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April 10, 2014

Rediscovering Our Love of Reading

Woman reading on a beach with text: The Importance of Reading for Pleasure

I read one of those “sad but true” posts the other day. Over at Writer Unboxed, Keith Cronin wrote about how to make someone hate reading. His theory? Send them to an American high school.

As I stated last week, schools too often do a poor job of teaching fiction. They rarely teach fiction writing, and when they do mention fiction, it’s usually as part of a literary analysis unit. Worse, that analysis focuses on nebulous concepts like theme and symbolism.

Heaven forbid we talk about what makes a story enjoyable. Or why we like or don’t like a character. Or whether or not the story grabbed us.

No… We can’t possibly encourage kids to like reading and see stories as something to enjoy—for fun. We have to turn reading into analyzing “classic” stories with subjective questions about whether the wall color in a scene reflects the character’s mood or whether the dusty kitchen table foreshadows the ending.

Too many kids who were voracious readers earlier in their life learn to hate reading during their teenage years in high school and college. According to Keith’s post, one third of high school graduates won’t read another book—for the rest of their lives.

For too many, reading becomes a means to an end. Absorbing knowledge. Period. And reading for pleasure now seems like a faraway dream. Maybe even an immature activity.

That’s not to say all teenagers will fall victim to the school system’s perspective, but far too many do. I know. I was one of them.

My Confession about Reading

I’ve mentioned before how much J.K. Rowling has influenced my life. Her Harry Potter books inspired me to write a fan fiction story, my first foray into fiction writing. What I haven’t mentioned before—what I actually misrepresented the truth about—was how those books inspired me to once again read.

In my previous post about her influence, I said:

“Starting with the fourth book, I bought the books in hardcover. However, as I’ve mentioned here before, my to-be-read pile is scary-huge, so I didn’t actually read any of them until after the fifth book was released.”

That wasn’t quite true. While I read constantly as a child, once I was done with college, I bought books only rarely, and I would reread one of my childhood favorites, like the Chronicles of Narnia, about once a year. But I didn’t read any new fiction books.

In my previous post, I made it sound like I’d always had the TBR pile I now have (which is scary-huge) because the fact that for a time I’d stopped exploring new fiction worlds seemed like sacrilege for someone wanting to become an author.

Shouldn’t authors be so secure in their love of books that even awful literary classes wouldn’t come between them and their love? How much could I really love books if a dozen term papers got in my way? I was ashamed of my past as a “fallen” reader.

But Keith’s post helped me understand that it wasn’t my fault. That my experience was, in fact, all too common.

Rediscovering Reading for Enjoyment

What I’d stated before about buying all the Harry Potter books in hardcover was true. Also true was how I started reading them after the fifth book was released. A coworker of mine convinced me to buy them, and after the fifth book, I decided I should actually read these things if I was going to spend hardcover money on them. *smile*

But I didn’t just read them. I inhaled them. I think I read all five in a week or two. And I wondered why I’d ever stopped reading for enjoyment.

It all comes back to being forced to read books I had no interest in. Even worse, I then had to write long analyses and participate in discussion groups about these tear-my-hair-out books.

(I’m shamefully proud that I learned to analyze the story by listening to the first five minutes of discussion and then fake my knowledge of the story well enough to fully participate in group discussions without ever reading some of the books—or the Cliff Notes. Maybe this is how I first developed my understanding of story structure, tropes, and plot flow. *grin*)

I’m happy to say that I’m back to my previous love of books, and I wish I had more hours in the day to make a dent in my to-be-read pile. (Current stats: 291 on Kindle, and about 100 more in other ebook formats, as well as about 250 print books on my desk and in my bedroom.)

Is It Possible to Teach Literary Analysis in a Way Students Won’t Hate?

(Maybe I should add a disclaimer and say “Students Might Hate Less.” *smile*)

My point with this post isn’t to say that students should never analyze stories for theme, structure, symbolism, etc. Far from it.

Learning to see the depth in fiction is a fantastic way of getting people to value fiction more. Non-fiction is easy to value. If it teaches us what we want to know, it’s valuable. Fiction is harder to value and appreciate.

However, it does no good to try to get people to value a book they hate. In fact, that approach is likely to make people value fiction less.

