Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Sunday Salon -- The Book Nerd Who Loved Assigned Reading

I feel like I had an excellent reading week. I read and finished Signora da Vinci by Robin Maxwell which I loved, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, which I loved, and I'm almost finished with Trail of Crumbs: Hunger, Love, and the Search for Home by Kim Sunee, which I am loving. It really doesn't get better than genuinely looking forward to whatever you're reading.

Back in December, author Mitali Perkins posted about assigned reading, and how adults need to step back from forcing their reading choices on (especially) teens. I told her (on Twitter) that while I understood her point, I had loved most of the books that were assigned to me in school and that I might not have read them otherwise. She seemed surprised. Earlier this month, the popular meme Musing Mondays asked a similar question. While I don't participate in this meme, I was surprised to read many bloggers state that they did not really enjoy assigned reading.

The books that were assigned to me to read, starting in the seventh grade and on up, are so deeply a part of me that I can't imagine life any other way. I don't what it is about that age...when all your senses seem heightened and your emotions feel like life or death, but to open a book and find the exploration of morality, of life and love in the pages helps you know you're not alone.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have always been a bit of a book nerd. In high school, I was in the literature club. (I mean isn't that enough said?) We actually chose books and poems to read and discuss after school, and we put together a few literature magazines of student stories and poems.

I know I owe a lot of this to my mom, who read to my brother and sister and I when I was young...we are all still avid readers. When we were little, my sister and I would play library, when I was in elementary school I would pretend to be my favorite characters from books, and when I was in seventh grade I got my first assigned reading book. Up to that point, we had read stories out of a text book, but this time we got assigned to smaller book clubs and actual shiny new books in our hands. What book did I get? The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. Oh how I loved this book! It's possible I became obsessed with it. I watched the movie. I bought every other book she had written at that point and read them. (for the record, my favorite was That was Then, This is Now)Then I watched all the movies based on those books.

It only got worse with reading The Diary of Anne Frank, Flowers for Algernon, and Night in eighth. I remember reading with horror the circumstances in the concentration camps and the loss of human dignity. Flowers for Algernon broke my heart. And The Diary of Anne Frank was just that...someone's diary.

In high school, I took the International Baccalaureate course for English and enjoyed reading Romeo and Juliet for the first time, falling in love with the tragedy of it all, and the language so foreign to my way of life and yet so true. I read Lord of the Flies and had vivid nightmares that shook me to my core, A Separate Peace which unsettled me, "The Cold Equations" a story I have never ever been able to forget, Jane Eyre, a favorite to this day.

In my upperclassmen years, I read Death in Venice, many Poe stories, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (I was surprised by how much I liked it) and The Crucible, Death of a Salesman, A Raisin in the Sun. Sometimes, lines from these plays and stories will come back to me at the oddest of times. And of course, my favorite poetry to this day, T.S. Eliot's The Four Quartets.

My hunger wasn't satisfied by what was read in class. During this time period in my life, I sought out many of the classics and read them for myself.

Maybe it was my young age. Maybe it was the way discussing a written work can bring it to life in new ways, stamp it a little more firmly into your memory. I don't know, but I do know this...I'm glad I read everything that was assigned to me. I'm thankful that the opportunity existed for me to read such great works and to learn what they meant, even if it wouldn't have been my first choice. I'm thankful for the way those books helped shape me, helped me know I wasn't as alone as I thought, opened up new ways of thinking, new worlds in their pages.

There is so much talk these days about the change in reading. We seem desperate to keep kids reading and willing to do what it takes. I have a few theories on the decline of reading, but I'm not sure that easing up on assigned reading is going to be the answer. Sometimes, yes, we need to be told that reading this is good for you. In the same way that children may not want to eat their vegetables, we don't then say, okay! Eat french fries only, because I'm worried if you don't you won't eat at all. No instead we have them eat the healthy stuff because they must, because it nourishes their bodies and makes them strong. And they eat the french fries because they like them. I think we must expose our children to enduring literature. I think that it will feed their minds and make them strong. Will they love it all? Probably not, but they will be able to think critically about it, and participate more fully in the shared human experience these texts offer. Does that mean there's no room for popular fiction? Absolutely not! There is room for both.



