How to Make Somebody Hate Reading

Hurts like the dickensHere’s how to make somebody hate reading: 

Send them to an American high school.

The end.

Hmmm – in proofreading this post, it seems a little short. So maybe I should elaborate.

I’ve seen some statistics floating around the web claiming that one third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives. I don’t know if it’s true, but it sounds about right, based on how few adults I encounter who still read for pleasure. And when I think about how literature is taught in most high schools, I’m not surprised.

Some background: I grew up loving to read. My parents were both writers and readers, and the library a block away from my house quickly became my second home. But the high school English curriculum did its best to kill my love of reading, and years later, I watched it try to do the same to my teenage daughter.

How? By forcing kids to read books in which they have absolutely no interest, and then analyzing and dissecting those books in a way that A) almost no student will find relevant, and B) completely sucks any possible enjoyment out of the act of reading.

The argument, I suppose, is that they’re trying to teach them to appreciate literature, not just enjoy it. But I think that puts the cart before the horse. Why not try to get them to enjoy books first? Then, with their interest piqued, they might show an interest in a deeper level of study.

Note: I’m not saying there should be no courses that study literature in greater depth. But I feel that level of study should be offered at a voluntary level, for the few who are actually interested. It’s the way literature is taught in required English classes that I’m ranting about.

It was the best of books, it was the worst of books

So what am I bitching about? First of all, the choice of books. The Grapes of Wrath may be a “great” book, but let’s be honest: it’s also a colossal downer. And I suspect most Americans my age have read A Tale of Two Cities and Moby Dick for one reason and one reason only: they were forced to. 

Before you come at me with torches and pitchforks, let me say that today I genuinely like Steinbeck and Melville (and am doggedly trying to warm up to Dickens). But today I’m also an adult, and a professional writer – i.e., somebody who has shown a much deeper interest in things literary than the average person.

The Grapes of Wrath may be a “great” book, but let’s be honest: it’s also a colossal downer. 

Then there’s the kind of analysis that for some reason has remained popular with English teachers, where the students are forced not just to study the techniques the author used, but also to theorize as to the author’s motivations. This latter point is a major red flag for me. Unless the author is available to confirm or deny the alleged motivation revealed by this scholarly analysis, it’s all just conjecture.

As an example, my daughter was tasked with reading one of those magical realism books that are currently the rage in high school lit programs, and one of the questions she encountered in her odious assignment was to explain what the name of one of the character’s dogs symbolized.

My daughter is awesome. She was able to locate an interview where the author herself said she gave the dog that name simply “because it seemed like a good name for a dog.” As I recall, my daughter didn’t get a very good grade on that assignment, but I was proud as hell. And it further cemented my belief that a lot of “scholarly” literary analysis is basically masturbatory in nature.

Look, I’m not anti-symbolism, nor against any studying literary technique. But I draw the line at building elaborate assumptions about what the writer’s intent was. Maybe something she wrote seems symbolic to me, but that doesn’t prove it was her intent. And if I – a person VERY interested in writing – don’t care about that kind of conjecture, why on earth should the average high school student?

I believe this tedious and highly subjective analysis contributes more to turning off readers than you might think. As a case in point, I’ve avoided Dickens and Steinbeck for decades as a result of being force-fed their work in my teens. Of course, I realize now that it was to my own detriment that I’ve shunned their books for so long. But I also believe that could have been avoided, by sparing me from the horror of looking for themes and symbols and bears, oh my!

Getting serious about fun

I spent many years teaching drums. Drumming is something I’m extremely serious about, with training from a major music school and decades of professional experience. But I learned almost immediately that none of my students were as serious as I was – at least not at first. I also learned that the more fun I made my lessons, the more information my students absorbed.

Then I thought back to my earliest musical training. Like many kids in my generation, I was forced to take piano lessons. My parents thought it was an important thing to learn, and felt it was their duty to make me study the instrument.

I hated it.

My teacher was a rigorous old-school instructor, forcing me to play boring scales and inane childlike pieces. There was nothing fun about it – even though as a kid I always enjoyed banging around on the family piano. Finally, my teacher basically fired me – telling my parents I just seemed unwilling to apply myself.

If you kill a kid’s enthusiasm for something before they can connect with it, you’re really blowing an opportunity.

Years later I came to regret not having developed greater proficiency on the piano. It would have helped me in music school, as a songwriter, and in general it would just be cool to be able to sit down at a piano and jam. But I can’t – all because I got turned off from it, by being forced into taking lessons that did not entertain or resonate with me.

I consider that a real lost opportunity, and as a drum teacher I was bound and determined not to make the same mistake. After all, if you kill a kid’s enthusiasm for something before they can connect with it, you’re really blowing an opportunity. And that’s exactly what can happen with the “serious” books that kids are forced to read in school.

Lord Voldemort instead of Lord of the Flies

A common argument in defense of these traditional teaching methods is that they expose young readers to books that are “great” and/or “important” – in other words, books that are considered superior to popular books about sparkly vampires or young orphaned wizards.

Maybe those “classic” books are superior – that’s a bigger argument than I want to take on today – but I think anything that gets kids reading is good, because it opens the door to infinite future possibilities. Without that initial interest, it ain’t gonna happen.

Anything that gets kids reading is good, because it opens the door to infinite future possibilities.

To me it’s a “gateway drug” thing. Kids have their whole lives to develop critical reasoning and good taste. But I think youth is an important window of opportunity for acquiring and developing the incredibly life-enriching skill (and, one hopes, love) of reading. Frankly I don’t know many people who acquire that love later in life.

The tobacco companies get this. That’s why they try to hook ’em while they’re young. I’d love to see our educational system do the same thing, with far less potential for harm.