Instead, I say we should let students analyze stories they already enjoy. Some teachers in a school system here have assigned their students to read all of the next grade’s Literature books (about 8-10 books) over the summer before the school year starts.

The teachers don’t care if the students skim read the ones they don’t like, as long as they get the gist of the story. The point is to provide opportunities for the students to read books they might not usually choose. Exposure, not torture. *grin*

When the school year starts, the students each choose their favorite four books. Those are the books they’ll analyze during the year in small discussion groups with other students who chose the same ones.

This approach would still teach literary analysis and get students to think of all those theme and symbolism aspects. But it would also encourage students to discover more ways to value the stories they do enjoy. Win-win.

Themes, Schmemes…

While I’m ranting at windmills, let me propose that teachers not insist there’s only one correct theme to take away from a story. As we discussed last week, a story can have many themes—based on the story arc, character arcs, etc.—and themes often grow out of a lesson learned. In other words, any lesson a reader takes away from a story can lead to a valid theme.

As authors, we should be conscious and intentional about as much of our writing as possible. (If nothing else, we want to make sure we’re creating the right impression for our readers.) However, our subconscious has a mind of its own and reading is extremely subjective. So teachers do students a great disservice if they act as though there’s only one way to interpret a story.

I could go on ranting about how many of these issues are driven by the structure of the school system in general and not teachers’ fault, but I’ll stop here. My point is that while the current approach is more convenient for teachers—only one book to cover at a time, fewer lessons to develop, etc.—any approach that kills the love of fiction for so many is broken and should be changed.

I know. I was there. When I think of how much I loved reading as a child—complete with library visits, bringing a book to baseball games (they go so slow!), and sneaking a flashlight under the covers—I weep at how much time I lost to forgetting that it is possible to read for fun.

It’s a tragedy I hope we can avoid in the future. Again, if the goal of literary analysis is to teach kids to find the deeper meanings within fiction, we need to find an approach that meets that goal and encourages a sense of the value of fiction, or all our efforts are for naught. Who’s with me? *smile*

P.S. This might have something to do with why I’m a genre girl now. *grin*

P.P.S. None of this is meant to bash teachers, who often have too little to work with and too much to do. Rather, I hope this inspires new thoughts for an approach to teaching that respects the kids and the goal of valuing fiction.

P.P.S. Feel free to share this rant with your kids’ teachers. The green sharing button at the bottom-right below allows you to email this post to anyone. Teachers might listen to us as authors, and maybe we can make a difference. *pumps fist*

Did you struggle with Literature classes? If you didn’t, what made it work for you? Did you go through a post-formal-schooling fiction-reading drought? What turned you into a reader again? Do you have other insights into how we could improve the current approach to literary analysis?

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29 Comments on "Rediscovering Our Love of Reading"

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Carradee
For too many, reading becomes a means to an end. Absorbing knowledge. Period. And reading for pleasure now seems like a faraway dream. Maybe even an immature activity. Yeah, in my denomination—and in other denominations and religions, I’m sure—there’s a fairly common attitude that fiction’s a waste of time. That only “edifying” non-fiction should be read, like the Bible and writings by pastors and former pastors. Fiction—especially speculative fiction—is seen as “childish escapism”. And even if a fiction reader points out the value of fiction in comprehending others’ perspectives to be able to have a meaningful discussion with them, some will answer that others’ perspectives don’t matter if they’re wrong. Some folks who believe that are consistent and won’t watch anything they wouldn’t read, but most will watch a movie or TV show in a heartbeat. Many even enjoy spec fic TV and movies! Despite my dad’s fondness for spec fic viewing and my mom’s fondness for fiction viewing, I was harassed by my parents for my fondness of reading speculative fiction (for both reading and writing it), so I pretty much kept the reminders that I did it out of my parents’ sight, to reduce how often they thought of it. They stopped bothering me about reading it once I had to for work, but then they started harassing me about my work itself. (I don’t remember the exact timing, but I think it was after someone I edited ended up on a bestseller list that they started insisting… Read more »
Rebekah Loper

I was homeschooled, and Mom never forced us to do much with literature, beyond encouraging a voracious reading appetite. Occasionally she would ask us what we liked about a particular book/series/author, but she never made us analyze anything (thank God).

I never actually made it to the point of taking any literature classes in college, either, before finances and real life (got married, car troubles that meant I couldn’t drive as far as I needed to my campus, etc) made me drop out.