Sandra said...

I enjoyed hearing your thoughts. I loved everything assigned to me in school too, with one exception-Lord of the Flies. I'm glad you enjoyed Hotel on the Corner, I have a copy of that to look forward to. Have a nice Sunday.

Unknown said...

I'm with you on this one Amy. I am glad I had reading assigned to me because as a teenager or even an adult in my early twenties I had no idea how many great books there were to read. I would not know about them had they not be assigned to me. And it's true, that even if you don't like what you've been told to read it teaches you critical thinking and you have to learn to express exactly what it was you didn't like.

Anonymous said...

I too loved assigned reading. And I too am a confessed book nerd. But I still remember my world being shifted by some of those books. Animal Farm and 1984 still haunt me...A Separate Peace is still to this day a favorite and I have read it several times because it was world shifting. John Steinbeck is one of my favorite authors because his writing is so vivid, so real at times I forget I am reading.

Assigned reading introduced me to classics I may have not otherwise have read. I feel in love with Shakespeare and Jane Austen. I would never have read Shakespeare...

I don't think it is a matter of adults forcing the books on teen but instead they are introducing us to things we might now otherwise have read. I will be honest. My teachers loved these books too and their love was contagious! I think assigned reading changed my worldview in a good way.

LOVE this post Amy!


Anonymous said...

Oh, my gosh! I used to play library too! I even got one of those date stamps in my stocking for Christmas one year. I loved assigned reading too. We had to buy our books, so over the summer, I would read my older sister's assigned reading from the year before and pray I would be assigned something different, so I could read a different book.

Anonymous said...

Great insights into declining adolescent reading here today. There is so much in this technological age to distract teenagers. I am so in favor of bringing text to them in different formats that feel more familiar to them - audio downloads to the iPod, reading from their phones, etc. Is it reading material or access points? Much more to this but every angle merits consideration.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

What about assigned reading, with some choices? While I found myself loving most of what was assigned, I loathed Lord Jim. My sons, on the other hand, hated My Antonia. My oldest son says our high school killed his love of reading. Eek. What could be worse than that?

Kristen said...

I too loved almost all of my assigned reading in jr. high and high school (Grapes of Wrath-- I still loathe Steinbeck--and Paradise Lost being the two exceptions to the reading love-fest). I can still remember the marathon reading weekend I spent curled up with Bleak House my senior year of high school. I just couldn't put it down and knew that even the mockery I was going to suffer as a result of actually reading the book *gasp* was worth it.

serendipity_viv said...

I enjoyed assigned reading at school. However my twins girls don't enjoy it. I have struggled so hard to get them to see the joys of reading, but they lose interest in a book after about the first couple of chapters. They hardly ever finish a book. My husband thinks I push them to read,yet I worry if they don't read,because their reading age won't develop.

Kailana said...

I actually enjoyed a lot of the books I was assigned to read in school, too! I was always the first one done and ready for discussion. Except for Lord of the Flies. I can't help it, I hated that book! Oh, and Old Man and the Sea. Wasn't super fond of that book, either! But, I read The Outsiders, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Chrysalids, and many other books that I still own and still consider favourite books! Speaking of The Outsiders, have you ever read her vampire book? Hawkes Harbor? I liked that book. I read it a couple years ago. It was a bit different than the other books I have read by her.

Anonymous said...

Add me to the list of people who played library!

I think I liked the idea of assigned reading more than I liked the books themselves. There was just something exciting about receiving a new book that I'd then be invited to discuss with others. I loved the feel of the school copies in my hand, the discussion questions the teacher threw out there, the arguments that ensued when the class disagreed about something.

As far as the books themselves go, I'd say I was 50/50 on enjoyment. I often found that I got the most out of the books that everyone else was down on. I thought THE CATCHER IN THE RYE was wonderful. A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM gave me a lifelong love of Shakespeare. It took me a while to get into ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, but once I was there I was there. THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN contains one of my very favourite scenes in all of literature. THE GATES OF IVORY convinced me to go back and read more of Margaret Drabble's work.

