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What is this I see? Yet more lit snobbery to wrestle with? Some Books Are More Equal Than Others by By Clare Needell Hollander.

I read this courtesy and knew I had many objections, but I felt like taking the time to break them down somewhat carefully. The snobbery in evidence here is not merely a narrative of the essayist’s superior literary tastes — the essay actually seems intended as a persuasive piece, with a clear call to action for those who would assign summer reading to middle-schoolers. Her call? Make them read nonfiction instead of fiction.

First off, I have to mention the headline — perhaps the essayist didn’t write it, but if she did, it makes me wonder if she has read Animal Farm, and if she has, if she understood it. Hint: the pigs are not the heroes.

Because I am a middle school reading enrichment teacher, parents and colleagues often ask my advice about summer assignments. [..] I tell them blithely that any reading is good reading. [..] The data, however, show that my mantra holds true only for the least experienced readers, who attain knowledge every time they read.

Attain knowledge — note how utilitarian this sounds. She may be correct, I suppose, that weak readers improve every time they read anything at all, while strong readers need to stretch themselves a bit more. But how much stretching is really required for a summer reading list? I was under the impression that such lists were primarily to make sure that kids’ study skills don’t atrophy entirely. The weaker readers are sharpening up their basic skills, and the stronger readers are retaining the discipline it takes to read stuff on command (even if they find it a little boring) and talk about it later.

But for students in middle school and high school, reading selection does matter. Students attain more knowledge of both kinds reading Stephen Crane’s “Red Badge of Courage” than they do reading the “Hunger Games” series.

“Both kinds” of knowledge refers to “verbal knowledge (an increase in word recognition) and “world knowledge” — which I guess is facts? History and current events and so on? I suppose this is true, as far as it goes. Red Badge of Courage is archaic rather than contemporary, which tends to provide a stretch to both vocabulary and grammar. Plus, it is a historical novel. Further, the stronger readers are probably going to read The Hunger Games anyway. But are those really the only types of knowledge that can be provided by books? Just two? It sounds suspiciously reductionist.

When the protagonist of “Red Badge” reflects on his pride in having “donned blue,” it requires both verbal and world knowledge to comprehend that he is proud of having enlisted as a Union soldier.

This might be the least convincing example of the idea of “getting more” out of a book that I have ever seen. Sure, you have to figure out what “donned” means and you have to figure out that Union = blue and Confederacy = gray, but you could probably get the same info from a trailer for Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. Is “donned blue” really the best she could come up with?

While “The Hunger Games” may entrance readers [..] A student may encounter a handful of unfamiliar words, while contemplating human dynamics that are cartoonish, with violent revolution serving as the backdrop for teen romance.

Hoooooo, boy. Has the essayist read The Hunger Games? Because that’s pretty much not at all the book series I read. So, either she’s dissing by reputation (which is a bit dishonest, in such an essay), or she has failed at reading comprehension (which undermines her claim to authority). But, even if she was dissing Twilight, the approach would be misguided: any attempt to shame kids out of enjoying contemporary genre lit is going to be ridiculously self-defeating.

I still carry a grudge against the middle-school teacher who sniffily dismissed A Wrinkle in Time as “okaaaaaayyyyy, but not a real CLASSIC like Tom Sawyer.” At the time, I had read and liked Tom Sawyer just fine, but A Wrinkle in Time was one of my all-time favorites. The teacher’s haughty condescension toward one of my favorite things only made me dislike her personally and fail to take her seriously as a teacher. Plus, it gave me a vague lingering resentment toward Tom Sawyer that the book itself had done nothing to deserve. Had I not read it already, I almost certainly wouldn’t have wanted to. Had I been compelled to read it, I would have tried my best to not enjoy it.

Even if Tom Sawyer — or any classic — really is objectively “better” than a modern popular work, there are a couple of things that every middle-school lit teacher needs to keep in mind. (Other than that middle-school girls are stubborn, resentful, and carry grudges.) One, is that literary tastes are not zero sum. The idea should be to get kids to broaden their tastes to include classics, not narrow their tastes to exclude popular stuff. Popular fiction is an important gateway drug. Instead of mocking them for their enjoyment of The Hunger Games, why not use it to entice them into reading similar classics, or important related nonfiction? Use it to get them interested in the process of literary analysis — a student who is already engaged with the work is primed to pick up on concepts like theme and metaphor.

