Guess what happened last night?
I read a book. For fun. Not a fun school related book, but a plain, unassigned, free reading book. For some reason, I had this urge to read a nice carefree book in bed. As I was walking to the library to obtain said books, I couldn’t even recall the last time I had read a book for pleasure. Where had my love of reading gone?
As a child, I was the kid at the library with a stack of books two feet tall, counting them to see if I had reached the checkout limit. I was addicted to reading. In the summer, my parents would have to limit the amount of time I spent reading so that I would go outside to play and be social. I loved that i could be transported to a whole new world and take on a whole new persona with the turn of a page, wherever I was.
My mom read to me almost every night until I was in high school and had to do homework until bedtime. Together we ventured to Narnia, became family to Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy, roamed the apple orchards with Anne, and lived on the prairie with Laura, Ma, and Pa, just to name a few of our endeavors. She would read from eight to eight thirty every night; we took turns on who would occasionally fall asleep halfway through; that’s when we knew it had been a long day. I loved that time. It was mommy and me time, our own special treat at the end of the day after my younger sister went to bed. Promptly at 8:30 she would stop reading and say, “Alright time for bed Linds.” And I would beg for just one more chapter, just one teeny, tiny chapter. She would look how long it was, and if it was short enough she would say, “If we read this, you will have to have no troubles getting up on time in the morning.” Of course I would readily agree; I would do anything for just one more chapter. Together we read over seven thousand pages, and I am eternally grateful to my mom for investing that time in me and helping me cultivate my love of reading.
Between reading at night with my mom, and reading by myself, I logged many hours as a bookworm during my childhood. Like I said I was addicted. But once I got into high school, assigned reading came like a thief in the night and stole my free reading time. Even on breaks, I either had assigned reading to do, or I was so burnt out from doing the readings before the break, I didn’t even want to think about reading more. And it got worse and worse every year. As more and more reading was forced upon me, the passion I had for reading faded dimmer and dimmer.
Not to say there wasn’t ever light in the dark tunnel of assigned reading. My initial love of reading helped keep a light burning, even when the material was thick and I didn’t understand it all. I still remember sophomore year reading A Tale of Two Cities, and learning about diction, syntax, tone, and all the usually boring parts of literary analysis. It clicked for me, and my inner book-lover and nerd came out. I loved thinking about why Dickens wrote the way he did, because as anyone who has ever read Dickens’ work knows; he has a very distinct voice. To this day, that is one of my favorite books. It was a light in my tunnel of literary analysis of assigned reading, a reminder of what I used to love. But alas, all good things must come to an end, and assigned reading became like a chore again.
Just like reading Tale of Two Cities reignited my love for the written word, summertime also was a time of relaxing with good books. Granted, most of the time I still had assigned reading to do, but at least for a couple of weeks I got to experience reading for the sheer fact of wanting to read once more. In the years before my grandma died, she began a quest to read the entire classics section. It was awesome when she was reading a book that I was reading for school, because we could discuss it and read it together. She made it through the entire classics section at the library, and inspired me to read more classics. Thus every summer, before our annual long camping trip I would go to the library, and pick up a stack of around seven classics to read that trip. During the course of these trips, I noticed that I always gravitated towards the classics that were not commonly read in school. I couldn’t bring myself to read a book leisurely that was a “school book” no matter how great it was. I wanted to read a book that was clearly distinct from any book that had been or would eventually be a graded assignment.
Assigned reading didn’t make me stop reading forever. It also didn’t make me hate reading. But even for an avid reader, assigned reading slowly tortured my inner book-worm. I don’t know how it got that way. How did reading go from something I loved to a chore, as soon as it became associated with a grade or a homework assignment? Where was the point when reading became a monster?
I see it happening in my sister, as she is reading To Kill A Mockingbird, which if I might add, is an exceptional book, that I would read over and over, but she isn’t reading it because she wants to, she is reading it to answer questions to get a grade. Naturally when reading something to answer questions, regardless the subject, one will skim to find the information that pertains to the question and then move on. By doing so, one usually misses key information that makes the story enjoyable to read and less like homework. My sister likes to read, but not nearly as much as I did my freshman year, and I can see the enjoyment fading away as the books take on more weight than they were meant to hold.
I can’t imagine how it is for students who don’t like to read in the first place. Actually I can; those are the students that don’t even bother opening the book and if the teacher is lucky the student will Sparknote it to at least make it appear like they are reading. In doing so, they miss out on finding a favorite book or author, which might have led them to find a type of writing they enjoy reading.
It is not to say that assigned reading should be abolished. What I am trying to suggest is actually very far from that. Assigned reading exposes students to many different time periods, ways of life, styles of writing, etc. and provides great examples of how to write. But we aren’t all going to be novelists. Maybe we should add a little more article and essay reading into the curriculum, because in this digital age, isn’t that what the majority of what our students will be dealing with in their workplace, or even in their daily lives?
Will adding articles help students enjoy assigned reading more? Possibly, maybe it will help the slower readers have confidence, because it is a shorter piece of work. Will letting students read what they want to read help them like assigned reading better? Maybe. It might make it less of a drag and give each student the freedom to read material on what they are passionate about, or even find something they are passionate about. But then what does one do about grading? How does one grade an enthusiastic student who only likes to read, say cookbooks and travel guides? How does one encourage, if not require, the reading level to be grade appropriate? How can one tell if students are actually reading the books?
I don’t have a solution, I really don’t even have suggestions on how to attempt to fix this issue, but I do know that somewhere between freshman year of high school and freshman year of college, my love of reading was vastly diminished as a result of reading wonderful novels knowing that my future would be partially determined on how well I understood and could analyze the book. My understanding of the book led contributed to my grade in the class, which then played a huge factor in what colleges I got in to. Reading somehow got reduced to a means to an end, and because of this many have lost sight, at least temporarily, of what the simple joy of reading is, myself included.
To conclude, I have one question that must be addressed; how do we reclaim reading from being a means to the end, and return it to the simple joy that it brings?