Jennie said...

I'd say I loved 60% of my assigned reading, liked 30% well enough (it was better than math homework at any rate :) ) and hated 10% of it.

But, even though I loathed both Huck Finn and Lord of the Flies (sorry) I am so glad I read them, because they get referenced EVERYWHERE and I need the background they provided.

Some books I had to read, and some were instances where we got to pick any book off a list. I liked both ways, but especially when I got to choose.

I am, however, still upset that I took the equivalent of 5 years of English (I took some lit classes as electives senior year, in addition to AP World Lit because I am such a nerd) all honors or AP level and never had to read any Dickens, Austen, or Bronte. Large portions of the Western cannon were left out. :(

Lenore Appelhans said...

I liked assigned reading too. In fact, I wish someone would assign me a few classics. I love reading them once I get into them, it's just actually picking them up that is so hard.

Anonymous said...

I was also really surprised to see that very few people enjoyed their assigned readings. I found my favorite author through an assigned reading.

Robin M said...

Amazing that you can remember all the books you read for assigned reading in jr and high school. The only two I can remember is Lord of the Flies and 1984. Other than that, I remember my parents objecting to assigned reading of clockwork orange. I never did read that one. If it wasn't for assigned reading, there would be some book I would never read. That is why I like taking lit classes now - it gets me to read books I wouldn't ordinarily such as Heart of Darkness, Great Expectations. Next semester I plan on taking a modern lit class and look forward to whatever is assigned. Great Post as always!

Krista said...

I'd have to agree with Sandra. Loved everything except Lord of the Flies. I just thought it was gruesome and have tried to block it out.
I had one interesting experience... I don't think my high school required us to read as many classics as some because when I got to community college my professor was always referencing books I had never read! Especially The Great Gatsby. So eventually when I came across a copy I bought it and read it. Holy cow was that some slow reading. And a really weird story. But at least then I got what he was talking about!
I wonder if maybe those of us who don't mind assigned reading don't mind because we read so well we still have time to read what we want? Or we just love reading so much that we're willing to read anything?

claire said...

I too loved assigned reading! Pride and Prejudice and Hamlet were my favourites in high school. What's funny was, since I didn't get enough assigned reading, I read my brother's and my sister's! They had Lord of the Rings, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Little Prince. Also.. SE Hinton was never assigned reading for me but The Outsiders and That was Then, This is Now were two of my favourite books as an adolescent. :)

S. Krishna said...

I enjoyed this post - I liked assigned reading as well. Some of my favorite books were assigned to us in school

Literary Feline said...

I am glad one of us had a good reading week. If it couldn't be me, I'd rather it be you. ;-)

I've always looked at assigned reading just as you do. It opened up so many more reading opportunities to me that I might not have had otherwise. I didn't cringe at the sight of an assigned reading list. I embraced it.

You make a really good point about needing to encourage young people to read certain books--I love the French fry analogy.

Unknown said...

Hey, thanks for leaving a comment at my blog. I love reading about books almost as much as I love to read them. I'll come back and get some ideas of ways to while away the rest of the winter:>)

Amy said...

Sandra--I think you'll love Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet!

Lilly--exactly! I didn't like everything, but I'm still glad I read a lot of it.

Crittyjoy--I think that teachers loving the book and being able to show teens how it still applies to our world today is key. Absolutely. I forgot about Animal Farm!

Kathy--that is so cool! Playing library was super fun. ;)

Frances--I'm not opposed to e-readers or other ways of approach at all. Mostly, primarily, and I hope to write on this soon, I'm in favor of major reform in reading education in the lower grades.

debnance--actually we did have some choices. But I agree that offering at least some choices at some points in each years curriculum helps. Jane Eyre was a choice read for me, out of a few possible picks.

Kristen--I haven't read Bleak House but what a great story. ;)

Scrap girl--do your girls read anything for pleasure?

Kailana--I haven't read Hawkes Harbor but I want to. Glad to hear you liked it!