Two, is that these kids are IN FREAKING MIDDLE SCHOOL. Why on earth would you expect them to recognize the subtleties and depth that make something a true classic? Even very well-read, very high-scoring middle schoolers are years away from being able to consistently recognize the difference between “brilliant” and “entertaining.” BECAUSE THEY ARE TWELVE. Sheesh.

Reading literature should be intentional. [..] What summer reading needs to be is purposeful.

Should… needs… purposeful. This is all sounding so dreary, I can’t begin to tell you. Almost as if she feels you need to make sure students aren’t too entertained by what they read, or you can’t be sure they’re getting anything out of it.

But how do we ensure purposeful independent reading given the low accountability of summer assignments? [..] I propose focusing on accessible nonfiction guaranteed to increase world and verbal knowledge.

This is a strange and abrupt left turn. What problem is nonfiction, rather than fiction, supposed to solve, exactly? (Unless I’m right about her unspoken underlying purpose being to make sure students aren’t too entertained by their summer reading.)

It strikes me as a bait-and-switch to go from talking about “literature” to talking about nonfiction, which certainly can be literature, but isn’t quite the same thing. Nonfiction includes everything from highly narrative forms such as memoirs, where nonfiction and realistic fiction are functionally indistinguishable, to textbooks and reference works, which might be informative but rarely make for good reading.

Nonfiction encompasses both contemporary bestsellers and well-worn classics. The nonfiction genre even includes things that are almost certainly fiction in the sense that they are not true — the latest bit of right wing propaganda, say, or a trendy diet book resting on a dubious-to-ludicrous scientific basis. Essays and philosophy are nonfiction, as are books of folklore and mythology. Cookbooks. Humor. Travel guides. True crime. The work of Hunter S. Thompson. Nonfiction all, but certainly not all the same, and certainly not all of it could plausibly be considered literature.

These nonfiction books provoke students to desire an expanded world knowledge, to consider the flawed moral decision making of the past and the imperiled morality of the future.

As an argument for nonfiction over fiction, this strikes me as entirely backwards. Fiction includes fables, thought experiments, and metaphors that invite readers to make many connections between past, present, and future. Is The Crucible less thought-provoking than a more strictly historical account of the Salem witch trials, because it uses them as a McCarthyism metaphor? I would think not. In fact, a modern reader is potentially getting the exploration of two flawed pasts for the price of one, a kind of layering that nonfiction rarely provides.

I prefer that students explore literature in the summer as a pleasure [..] and return to school curious about the world around them, not weary from having written about books they could not fully understand

This seems like a non-sequitor. Is she assuming that students can’t understand the works on the prescribed fiction list, but can easily understand the prescribed nonfiction? Does that mean the nonfiction is assumed to be pitched at a lower reading level? Or does she think nonfiction is inherently easier to understand?

Revisiting her original proposal, she recommends “accessible nonfiction guaranteed to increase world and verbal knowledge.” So… maybe her standard for “literature worth assigning” is only the most venerable and classic-y of classics (that is, not accessible), while her standard for “nonfiction worth assigning” is that anything goes as long as it’s “guaranteed to increase world and verbal knowledge”? So, what makes these nonfiction books guaranteed knowledge-increasers? The topics covered? The writer’s skill?

I’m still not seeing it. The thing that increases knowledge (any kind) is encountering the unfamiliar, and anything unfamiliar might be difficult to understand. The thing that helps kids attain knowledge is engagement — if kids are interested in what they’re reading, they have the motivation to puzzle out things that might be a little bit beyond them — to look up unfamiliar words, for example. Further, engagement is what makes the knowledge sticky.

We have to move students away from disgust at the unknown, at the horrors visited on other human beings, and toward sympathy.