However, I watched so many friends go through college – people who had been readers as much as I was – and for one friend in particular, it took her about two years after college to be able to pick up a book longer than a hundred pages and read it just for fun.

I think in some cases it’s not about having to analyze fiction, but in how much plain old reading is required to get through classes. It’s kind of sad.

Amanda
I’m happy to say I never lost my love of reading (my sister commented recently that what she remembers most about our family camping trips was me sitting next to the camp fire, hunched over a book). But to this day I still can’t read the classics. Not even the modern ones. I read a few books in high school that I adored (The Bean Trees, Maus 1 and 2, pretty much everything Shakespeare) but I now have a violent hatred for all things Steinbeck. A friend of mine had to read Snow Falling on Cedars for a class senior year. Now she won’t read anything that isn’t genre fiction. Part of this I think was because I had awesome teachers for most of high school, and when I got to college, the reading I had to do was still interesting (I have a degree in sociology) but far enough removed from the types of fiction I’d normally read that taking a break to read a novel was still fun. And, strangely enough, I actually discovered I enjoyed narrative nonfiction (depending on the subject). My parents are big readers and always encouraged my sister and I to read as much as we wanted, and my closest, oldest group of friends are huge readers, too, and remained so all through our school years. I think that makes me pretty lucky 🙂 But what bugged the crap out of me in school was the constant harping on symbolism and meaning and theme.… Read more »
Pauline Baird Jones

I can still remember a question on our Red Badge of Courage test (which teacher beat to death with stick well before the test): what is the significance of the squirrel on page xxx. I could NOT believe it. And said so. Lost it and went off on total rant. LOL I was lucky she didn’t flunk me, but she was some poor teacher in training.

I managed to bluff my way through the classics and retained my love of books by sneak reading. But I’ve never been able to get over my hate of some of the classics. I took a college course and modified it, but still love popular/genre fiction the best.

My third grade teacher probably helped me love books, but reading to us after lunch. She read fun, fiction books. I remember looking forward to getting back to school in her class.

Shelly Chalmers

Great post, Jami. 🙂
I guess I was a weirdo that I actually enjoyed the reading throughout high school, though I despised the analysis … which led me to an English degree. But by then I knew that the way to get through was to accept other people’s opinions and usually not venture to try and make your own about the themes, etc (most profs certainly didn’t believe an undergrad had a valuable opinion).

Strangely, though, some of the heaviest analysis classes I took are the ones that influence me the most in my writing simply because it did influence me to push my boundaries, and it gave me a deeper appreciation and enjoyment of well written books, genre, Literature or otherwise. Though it took me a long time to write fiction again, it was one course about pop culture literature where I got to research and defend the romance novel that cemented which direction I’d be headed in. 🙂

