first time I had to read Siddhartha (a book I now appreciate greatly), the teacher hardly knew what happened in the novel, the class having to correct her when she got plot points wrong. She'd only look at the sheet she was reviewing, which she obviously hadn't written herself, and would say, “But it says here...” It was aggravating, and when a teacher obviously can't pay attention to what's going on in the novel, how should anyone else? No wonder I couldn't stand reading, I think to myself when looking back in retrospect.
In college, it's a different story, and while I may not particularly enjoy everything by every author we read, the teachers actually have a passion for what we're required to read. I had to learn to discover my passion for reading on my own, but college courses helped fuel my interests in literature--and of course writing--for once. The teachers have been, for the first time in my school career, truly passionate about what they cover. There's no more “And then what happens?” with a blank face, but instead you hear “So what does that say about the character?” or even “How does that relate to today?” These are questions I think high school students can be perfectly intelligent enough to hear and respond to. All that needs to happen is for the teachers to care about that, and to help connect their lives to that of the adult characters and prose which can be vastly different. Not to mention the books they had us read were truly bland and tedious for young adults.
Required reading should always be utilized throughout the school year. That certainly should never change, but what needs to happen is for the language (which can be dauntingly over-complicated for younger casual readers) to be related comprehensively to the students and for the topics to be given the vigor and zest they should be given in order to keep students not only awake but attentive. If students have to wait to get to college, and only then being able to experience literature on a level in which it should be taught, then a majority of future generations will continue to hate reading. If the schools won't add at least a few novels to class syllabi that are more contemporary and relative to the generations being taught, while still carrying good quality writing, then they should at least make sure the students care enough to learn about past lit. If reading is taught like a chore then it will become a chore, it's that simple.