Toward sympathy. Right. Hey, you know what fiction is really good at? Encouraging empathy and inviting people to imagine themselves in someone else’s situation. “Sympathy” is just not a literary function that nonfiction fulfills better than fiction. In fact, I believe fiction is generally the superior way to achieve this. Fiction, for example, is free to use narrative literary techniques, going beyond a strictly factual account of events, in order to increase reader sympathy.

Nonfiction might use the same techniques, of course, but the more it makes use of them, the more its factual authority is undermined. In fact, I see this as one of the pitfalls of nonfiction. In order to engage a typical reader — indeed, in order to make the events at all comprehensible to most people — the factual account MUST be shaped into a narrative of sorts. But the act of so shaping is inherently flawed. Biases and speculation inevitably creep in, as the writer decides which events are important to relate, and makes (hopefully educated) guesses about cause, effect, and motivation. And this is nonfiction in the hands of thoughtful, responsible writers. Writers motivated primarily by a pre-existing agenda can present technically true events in such a distorted fashion that they become, basically, fiction masquerading as fact. (see: the Fox News channel.)

This is not necessarily a problem, as long as the reader remains conscious of the subjective nature of nonfiction accounts, and keeps in mind the inescapable presence of the writer. When we read nonfiction we are not absorbing pure objective facts beamed into our heads by the universe — we are reading one person’s account of the facts. There may be other, equally plausible, accounts of the same facts. There may even, over time, be new facts. Diaries uncovered, secrets unearthed.

However, the essayist, by making such a hard distinction between fiction and nonfiction, and by advocating so strongly for nonfiction, seems to be arguing for some essentialist “reality” benefit provided by nonfiction. In this benefit, I do not believe. Consider how often “nonfiction” is revealed to be not merely biased, but downright fraudulent. If there is nothing in the work itself — A Million Little Pieces, say, or The Amityville Horror — which reveals the difference between fiction and nonfiction, how worthwhile can that difference be?

(Of course, I speak of “worthwhile” in the sense of an English lit summer reading list. If you are in a history or sociology class, it is a different matter.)

Further, the notion that “we have to move students” anywhere strikes me as appallingly arrogant, and a rare, real-world example of the nannyish straw liberalism people like George Will are always going on about. It is not the duty of a middle school English lit teacher to make kids feel a certain way about things.

Students who have immersed themselves in real-world problems become excited by current events and history as well as literature.

Is this a fact? No, really, is it? Because I know I could be wrong, and I would yield to significant scientific findings otherwise, but my impression is that it is the other way around: kids latch onto a narrative (fiction or non) that moves them, and then get interested in related material, including historical and factual references. It’s not the problems that get them excited about the narrative, it’s the narrative that gets them interested in the problems.

They will understand Dickens better for having read “Iqbal,” which tells the story of a boy who is sold into slavery at a carpet factory.

Or, you know, maybe they will find Iqbal more meaningful if they already love Dickens. Anyway, according to the Amazon description, Iqbal is a “fictionalized account,” which makes it different from realistic fiction about historic events (The Grapes of Wrath, say) how, exactly?

Reading serious nonfiction in the summer is an immersion in the world of necessary ideas.

Serious… necessary. Again, this all sounds so dreary. But what here is the necessary idea? That children are exploited by any society that allows it? Is this necessary idea communicated better by a setting in contemporary real-world India, based on real events, or by a fictionalized America, as in The Hunger Games? Which form gets the point across better? Which one causes the reader to make a connection to his or her own life?

I submit that you have no way of knowing, until it happens. This is why I would suggest variety as the chief virtue of a summer reading list. Give kids the option of fiction and nonfiction, contemporary and classic, short stories and novels, realism and fantasy. Add poetry, plays, even graphic novels to the mix. With enough variety — including attention to “if you liked X, try Y” coaching — you increase the odds that kids will find something they connect with.