Memory--ah good point. I loved the discussions! :) I didn't love everything, (Faulkner comes to mind) but I still enjoyed the discussions.

Jennie--this is a good point. i never had Dickens or Austen assigned either.

Lenore--you know, that's part of why I accept review copies outside of my normal reading fare. If left to my own devices, I never would have expanded my reading like I have since I started reviewing.

Saveophelia...who is it?!?

Robin..well I didn't list them all! :)

Krista...I think you are spot on. The problem isn't the books as much as it's that reading is hard for a lot of people.

Claire--You know, To Kill a Mockingbird is one I still need to read. We watched the movie but didn't read the book!

Swapna..yes they were important books to me, too.

Literary Feline...I'm sorry you had a bad reading week! I hope this one is better!

directed by shiny objects...pleasure!

Anonymous said...

I loved assigned reading too! I'm glad to hear you say it and see it so much in the comments. I definitely think that while children should be encouraged to read, they should also be reading these worthy books. I know that I was the only one who got my assigned book and usually read the whole thing when I got home, regardless of how far we were supposed to get for school the next day, but I think it's a shame other kids didn't feel the same enthusiasm. In fact, I actively regret that I didn't get to read some of the books they had in college prep classes (I was in honors and then AP English) because they'd often be reading the classics and my teacher gave me modern literature instead. I almost never liked that as much.

Great post Amy!

RAnn said...

I loved to read, and read a lot during high school. In our honors English classes my junior and senior year we were assigned a book each nine weeks on which to do group book report. It was nice because it gave you exposure to a lot of classics w/out having to actually read them. On the other hand, there were some you did have to read. I enjoyed Hiroshima. I loathed For Whom the Bell Tolls. The crime was being placed in honors English; the pushishment was having to read Crime and Punishment. Funny thing is I did better on the test for that one than I did on some Arthurian book that I really enjoyed, and read cover to cover.

As far as my kids' assigned reading, my son is a reluctant reader and the books he has had to read haven't helped that. He has had to read A Lesson Before Dying, A Secret History, Whirlygig (actually he said that wasn't so bad), Travels with Charley and some book by either Watson or Crick about the discovery of DNA and the politics and one-upsmanship that went with it. They read Candide in class. My husband says English teachers are usually middle aged women who couldn't find husbands and assign books that husbandless middle aged women like; not books teenaged boys would like. I know I learned pretty early on that if a book had a gold seal on the cover, it likely wasn't very good.

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

Amy, I think we were separated at birth! So much of what you said is EXACTLY me … book nerd, playing library, loving to read always, loving (most) of the assigned books. Interesting to note that we were assigned different books though. I LOVED The Outsiders when I had to read it for school but I didn’t read Night until this year b/c it was never assigned back then. The IB program didn’t start until I was out of school, but I was in Advanced Placement so we read lots of the classics. Plus I had a Classics Collection – a huge, leatherbound boxed set – of Twain, Shakespeare, Poe, Melville, and another author I can’t recall. I read most of those in my free time. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t LOVE to read, and I can’t imagine a world without those wonderful classics.

Now I’m a mom to an almost 7 yr old boy. He loves to be read to, and he loves the adventure you can find in a book, but he doesn’t like to read himself b/c it is challenging. That’s just the way he is – if something is difficult, he’d rather quit than try harder. My biggest challenge in the coming years will be to improve his reading ability by giving him simple yet interesting things to read. I can’t imagine a child of mine NOT having a passion for books, and missing out on the wonderful world that is open to him through reading … and I’m determined not to let that happen. And I know that if he is assigned “difficult” books in the coming years and I haven’t built up his reading ability before then, he’ll hate those assigned books and likely give up on reading. Cannot.let.that.happen.

Britt said...

I'm with you! (Except that I hated Romeo and Juliet.)
I blogged about assigned reading too--

Cainan & Ryker said...

I loved assigned reading too! It's not that I always enjoyed the books (i.e. Animal Farm...not a fave)but I loved reading and having someone tell me which books were good, was fun.

