Friday, July 14, 2006

First Round’s On Me

Kids love to read. Adults don’t.

Okay, not you. You (and probably most of your friends) put reading, rightfully, at the top of life’s pleasures. But you have had to notice that ‘reading fiction for pleasure’ is not as universally loved as we would hope.

Sad, really, almost criminal.

So who’s to blame?

I blame schools, specifically any schooling after the fifth grade (or, as my blog-mates would say, grade five). As a former teacher with fifteen years in the classroom – half of which was spent teaching English with a heavy emphasis on literature – I know of which I speak.

Consider this. Before they hit that tragic I-Hate-Reading mark, kids can’t get enough of the stuff. They devour books. Their library cards are well worn and they know whole passages by heart, reading and rereading the same books for the sheer ecstasy that reading can bring. When you see this passion you might assume that theirs will be lives filled with books. Yet by the time they are finished with high school, many students proudly announce that they will never read again, a piece of teenage bravado that becomes, for most, a self-fulfilling prophecy. What the hell did we do?

I think we need to change the way we teach literature.

We need to teach it so that literature remains something they can’t get enough of, something they look forward to enjoying, even after an exhausting day at the salt mines, something they talk about when they gather with friends, something that inspires a willingness to experiment, try new things, something they share at special occasions, the thing that defines the good life, the rich reward.

We need to teach literature like we teach them to drink.

Try this: take an average fourteen year old and hand him a glass of thirty-year-old, single malt scotch, saying, “Taste this. You’ll love it. It doesn’t get any better than this.” He’ll sniff the glass, his head jerking back as the fumes rip open his sinuses, and after a moment he’ll take that first tentative sip. “This,” he will say to you, “is awful.” He will continue to make spitting noises, twisting his face at the memory of the gasoline-like poison, and you will be hurt. You just wanted to share with him something you know is wonderful.

There is nothing wrong with the Scotch and there is nothing wrong with the boy. He’s just too young, too inexperienced to enjoy it. And now that you’ve told him that ‘this is as good as it gets’, he may never try it again.

This is how we currently teach literature to teens. We hand them The Classics – Dickens, Shakespeare, Bronte, Steinbeck – and say, ‘this, children, is as good as it gets.’ Just like the scotch, there’s nothing wrong with the books or the kids, but the results will be the same.

We learned to drink not on single-malt scotch but on wine coolers and light beers. As our tastes developed, we moved on – white wine spritzers, full bodied beers, caesars, g&ts, zinfandels, cabernets – our tastes appreciating the subtleties of vintage wines and single malts, but just as happy with a bargain brew on a hot day as long as it’s cold.

We need to do the same with books.

When they’re in their teens, give them the literary equivalent of wine coolers, spritzers and watery (American) beers. They’ll get bored of it and move on, picking the books that suit their tastes, developing and expanding their tastes as they go, becoming adults who can appreciate both the frothy fun of a pulp and the sublime depth of a classic.

But no. We force The Classics on them, the old “ounce of our best cream” argument when all they want is to get drunk on a good read.

At least we do one thing right.

(Oh, and before you post that comment about teaching kids to drink and promoting alcoholism and how your school is different and how your kid loved Dante, this was just, as Swift would say, a Modest Proposal.)


carolyn said...

Hmmm...I'm trying to think of literary/liquor equivalents. Say Stephen King. Is he Bud Lite (omnipresent, easy to consume) or a surreptitious raid on mom & dad's liquor cabinet (often awful, always does the job, sometimes entirely delicious)?

Charles benoit said...

So is a literary hangover a good thing?