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Reading: Literature vs. Pedigree-Free Books

In Books, Writing on December 20, 2013 at 1:33 pm
Magical Children's Books...

Magical Children’s Books…

I firmly believe that readers are born the minute they are gifted with a book that speaks to them. As a child, I remember being captivated by books about mermaids, kids who lived ‘alone’ (Pippi Longstocking), heartbreaking Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales (The Little Match Girl) and anything with animals who wore clothes, furnished the hollow insides of trees and spoke.

Once I escaped  into a good book, and deduced there were thousands more out there- as yet unread- I knew I’d found the key that would unlock doors to worlds I would otherwise never experience. As I grew older, I remained a voracious reader, and am, to this day, rarely without a book (or ten!) Truth be told, I don’t know how people who don’t read even get through life!

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I’ve always had what I call a ‘book sense’- I can sniff out a book I’d like from a mile away. The cover art, the blurbs, the whole ‘feel’ of a book, all add up to an inkling that is usually on target. This isn’t to say that I stay within my comfort zone all of the time. As David Foster Wallace was so fond of saying ‘good reading is sometimes hard reading’ and I do flex my reading and vocabulary skills to keep them sharp. Sometimes I read four or five pages of my thesaurus, which is helpful for both reading and writing. I sometimes read to learn about a particular subject. The thought of a reading list is ludicrous to me- who could ever run out of books to read, and who (good lord!) needs Oprah to tell them what to read? I can steer my own ship, thankyouverymuch! (And Oprah, just because you stand next to a book, or read it, you shouldn’t get credit for the author’s precious ideas!)

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I often wonder how many potential readers were turned off to reading by the books they were assigned in school. I loved a lot of the  reading we did- ‘The Cricket In Times Square’, ‘Charlottes Web’,”Black Beauty’, ‘Aesop’s Fables’ in elementary school, ‘Go Ask Alice’,  ‘The Outsiders’,’Watership Down’ and ‘Catcher In The Rye’ in middle school.  But there were others- the so-called ‘literature’ that turned me off- that somehow turned reading into a chore, especially in high school.  The Greek tragedies, the Romans.. Chaucer, Moby Dick…Don’t get me wrong. I get it (good reading isn’t always easy) but to me- if I wasn’t engaged, what was the point?

I just didn’t feel anything for these people and their (often) privileged angst and formal manner. The assignments that went along with these books were a constant interrogation- endless discussions and tests which graded my interpretation (there was always a ‘right’ answer for how I should have  ‘thought’ about these stories and writers. My thoughts and takeaways aren’t governed by mimeographed test sheets) If I could be turned off to reading (my favorite ‘sport’) by these books, god help the kids that didn’t like to read in the first place.

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Who decides what worthy reading is? Who were the reading connoisseurs who decided what is good for us all? Schools believe we have to ‘prove’ we can ingest these works, but what makes them superior to other (more relevant) writing? It seems if writing is complicated and difficult, and reading a particular book is a chore, then one is rewarded with the gold star of having gotten through it. As though they survived a battle. Which they did, in my humble opinion. Why would it be such a crime to tailor reading to what someone might actually enjoy, a book that would set them on a reading path that may eventually lead them to the classics willingly, up for the challenge?

So much ‘snooty’ literature- that which are discussed over the finest of wines and moldiest of cheese, are tales of morality and woe -are lessons, if you will. Tales of those who had it ‘all’ (superficially) and one day gave into their human desires- be it lust, greed, cruelty, gluttony….People who wear masks for so long, the sweat drips down their faces, the elastic binds their skulls until -whoosh!-they snap! And (usually) reveal their ‘human-ness after all! (shocker!) -as if anyone believed for a second that they were anything but.

These books are being read at all of the ‘good schools’, by the children of inherited wealth, as they were read by their parents, and their parents before them. Books, filled with warnings and red flags, leather-bound books that line their private libraries (first editions!) Yet-somehow- no one sees themselves on the page. For people who consider themselves to be educated (though one must point out: never confuse education with intelligence) it is an amazing oversight. These stories present the foibles of man, but seem to speak to no one man in particular in these dens of the upper class.

The very people who brag about ‘literature’ they’ve read, are often committing the very same morality crimes themselves- for money or pleasure. They still fall on the same swords themselves, ne’er the wiser! Obviously, there is a disconnect between the reader and what they read! I want to scream: these are not instruction manuals! If they speak so deeply, why does no one seem to listen? Or better yet: did they really read them?

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I like to think of the books that I have read and enjoyed, and the things I’ve (happily) learned from them. To look below the surface of a person, that our experiences are often universal, that humor is gold, that you should treat others as you want to be treated, that war is a horrible tragedy and never works, that animals and nature are fascinating, that introverts often have the loudest minds, that love is the only thing of real value, and that to be happy is the real lottery win. And the truth is-  I’d put an understated Anne Tyler novel up against a Greek tragedy any day of the week.

  1. I’m not sure I believe readers are born, but I almost want to. : )

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    • Speaking for myself, I clearly remember being able to read by myself! What a moment! Training wheels off! It felt as though my mind went from moth to butterfly! And it’s served me well ever since! Thanks for reading my post!!

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