Monday, November 23, 2009

Why We Read What We Do

I recently came across a wonderful quotation while listening to a podcasted episode of National Public Radio's To The Best of Our Knowledge on the future of science fiction that made me think about why we read and teach the literature that what we do. This show discussed whether science fiction is the only "literature of ideas" in today's world, where the genre is headed, the new field of "steam punk" literature, and the works of writers like H.P. Lovecraft. Like many people, I have read some sci-fi in my past (I remember reading Frank Herbert's Dune as I traversed the Gobi Desert on a bus) and I have read some fantasy as an adult (mostly works that my children recommended like the Harry Potter series or The Lord of The Rings trilogy), but I would never consider myself an avid reader of the genre.

As an educator and as a parent, I have also been amazed by the popularization of fantasy literature and how many young people are reading either classic science fiction or the works of horror by the newest authors in the field. It seems like every day there is another new young adult novel like Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games that is all the rage or students are consumed by the books and the movies in the Twilight Series. The same student who cannot stand what she is reading for her 8th grade literature class will stay up until all hours of the night to finish the latest installment of the saga of Bella and Edward. Why do certain stories captivate all of us, and teenagers in particular? Is it the pacing of young adult literature or is it that the protagonists are typically adolescents? The other night when my twelve year old son was absorbed in reading a new futuristic combat novel with a very martial looking cover while in synagogue (why he was reading it there is another topic), an adult looked at the cover and sneered. I had to assume that she would not have been as offended if he had been reading Moby Dick or To Kill a Mockingbird.

Many years ago, Judith Renyi, Dean of the Schools of Graduate and Professional Studies Rosemont College put a different spin on the debate about teaching the literary canon. In an insightful essay, Renyi said that arguing over what students are required to read in high school and college acknowledges what we all think but we're afraid to admit; people will only read what is required of them in school, so if we do not demand that young men and young women read certain works, they will never read them later in life. Instead of arguing over why people don't read at all, we've thrown in the towel, and we're fighting who gets to choose what they read.

However, at some level, we know that people will still read books. While the number of people reading books for pleasure may be decreasing, there still seems to be a place for the latest Dan Brown blockbuster or Malcolm Gladwell bestseller. Some people may be reading on a Kindle or some may be doing it the old fashioned way with an actual book, some may be going to the library or the bookstore or some may be reading off of GoogleBooks, but people still seem to enjoy a good read.

At Crossroads College Prep, the literature we teach is very much in the "Great Books" curriculum. Over a decade ago, we approached many colleges and universities and asked them what they expected incoming students to be able to do and to have read. As a result of those discussions and with some modifications, we traded in books by Orson Scott Card for those by Sophocles, and we eliminated books by Phillip K. Dick for works by Mark Twain. While students seem to enjoy those works, one has to wonder if they are as passionate about Raisin in the Sun as they would be about the latest in the Maximum Ride series, and should that matter.

We should always have students read the classics and see the timeliness of those books, but we should also create a place for students to discover and read those books about which they are truly excited and that they have chosen. The seventh grade students at Crossroads College Prep are assigned several "classic" pieces like S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders or Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, but they also participate in a program called Reading At Home (RAH) where they read and discuss what they have chosen. In this way, they learn to like and maybe even love some books that are regarded as classic, but they also develop an appreciation for popular literature. If we want our students to be future readers, we need to expose them to great works of literature, but we may also need to show them how the beauty of reading for pleasure can make their lives more whole and take them to places they have never seen nor even imagined.

Now for that quotation-I hope you enjoy it below.

From On Fantasy by George R. R. Martin

The best fantasy is written in the language of dreams. It is alive as dreams are alive, more real than real ... for a moment at least ... that long magic moment before we wake.

Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?

We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.

They can keep their heaven. When I die, I'd sooner go to Middle Earth.