So let’s try that instead of the late August nagging and the relentless complaints from parents about their child’s stubborn refusal to enjoy, say, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Let’s see if I can follow this — children might not enjoy To Kill a Mockingbird (a realistic novel about recent historic American segregation and racism), so instead you should make them read a fictionalized account of child slavery in contemporary India. What if they would have loved Mockingbird, or Dickens, but don’t enjoy Iqbal? What has been gained, in this case? Nothing — unless you buy her underlying assumption, about that essentialist “reality” benefit provided by nonfiction.

Anyway, I’m sure Iqbal is a fine book, but I have to wonder — even in a real-world knowledge sense — which book is more relevant to a modern American middle-schooler? Which one will enlighten them more about, for example, current politics?

To those parents who wish ardently to re-experience their first literary love, I say, reread it yourself. Perhaps you will recall that the real horrors in that novel happen offstage, to characters who remain peripheral to the narrative.

This is relevant how? I mean, is her goal just to make sure kids spend their summer feeling really bad about stuff? (I revisit my earlier suspicion that perhaps she thinks students ought not be overly entertained by what they read, or it’s not a proper school assignment.)

Perhaps your children need to confront some hard truths this summer

Gosh, that sounds ominous.

that will make it easier for them to want to learn about the world.

What problem is she trying to solve again? That middle schoolers are self-involved narcissists who don’t know or care much about the terrible problems in the world? That kids whine and moan about the content of prescribed reading lists? That it’s difficult to measure whether kids are getting anything out of what they read over the summer?

Those might all be problems, sure, but her suggestion of nonfiction about real-world problems as the answer to all of them is basically Magic Ponies! Kids have the capacity to be just as bored, confused and alienated by nonfiction as they are by fiction. It’s absurd to pretend otherwise.

In fact, I strongly suspect there are many kids out there — kids after my own heart, perhaps — who will find it much harder to work up an interest in contemporary nonfiction about real-world problems, than in just about any other literary sub-genre you could name. It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t occasionally be compelled to read it, no. I do believe one of the purposes of assigned reading is to encourage kids to stretch their reading experiences, and that definitely includes getting them to read stuff they wouldn’t otherwise read — stuff that is more boring, or difficult, or serious than they would choose for themselves.

But it does mean that, of the problems she is purporting to solve, she has solved none of them. Instead, she has introduced a new one: taken strong, enthusiastic readers who never previously balked at summer reading lists, and turned them into recalcitrant whiners just like everyone else.

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19 Comments

  1. Since when do teachers get to dictate what kids read in their downtime? Jesus on a stick. What an evil fascist bitch.

    • Yeah, she really seems to cross the line here from “suggested reading list, for extra credit and stuff” into “make sure that kids do not enjoy summer vacation at all.”

      Her language is so dictatorial — must, need, should, have, require.

      Maybe middle school is a lot different nowadays, but I don’t recall any method by which I could have been forced to read anything in particular over the summer — I wouldn’t have the same teacher from one year to the next. So a summer reading list would have been nothing but helpful suggestions anyway.

      • I vaguely remember ignoring suggested reading lists. It wouldn’t surprise me if kids today aren’t allowed any time to play at all. Seems in keeping with the whole helicopter parent thing…

      • Anonymous Anonymous

        Yeah, the only time I ever remember having Summer Reading is in high school, when my AP US History teacher told us to prepare for AP European History (which he also taught) by reading Sophie’s World. (Which I did, and it was awesome, and a fine use of fantasy and narrative to teach non-fiction, in this case, the history of philosophy.)

      • Yeah, the only time I ever remember having Summer Reading is in high school, when my AP US History teacher told us to prepare for AP European History (which he also taught) by reading Sophie’s World. (Which I did, and it was awesome, and a fine use of fantasy and narrative to teach non-fiction, in this case, the history of philosophy.)

        • Sounds cool, actually. I might have to read that.

      • “Maybe middle school is a lot different nowadays, but I don’t recall any method by which I could have been forced to read anything in particular over the summer — I wouldn’t have the same teacher from one year to the next.”

