Monday, July 26, 2010

Can assigned reading ever be fun? Or, you know, at least tolerable?

Wow. First Monday back at the YA 5. Check out these new digs! And all of last week's spooktacular fun! I hope everyone has their ear to the ground, as the giveaways are still open for a few more days! Mad props to Georgia for organizing the fab madness!

It's been a hot summer here in Texas. Throughout the sweltering weeks fellow Austinite and YA-5-er K.A. Holt and I have occasionally peeled ourselves off of our respective sofas and meandered to a coffee shop where we "work" on "writing" and exchange critique and argue about what makes a good apocalypse. This week she and her kids even turned me into a unicorn with her fancy iPhone app.

Of course, this leads to book comparisons and the eventual recommendation of titles. Such as THE ROAD. Kari made me read it. She said it was for my own good. And I finished it about ten minutes ago and of course it was wonderful and I'm so glad I read it (even if I whined the whole time) and by the end of the book I was just completely engrossed.

Now I know this isn't a YA title. Cormac McCarthy writes for adults. But THE ROAD is often assigned to high school English classes, here in Austin, and while I was reading, I kept wondering a) OMG if I am struggling to read the first fifty pages of this book, how does a high school kid who also has to do, like, calculus and chemistry and stuff get through it? and b) if I am so engrossed by this book as an adult, would I have been into it enough as a teen to actually read it for class?

Let's face it: assigned reading bears the burden of being assigned. You HAVE to read it to make the grade, and if you're anything like me, you feel that anything you HAVE to do isn't fun. I mean, I'm supposedly a grown-up, and if someone tells me I HAVE to get dressed I'm going to sit around in my pajamas for hours just to show them I don't HAVE to do anything.Maybe I should have my grown-up card revoked.

Anyway, a) yes, teenagers are ridiculously smart. So smart that there's no doubt that they can read THE ROAD and other literary books with tough topics and big words (Cormac McCarthy uses a lot of words that I have to look up). But how do they find the time? This book took me WEEKS to read, and I don't have French homework or soccer practice. So, I would like to give props to the Texas teens who read this book as part of their curriculum. You are heroes.

And b) confession time: I only did about 10% of my assigned reading. And knowing that my former English teacher Mrs. Ryder sometimes reads my posts I AM SORRY REALLY I AM but sophomore year I still read most of the stuff. I mean I loved LORD OF THE FLIES and I memorized that solioquy from MACBETH and I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS is still one of my favorite books ever, so, cut me some slack. Mrs. Ryder, I bet I read more of your assignments than my dad did when he was in your class, okay? Okay.

But by senior year I was drowning in college applications and a boyfriend from another school (didn't so much mind that bit...) and the last thing I needed in my life was Herman Melville. I know some of you out there read MOBY DICK and cherish it and are making voodoo dolls of me right now. And maybe you aren't the type of person who gets an assignment and thinks that someone is trying to kill your spirit. Heck no I wasn't going to watch APOCALYPSE NOW in class. I was going to take a nap. And I can't even remember if I "read" THE GRAPES OF WRATH or THE GREAT GATSBY and the only reason I get those books confused is that the two English classes were assigned them at the same time and my BFF was in the other class. I did read THE SCARLET LETTER that year, though. Do I get points?

I am a horrible influence. I'm kind of bad at this whole role model thing. Woops.

Anyway, I have to wonder, if I'd been assigned THE ROAD in high school -- and part of me wants to call up my old high school and find out what they're reading these days...creepy? -- would I have read it? Or would it have become a book that, to this day, I can't pick up and enjoy (SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, for example) because it was once one of those dreadfully assigned novels.

How do you all feel about assigned reading? August is almost here and y'all are probably getting ready to cram several weeks worth of summer assignments into a blessed few days while hooked up to an IV drip of cola hoping not to nod out. Because, you know, that's how I got through THE THINGS THEY CARRIED. I hear it's a good book. Maybe I'll pick it up and actually read it for pleasure someday.


Cholisose said...

It always depended on the book for me. I loved reading To Kill a Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451, and Silas Marner, for example.
Most of the others weren't so fun though. >_> I had to kind of speed-read them. I could never get into Shakespeare much, for example. Just too old and confusing for me, I suppose.

Dawn Embers said...

Assigned reading can be good or bad. There are times in high school and college where it helped me discover an amazing book. College it was American Gods by Neil Gaiman, which even then we only got to read cause it was an honors class cause some of the discussions were a bit ... questionable. (Talked about proper way to cut one's own neck.)

In high school I never would have read Far From the Madding Crowd, A Separate Peace, The Outsiders, or Pride and Prejudice (my choice but only cause we had to pick a classic book).

On the other hand, there were books I didn't like at all. In high school, for academic decathlon, the book was "Cry, the Beloved Country". I just couldn't figure out what was going on and the lack of dialogue symbols made it worst. The movie made more sense for once. In college, the book was Cormac McCarthy's first book that had to read for novel writing class. The Orchard Keeper made no sense to me. I understood Shakespeare on my own in junior high but in college, I had no idea what was going on in this book. Hated reading it.

Emily said...

Cholisose, I also loved To Kill a Mockingbird, and I'm so glad you enjoyed it, too! But I *did* like Shakespeare. I have always been into languages, though, and part of why I liked it was that it was almost like discovering a new language. I'm really glad we were never assigned Fahrenheit 451, though, because it bodes well for me reading and enjoying it someday!

Dawn, I haven't even heard of a few of the titles you're referencing! It's always cool to learn that schools are totally different, and that we're all reading such different literature! Sorry to hear you didn't like McCarthy's first book. The Road is my first McCarthy and I'd definitely recommend it to anyone who likes postapocalyptic literature. And like you I'm glad some of the books I read were assigned. Lord of the Flies is one of my all-time faves and I might never have picked it up!

satakieli said...

I have just recently (as in, 8 years after finishing highschool) begun to pick up and re-read the novels I was assigned. Turns out that To Kill a Mockingbird really isn't bad, Frankenstein either. The Jane Austen we were assigned is still like reading a dull soap opera.

Thankfully I enjoyed my assigned reading from college, especially when it was introduced with "we're going to read old books that were banned in the US" by a teacher who surely knows how to win the hearts of 17 year olds.

Teh Awe-Some Sauce said...

This article reminds me of the Yellow Wallpaper. I hated that story in high school, and when I saw it (as well as other stories by the same author) on the required reading list in college I dropped the class and signed up for another.

On the other hand, I read The Things They Carried on my own, and loved it. I think having things assigned automatically sucks the fun out of them. It's a rule somewhere.

kellybarnhill said...

Honestly, I think so much of how we experience books that are assigned has to do with the quality of the conversation that precedes and follows the actual reading of the book. When you read a book on your own, then you're building your own conversation around it based on your experiences, what else you've been reading, what's happening in the world, etc. If you're in a class in which you're totally grooving on the discussion, then you'll dig the book because it's part of the larger conversation. If not, the book will fall flat.

In the end, it's all about the context, you know?

Georgia McBride said...

Yeah. For me the reading assignments themselves were not what was lacking. It was the utter lack of imagination in the questions we had to answer about the books. Tedious and not in any way engaging, they made the entire experience one I could do without.

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