Deena Remiel
I loved this post today, and I AM a teacher. I teach middle school English/Language Arts. Unfortunately, until standardized testing is abolished, we will have to analyze text and teach about themes. But really, is that such a bad thing? I think the key here is not the content that is taught, but the manner in WHICH it is taught. When a teacher approaches a novel with passion, it translates to her students. It’s all in the presentation. For example, I’ve taught The Martian Chronicles, a favorite science fiction book of mine by Ray Bradbury, to my 6th graders, and every time, my classes loved it. My teammates, on the other hand hate the book, and that directly translates to their students. It’s all in the approach. I came at this book from a themed perspective and treated the novel for what it was- a collection of short stories loosely threaded together with some interludes. Had I not brought to light the historical backdrop Bradbury was writing in and commenting on, the themes would have been lost and this book would have been lost on its audience. My colleagues couldn’t see past the structure to its essense, and therefore, couldn’t present it in a way that mattered to the kids. This is one example of many where themes of books are worthy of discussion and rousing debate. So I offer up this to you: an apology for having to sit through poor teaching technique and approach all those years ago.… Read more »
Serena Yung
Serena Yung
You know, after reading this post, I feel sort of ashamed for the opposite reason, haha. Because I actually really enjoyed those English classes with those themes and symbolism and all that nerdy stuff. And the classes also successfully made me enjoy two books that I thought were extremely boring when I first read them (Camus’s The Stranger and Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Okay, maybe for the latter not so much, but I learned that there was SOMETHING to like about it.) So yeah. I kind of feel ashamed about enjoying something that so many others found a torture… But I do agree that a lot (maybe most) students loathed English classes. 🙁 And yikes that only one third of college graduates still read for fun! That’s really quite tragic. 🙁 I really like your suggestions, though. About only analyzing books that students CHOOSE, i.e. only books they actually like. Maybe another idea would be to not burden students with a too heavy reading load. Hmm, I think the reason why I never stopped reading for fun is because I’m addicted to wandering in other universes outside our own, lol. I feel EXTREMELY uncomfortable when I don’t get to read books for a very long time (long time as in several or many weeks). And I also never agreed with those who think that stories are just escapism and that escapism is bad. In fact, I think escapism is a GOOD thing! And I even… Read more »
Sharon
This is going to sound crazy since I have a degree in English and literature, but I think analyzing fiction texts is a waste of precious learning time. I can see the purpose of it in college when you’re earning a degree in the field, but unless you’re planning to be a literary critic, it isn’t a real life skill. I admire the language arts teachers at the middle school where I worked for seven years. They realized theme is subjective. When students had to analyze a novel for theme, as long as they had support from the text, it was an open playing field. This is teaching them analytical skills. If you say there’s only one right answer, you’re training them to memorize for a test. That’s not much of a real life skill. Most of them tried to read modern books in class so the kids could relate. For example, in 7th grade this year the class read Ender’s Game and then wrote an essay about a selection of literary topics. I’m glad to see that symbolism isn’t addressed at the lower grade levels. As a writer, I don’t think about symbolism in every scene just for making a major point about character, setting or theme. Anyway, I loved this post. I may refer to it on my blog sometime this month. I’ll be sure to link back to it. The best way to learn is to live. I’ve lived a thousand lives through books. I think I’m… Read more »
Glynis Jolly

I learned how to read by example. If my mom wasn’t cooking, cleaning, or doing something for me or my brother, she was reading. She started taking us to the library when she would go when I was four, my brother only one year old. Let me loose and later this applied to my brother too. Yes, I was reading when I was four. If we didn’t pick out any books to take home, she kept her mouth shut about it. She was only providing the opportunity to read, no force. I didn’t like the forced reading in school but I put up with it and found bit and pieces of it that I enjoyed. My mom still reads all the time at the ripe old age of 87. She still inspires me.

chemistken

I read science fiction when I was young, but that was about it until someone lent me their copy of The Hobbit in high school. That’s what got me into reading other books. Not the boring stories they required us to read in English.

Nina
Nina

I got my M.A. in English in 1996 … and I didn’t start *truly* reading for pleasure again until 2002. I was blessed to have some really good English teachers in high school, college, and grad school, but one thing never changed for me: If you wanted to suck the pleasure out of reading for me, then *require* me to read it.

I’ve taught a few literature (and writing) classes here and there. I like to think I didn’t ruin reading for my students, but I’m sure I did for a few. If they were readers before, though, they’ll probably follow the same path as many of us: When they’re ready, they’ll return to reading for pleasure.

I don’t regret getting two degrees in English, though. I love the mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually enriching experience of being able to use my past knowledge, analytical skills, and intrinsic enthusiasm when I read. I hate that English classes–the very classes that are supposed to help us all learn to have that experience–too often have the opposite effect.

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[…] time we talked about how our literary education can affect our reading habits later in life. One interesting result of that conversation revealed—once again—just how […]

Gry Ranfelt

“As authors, we should be conscious and intentional about as much of our writing as possible.”
Oh – too true!
I suffered for a while because I’d decided “I have to read classics and get smart!”
But my reading got sluggish and I dreaded it. Blogs are so much more fun! (Lol)
When I gave up on that and just started reading whatever I felt like it all became much more awesome. I’ve read a ton of stuff since then and ALSO “literary”, heavy stuff, like 1984, Animal Farm, Fahrenheit (number I don’t remember) and some Hemmingway.
But I LIKE those classics. I DON’T like Gatsby, Moby Dick or (sorry dad) the three musketeers.

Yet I’m not entirely a fan of genre. But I’ll get to that after reading your latest post about literary vs. genre fiction.

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[…] I rediscovered the joy of reading, the compulsion to direct my storytelling instincts into writing returned. Imagine that. […]

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