        Yes, middle school is different now. Summer reading lists are set at the school level (or occasionally even at the district level), and your first language arts / reading / English / social studies / history grades in the autumn often come from reports, essays, or quizzes about the required summer reading. If you refuse to do the summer reading, you either have to cram it in to the first few days of school or get a crappy grade from trying to do those assignments/quizzes without having read the books.

        And it’s not just one book, they often are expected to read 3 or 4 from a list — a common formula is “everyone must read A, then you choose one book from list B and one book from list C”. The lists are often defined by categories like:

        * Historical fiction set during the Civil War
        * Literary fiction that has won a certain award
        * Contemporary memoirs addressing racism
        * Non-fiction about how people lived in medieval times

        I’m all for encouraging kids to read in the summer — I loved those library contests as a kid, and I love that Seattle Public Libraries even has them for adults now. 😀 And I can see some value in the idea of having everyone in the school having read a book about a given topic to provide a common starting ground for classes come autumn, rather than trying to start from zero each year. But I’m not a fan of how it’s set up now — the reading lists are often demanding enough to completely eliminate any time or energy for elective fun reading for kids who aren’t the fastest readers, and I know of too many schools that assign crazy busy work (like dioramas or fill-in-the-blank book reports) to go along with the summer reading and they end up sucking up time for the whole family.

        • Summer reading lists are set at the school level (or occasionally even at the district level), and your first language arts / reading / English / social studies / history grades in the autumn often come from reports, essays, or quizzes about the required summer reading.

          So it’s basically a sneaky way of giving the poor kids year-round school?

          I know of too many schools that assign crazy busy work (like dioramas or fill-in-the-blank book reports) to go along with the summer reading

          That really sounds ghastly.

          • Basically, yes. Oh, and a growing number of schools also send home summer math worksheets. If the goal behind all of this is to prevent the summer slideback, I’d actually rather see us do year-round schooling deliberately with complete breaks from school for three separate month-long stretches between sessions.

          • I went to summer school one year — I took drama, cartooning, and marine biology. I loved it.

  2. I had a similar reaction to this essay. I think the author fails as an essayist, as well as a middle school teacher. She does not seem to understand the art of following a narrative at all, either fiction or non, nor does she understand the average 12-14 year old in any way. I would give the article a D- and ask her to try again, after taking a logic class. (And I would be snarky about it, too.)

    • Heh. So many essayists could benefit from such a logic class…

  3. Oh yes. This article? It’s a veiled justification for the new Common Core standards being rolled out nationwide to be followed by….a Common Core-based test!

    I bet if you poked around you’d find the teacher has connections to Pearson (one of the for-profit education companies that writes curriculum, tests and software for schools). Essentially, the Common Core strongly emphasizes the reading of nonfiction over fiction, especially in the middle school years. Pearson is heavily invested in rolling out Common Core.

    This article is nothing more than propaganda in the education reform wars.

    • Well, it certainly seems like it’s pushing a pre-existing agenda — it would explain the leaps in logic.

      I think more narrative/popular nonfiction would be a great addition to history/social studies, and science classes, as a supplement to textbooks — which are often dry and hard to connect with. In that case, it’s an *improvement* over the default. But for English Lit to crowd out fiction with nonfiction? All I can imagine is that you end up with a bunch of kids who never learn to like reading at all.

  4. I am tragically reminded of a list of “students are expected to…” that came from my daughter’s sixth grade reading assignment. It had all the usual elements of an English class: “describe the plot,” “identify metaphor,” “identify point of view,” etc. etc.

    Nowhere in the list did it say “Enjoy reading.”

    • Sigh. They clearly don’t expect you to enjoy it.

  5. Here via Jay Lake.

    Yep, right with you, from the “I do not think that phrase means what you think it means” reaction of the title (and, FFS, I never even read Animal Farm and I know the actual context of the quote), to the “I think this woman must hate reading” conclusion.

    joycemocha’s conclusion that it’s actually veiled propaganda by an educational materials company makes tremendous sense. The internal contradictions and other evidence that the essayist is a complete ignoramus are headache-inducing.

    • You know, it occurs to me now — maybe the headline writer was a secret dissident expressing what he/she thinks of the essay…

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