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High School Reading as an Act of Meaningful Aggression

20 September 2017

From The Millions:

Towards the end of each year I do one of those anonymous surveys where I ask the students—high-school sophomores and juniors—how much they read, as a percentage, of each book. I’ve been doing this for the last 10 years or so, and the results are remarkably consistent: most students read most, but rarely all, of each book. About 15 percent read every single word of every single thing, some of it twice. These the kids who would read the contents list of a 7-11 freezer if told, the same students who tend to sit in the front row and take the kind of notes that end up in the Smithsonian. Another 15 percent admit to struggling to even open the books, but would gladly read the 7-11 freezer list because of its novelty value and the refreshing lack of obfuscating adjectives and modifiers. The 70 percent of students in the middle make up the dominant percentage, the ones who often leave little notes, not quite apologia, but regretful explanations about wishing that they had more time to do all the reading because they would have liked to, that they did most of it, that what they read of The Great Gatsby was really good but what with other homework, and athletics, and Uncle Steve’s birthday dinner, and the cousin in Jersey with leukemia, and x not yet having said anything about prom…well, there was a lot to think about.

All this at three separate independent schools in different parts of California. Like I said, remarkably consistent results, and results that translate across gender, race, and socioeconomic status. In terms of the not-highly-rigorous breakdown of those not-highly-rigorous statistics you get about 70 percent of the students reading about 70 percent of the material 70 percent of the time. All of which sounds terrific, except that most of the time, most of the 70 percent, and even some of the 15 percent taking Smithsonian-esque notes, see words rather than read them. For most high-school students, the act of “reading” recalls the soft glow of something done at night, before bed, in jim-jams with a cup of hot cocoa—the equivalent of night-time elevator music. Or, if not that, they’re “reading” on the bus, in the car, while standing outside class two minutes before the bell. And, at best, gaining an understanding of situation and context: who did what or said what to whom and where at what time in what kind of weather. Seeing words but not really reading them, a marriage without contact.

I want them to see reading as something far more intimate, even fractured at times, as something combative, vulgar, assertive—a constant back-and-forth between reading and rereading, moments of stepping outside the text then coming back and battering at it with questions. Something better done in a flak jacket than pajamas. And high school students hate doing it. Who, what, when, and where, of course, are essential. You gotta figure out who’s sleeping with whom before you ask why. There’s a brother involved? What? No. Wait! They’re on a train? If that part’s hazy, the next stop becomes SparkNotes and PinkMonkey, and you might as well hand out the 7-11 freezer list.

Link to the rest at The Millions

Books in General, YA

8 Comments to “High School Reading as an Act of Meaningful Aggression”

  1. And thus another generation is told they’re reading wrong.

    Also, does he really mean to equate the triviality of prom dates with a cousin who has a life-threatening disease?

  2. I guess the idea that they just don’t want to read what they are forced to read is too alien to consider….

  3. I’m so sorry I didn’t suffer enough reading books in high school, and as a result I retained my life long love of reading.

    Oh and sorry I read whenever I can fit it in. It’s disgusting I know, reading on the bus! How can I feel appropriately debased on public transportation!

  4. I wonder if this guy realizes millions who click the BUY button for Amazon books don’t read the way he does?

    And God Bless Cliff Notes, Spark Notes, and Classic Comics, for they allowed James Bond to trump Holden Caulfield.

  5. It’s a wonder how reading books has survived as a hobby this long.

  6. interesting reactions. For me, I think it is a spectrum…

    a) Teaching people to read
    b) Getting people to interact with the written word
    c) Getting people to read something other than texts or tweets
    d) Encouraging people to read newspapers or articles
    e) Encouraging people to read for fun
    f) Encouraging people to read for expanded views
    g) Encouraging people to read critically

    His target group has lots of other demands for their eyeballs and they consistently graduate with c as their default, he’s noting it’s a challenge to get to g… and lots of philosophers over the years have said we need g to grow as a race. As writers, we often think e is enough, and it is if you are looking to expand reading, not if you are a high school English teacher trying to teach advanced skills.

    I quite like the article even if I am not as pessimistic as he is…

  7. If you want people to read critically, have them read nonfiction.

    Fiction either works (by drawing you in) or it doesn’t. If you are so insufficiently immersed in fiction that you can only argue with it, either you have failed as a reader (at least with that book at that time), or the book has failed as a book (at least for you at that moment).

    Why in the world should everyone want or be forced to “read critically” whenever they are reading fiction, if they are not intending to become English majors, and are not taking apart the book as an exercise in learning to write fiction?

    This is right up there with people who don’t think you can be reading the Bible if you don’t learn Hebrew etymology, and don’t think you have any business listening to music if you don’t take music theory. Idiocy.

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