Thursday, May 19, 2016

In Praise of Assigned Reading

(This post originally ran on Book Riot.)

A Thank You to Teachers Who Forced Me to Read “Boring” Books

When my eleventh grade English teacher announced that we would be reading books about or centered around war to correspond with our eleventh grade history class where we were studying various wars that the United States had been involved in (the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War), I was not particularly happy. Wars weren’t really something I was into. Nor was I excited at the prospect of reading a critique of American democracy by a Frenchman or about the trials and tribulations of whale hunting, these last two to be read over the summer. I have always loved reading but none of this sounded fun or interesting.

As a student I greeted prescribed reading and summer reading lists with a mixture of excitement and dread. On the one hand, reading lists inevitably provided a list of titles that were not new but were new to me. Plus, I love lists and crossing things off.

On the other hand, I wanted to read what I wanted to read. This was especially true during the summer, which more than any other time of the year, was for what I called “free reading,” as in free to read whatever I wanted at the pace I wanted. But being the rule follower/good student that I was, I grudgingly read Catch-22, Democracy in America, Moby Dick, and host of other books that made their way onto my class syllabi and summer reading lists. Thank goodness I did.

There is much to be said for letting kids pick what they want to read. They are more likely to finish a book if they got to choose what to read. Giving kids choices, particularly kids who otherwise wouldn’t choose to read, tends to make reading seem less like homework and more like something that could be enjoyable. As a librarian and aunt to many young readers I try to encourage their reading by helping them find books that match their interests.

The son of a friend told me that he wanted to travel around the world with his mom so I gave him a kid’s atlas from National Geographic. One of my nieces loves animals, not just cats and dogs but polar bears and frogs so I searched the shelves at my local bookstore for fiction and nonfiction stories about or involving animals. One of my middle grade aged nephews, who is somewhat of a reluctant reader, loves football so together we found a series of books that featured kids playing sports.

That being said, I also encourage them to read books they claim to not be interested in because although I respect other people’s choices and preferences whether they are kids, young adults, or actual adults, I also think a person doesn’t fully know what they are interested in until they have been exposed to it. It is easy to have a gut reaction to a thing without actually knowing much about the thing, like my reactions to books about wars and whales. Sometimes those gut reactions are spot on, sometimes not.

Catch-22 ended up being one of my favorite books of all time, so much so that I have reread it several times since high school. Moby Dick was amazing in a way I would have not thought possible. (Yes, I really do like Moby Dick.) This isn’t to say I loved or liked every book I was forced to read in elementary, middle, or high school. Try as I might, I simply cannot stand Wuthering Heights. I didn’t not like Democracy in America but I have no intention of ever reading it again. Still, I am grateful for being exposed to books I did not think I would like. I am also grateful for being exposed to things I didn’t like because it helped me figure out what I didn’t like and why.

And so I keep buying my nephews and nieces “boring” books because I know that once they actually sit down and read them they will find that some of those books are not so boing after all. At least, that’s what happened to me. Or maybe not, maybe my nephews and nieces will think a book I gave them is terrible and then they can tell me why they did not like a particular book. Either way is fine with me because I got them to read a book and talk about it. 

So thank you to all the teachers who forced me to read boring books.  In some cases you helped me find something I loved. Sometimes you forced me to think about why I didn’t like something. In every case you gave something to think about.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Title: Into the Wild, Author: Jon Krakauer   Chris McCandless, a twenty-four year old man, college educated and from a well- to-do family, walked into the Alaskan wilderness. He left a hundred or so days later in a body bag. Chris was a wanderer and adventurer. He apparently wanted to test himself by living completely off the grid, without modern (or even old-fashioned) conveniences. He survived for nearly four months, hunting and foraging for berries. He would have made it out of the wilderness but for a few mistakes. In Into the Wild Jon Krakauer recounts McCandless's life and death.

Krakauer first wrote about McCandless in a magazine article. The article generated a lot of strong feelings with many concluding McCandless was foolish, arrogant or worse. It is easy to see why people feel so strongly about McCandless. Trotting off into the Alaskan wilderness without a good map, a compass, or knowledge of the particular demands of the Alaskan landscape (apparently the climate makes preserving meat in Alaska a different challenge from preserving meat in another climate). But then how many stories are there of young people going off on foolhardy adventures? How many of us have done foolish things that could have ended in disaster but didn't?

Krakauer peppers Into the Wild with stories of other men who went on crazy, solo treks into the wilderness. They were often ill prepared or they miscalculated in some small way that ended up having fatal consequences. Krakauer's examples are all of men but McCandless's story reminded me of Cheryl Strayed solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail as described in her book Wild. Strayed's journey could have ended badly. She made some mistakes (the over-packed backpack, the ill fitting boots) but with a little luck and the kindness of strangers, she survived those mistakes. It seems to me that the big difference between Strayed's hike and McCandless's wilderness jaunt was a little bit of luck. (He was aided by many kind strangers on his way to Alaska.) For that reason, I neither see McCandless as an idiot deserving of scorn or as a courageous hero. He was a just a guy who tried something and failed. Unfortunately, his failure was fatal.