Friday, February 02, 2007

Personal Response to Reading—Do Students Need to Read Literature?

Personal Response to Reading—Do Students Need to Read Literature?

Some weeks ago, I had a twenty-nine year old student tell me that he hadn’t written a literary letter to anyone yet because “I can’t stand the book. It’s boring and I can’t relate to anything in it.” He was almost defiant in his looks and in his words, suggesting that I couldn’t make him write his responses to a text he hated, found boring, and saw as unconnected to his life. The student was a fairly articulate student in a developmental English course. The book was James’ McBride’s memoir, The Color of Water. More than half of the students in the class were from a minority background and most of them enjoyed the text very much. Some saw a similarity with the poverty of the book, some with the large family, some with the loss of a father, some with the skin color of the narrator, and some with a particular family trait or event. I sat down and talked with the student for the last ten minutes of the period and he told me how he had tried, even reading one chapter over again, to try to relate. He seemed frustrated. I told him I would help him with this problem in the next class and off he went.

Then I got to thinking about why John had such a difficulty. It seemed that he felt that the only way he could relate to the text is if the circumstances of the characters were the same as his circumstances. The fact that he wasn’t black and poor seemed to be a major obstacle. It occurred to me that John was indicating a feeling of “self-centeredness,” the idea that a text has to be “all about me or I’m not interested.” And that me issue, for John, is the circumstances of his life, not who he is as a member of the human race. He wants to see the familiar people and events of his life played out for him.

So why is it important that John be able to relate to this book? Ehrenworth and Vinton in The Power of Grammar write about finding good mentor texts for students to read and imitate in their own writing. They quote Annie Dillard:

“Why are we reading, if not in the hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mysteries probed?” (1989, 72).

They then show an example: “A text that might do that for us (illustrate the power of reading) is this excerpt from Jazmin’s Notebook by Nikki Grimes:

It seems to me that ideas are like gossamer, or mist, fragile as a dream forgotten as soon as you awake. I guess that’s why they’re so hard to hold on to. But that’s also what makes them wonderful, and more than worth all the trouble.

I was in Central park last Saturday when the idea of a poem sprinkled down on me, like a sudden shower, and I knew it wouldn’t last long.

I grabbed a pencil from behind my ear. I’d stuck it there that morning when I’d done homework, and boy was I glad. Panic set in, though, when I checked my pockets for paper. Wallet and keys were all I had on me because I’d gotten the notion from a kid at school that traveling light was cool.

No problem, I told myself, and went up to the first stranger I could find to beg a notebook page, or a napkin, or even a piece of tissue. But as soon as the lady saw me approach, she waved me away. Another woman told me, flatly that she didn’t believe in handouts. Several others eyed me suspiciously. Judging by the fear in their white faces, the fact that I was, at that moments, a frantic, wild-eyed, Black teenager probably had something to do with it. But who had time to dispel racial stereotypes? The poetry raining down on me was slowing to a trickle. If I didn’t find writing paper soon, the poem would be lost.” (1998, 25)

“Reading is about living in a world of words and images and ideas. These are illusive if we don’t pin them down on paper or make sure that we can revisit the ideas again and again in written texts. Reading is about having a lifetime pass to travel to those ideas and images through the words on a page.”

(Since I wrote some parts of this piece months ago, I can no longer tell if that last paragraph is something I actually wrote or just copied from a text to give to my writing methods students. I have looked from cover to cover though several texts that it might have come from but can not find it. It sounds too good to be something I would write and yet I don’t want to leave it out. So I just put quotation marks around it. Is that a bad thing?)

Anyway my son, Brian, told me about a person he knew who would never read a novel or go to a movie. “Why would I ever want to read or see something that is not true, that is made up by somebody? That’s just a waste of time,” he said.

It seems to me that reading is the opportunity to travel into different worlds and live there for a while, experiencing all of the joys and horrors of those places and still be able to come back home and think about, relating them to our own. However, for a student like John who couldn’t locate similarities in the reading world, it could be an opportunity to exchange worlds with another human being, feel what he felt, suffer what she did, and then consider how we would have fared if we were placed in that world instead of the one we are in. That kind of experience broadens us and allows us to understand and reach out to others.

There have been movements that have advocated the elimination of all fiction (and perhaps even memoir) and instead have required that students read only texts of an expository nature because “those are the texts of the business world” and the world of most of our lives. The book publishing industry is concerned about the decline of fiction. The American reading public is spending less and less time reading this genre. Should we be concerned about this? Is there anything we can do? Is there anything we have done to cause this? I think the way we have taught literature as artifacts to be studied and even to bow down before has been just one of the contributing factors in the decline of book which are most often “done” in secondary schools.

How does one answer such attacks about getting rid of fiction and how does one explain to students like John the value of reading books that seemingly are about things that we haven’t personally experienced? Do we need to have well-prepared answers for such situations, in the same way some football quarterbacks have the plays taped to their arms so they don’t have to think to call the plays. The plays have been “scripted” for them by an experienced coach. When we have some of our core beliefs attacked, we respond in frustration without some well thought our answers. What would some “scripted” responses to these questions look like for some of us who are not practiced in calling good responses?

It is now weeks since my first discussion with John. I have tried and he just shakes his head and says that he can’t get into the book. He is stubborn in many other ways as well so this is not just about a book. Still, he holds that books that you can’t relate to can’t be responded to. What would you say to my student, John, to my son’s friend, or to the critics of literature? Or would you agree with me that we haven’t treated literature well (apologies to Billy Collins) by tying it to a chair with a rope and beating it with a hose, trying to get out of it what it really means, quizzing it and testing it to death?

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