When I became an English teacher I was constantly disappointed by the disinterest in reading and the assumption that anything assingned by a teacher was, of course, boring, long and pointless. It was always thrilling to have kids really respond to the books. I think I finally even got my most critical cynics to enjoy reading (or at least listening) when I read Robinson Crusoe aloud to them over the course of an entire semester. (Plus when you are the teacher you don't have to teach Animal Farm you can choose Great Expectations instead.)

To this day I'm disappointed that I was never assigned to read A Tale of Two Cities or Of Mice and Men, etc. I've set out on a quest to read all of those classics that I somehow missed during my education.

Amy said...

Meghan--I have to admit I was pleased so many others expressed liking it in comments as well!

RAnn--it is very hard with reluctant readers. I hope reading becomes easier for your son.

Heather--I'm sure we were! ;) I hope your son discovers how to get lost in a book!

Britt--hated Romeo and Juliet????

Crystal..I missed a lot of books as To Kill a Mockingbird!

Anonymous said...

I hated analyzing books with a passion in school. All the highlighting, notes, etc. Ugh. Plus, I could read a book in a day and we'd drag it out for a month. Rereading some of my assigned reading, I've enjoyed them much better as an adult.

Wendi said...

Amy - I love your thoughts on this topic. I am friends with one of my Lit instructors from High School. I didn't always appreciate the books we were assigned then, but can appreciate them much more now. They have helped me in so many ways, with broadening my views, imparting practical knowledge, learning about the classics I wouldn't have otherwise read. . . I could go on and on!

:) Wendi

Molly said...

I am so glad that Beth F led me to your post. GREAT thoughts. My true prayer is that I can inspire my students to enjoy the classics as much as your teachers have apparently inspired you.

Kathleen said...

Found this post from Devourer of Books. I read your blog but must have missed this post as I've been scanning my 1000+ posts in google reader.

Anyways, I mostly enjoyed assigned reading too. I didn't like having to analyze characters and write essays on the books but I love the actual reading of them and finished them within one or two days usually. Even in grade school when the teacher just read to us (and then we studied it) I loved it.

I don't remember them all but I do remember The Christmas Pageant. In higher grades and high school I remember (in no particular order) Lord of the Flies, Holes, A Seperate Peace, Othello, Romeo & Juliet, Death of a Salesman, The Great Gatsby, Macbeth, Brave New World and Hamlet. I was in advanced English which did a LOT of plays.

Out of those, I now own personally A Christmas Pageant, Holes, Lord of the Flies, Brave New World and I want to get A Seperate Peace.

I think those who liked analyzing it in school are probably now into book clubs. I'm not into book clubs because other than writing a review, I don't want to analyze the books. Like Natasha said, everyone else took a month to read the book and I was done in two days. However this meant I had more free time during class.

Since this is so long, I'm going to post it on my blog too.

Anonymous said...

Hi Amy,

I've been over to your blog a few times and seen your posts at Natasha's blog ( This time I come by way of Devourer of Books.

I really like the commentary on this post. I understand where some people may think of assigned reading as being 'forced' upon children. I like to think of assigned reading as expanding reading horizons to books, as a youngser, you may not pick out yourself.

Maybe this is where I started reading more than one book at a time. I loved the diversity of literature I was exposed to in school. I didn't like all of it then, but I have found that when I read them now as an adult, I enjoyed them quite a bit...with some exceptions.

I always had my assigned school reading and more 'fluffy' books I read at home. Yes, i was (and still am) a book nerd!

Edgy Inspirational Author said...

I think when I was in high school eons ago, the choices were a bit better than what kids have now, though not always great either. I did read several Steinbeck like Of Mice and Men, and In Cold Blood, I also read The Grapes of Wrath and To Kill A Mockingbird, 1984 and Animal Farm, etc. But now they have some sick stuff, too. My son said he and his friend were talking about Sula by Toni Morrison for about 30 minutes and his friend was telling him about the twisted stuff in the book and how much it was bugging him. And the kid wasn't even a Christian. Something about kids being set on fire, I think. But there was tragedy after tragedy and it's simply too freaking depressing, IMHO to read stuff like that in high school. I prefer To Kill a Mockingbird to that any day.

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