Teach Harry Potter in schools rather than The Grapes of Wrath or One Hundred Years of Solitude, and I submit you’ll end up with more people coming out of that school who enjoy reading. And later on, many of those same readers may turn to Steinbeck or Marquez, but they’d be doing it because they want to, not because they were forced to.

What do YOU think?

Does your psyche have Dickensian scars similar to my own? Did you ever fight the urge to gouge out your eyes while typing up a paper on The Scarlet Letter? Or do you want to take me to task for blasphemy? I’d love input from any and all fronts, so please chime in. And as always, thanks for reading!


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About Keith Cronin

Author of the novels ME AGAIN, published by Five Star/Gale; and TONY PARTLY CLOUDY (published under his pen name Nick Rollins), Keith Cronin is a corporate speechwriter and professional rock drummer who has performed and recorded with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Pat Travers. Keith's fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Amarillo Bay, The Scruffy Dog Review, Zinos, and a University of Phoenix management course. A native of South Florida, Keith spends his free time serenading local ducks and squirrels with his ukulele.


  1. says

    I recently set myself the challenge of reading 100 literary classics.

    Here in England, the only literary books we were seemingly allowed to study in school, were Shakespeare plays. Rarely any works besides that.

    Still – now some 12 books into my challenge – I have to say that many of the really old classics are, for lack of a better term, dull. :(

    Or almost unreadable (I am currently in the middle of my third attempt at trying to read Beowulf).

  2. says

    Silas. Marner.

    I was force fed this cure for insomnia shortly after I’d discovered Stephen King (at 12…yes, lots of nightmares). My father claims to this day that it is a great book. Perhaps it is, but the chapter by chapter IV drip in junior high didn’t quite whet my appetite for engaging scenes involving old men living alone in the woods (unless they have a grizzly bear as a pet).

    I’ve thunk these thoughts as well. Why is something deemed a classic just because it was a best-seller in London 150 years ago? Writing and language do have a shelf life. Zane Grey is classic, too, but just let a 14 year-old read dialogue that is ejaculated instead of said during study hall and things will fall apart quickly.

    Why not, pray tell, allow a classroom to choose from a current list? Do we have to wait 100 years before Harry Potter is voted into the list of classics? The reason we have an entire generation that watches an average of six hours of TV per day and can’t find Wyoming on a map may very well be that they want to sever any and all of their unpleasant high school memories. Like reading.

    We storm the campuses at dawn. Dress according to genre and weather conditions.

  3. says

    I was asked in an interview once whether a particular object in one of my books was symbolic. I’m like, Cool interpretation (it was); never occurred to me once while writing.

    You’re absolutely right about high school, too. I devoured books from the time I could first read, was raised by two parents with English PhD’s– and even I can’t remember actually enjoying anything I had to read in a high school lit class.

  4. says

    “But I draw the line at building elaborate assumptions
    about what the writer’s intent was. Maybe something she wrote seems
    symbolic to me, but that doesn’t prove it was her intent.” I could
    not agree more! I’m quite sure that the only reason that I’m an
    avid reader today is that I was addicted to books well before I was
    subjected to the likes of Shakespeare and “The Grapes of Wrath” in
    high school. Every year, I was forced to answer essay questions
    like “discuss the symbolism of…” or “compare and contrast the
    author’s use of symbolism…” and as I churned out pages of
    gobbledygook, I couldn’t help thinking, even at that stage of my
    literary development, that the author’s use of symbolism was more
    likely a happy accident. Congratulations to your daughter for
    having the courage to say so!

  5. says

    Funny and true. I had pretty good English teachers through most of high school, except for the year I was in honors English, because that was, apparently, the benefit of joining the honors class: deadly dull focusing on the most minor of minor details, never talking about character, and endless speculating about the meaning of those minor minor details. It was a relief when I was disinvited to the class and could go back to regular class, where I got to write essays that consisted of an exchange of letters between the main characters of the two books we’d studied (my favorite assignment, which I still have).

    My son is in his freshman year of high school, and is generally an enthusiastic reader for pleasure, so we’ll see what schools are like now…

  6. says

    If it’s really that bad in schools, I’m glad I homeschooled (though, as I tell people, we homeschooled by accident).

    Part of that was trips to the library in which we returned with about a hundred books each time for the 3 kids and me, so that we’d have enough to read until the next trip.

    I never did any analyzing of anything – we were the science family – but the kids’ vocabularies were developed in context and huge.

    Reading was the pleasure part – okay, now that you’ve got your physics under control, yes, you can go read – worked for us.

    I skipped the whole thing, too – grew up in Mexico, where English was an extra, and I was left alone to read while my classmates were taught English as a foreign language.

    The only one of us who doesn’t read much is my husband – who did go through an American high school. Hmmm.

  7. says

    Reading as a gateway drug. I love that. And I relate. I spent a good deal of my childhood with my head in a book. Black Beauty four times at least. The things they ‘made’ us read in class might have been tolerable without the ridiculous analyzing. I remember thinking, “did I read this wrong?” because I didn’t see some deeper meaning. When I read for my own pleasure I found myself transported, and that has never changed. I suspect our teachers had to stick to some kind of ‘plan’ that didn’t include the sheer joy of story.

  8. Kathy K. says

    I actually shied away from some of the classics for most of my adult life because of this. Now it’s my goal to read some of them.

    I mean, Of Mice and Men, is a classic, but when I was a HS Freshman, it bored me to tears. I also found it difficult at the time to get through A Tale of Two Cities, so I sort of cheated and used the Cliff Notes instead.

    Thankfully, I appreciated and loved to read long before high school.

  9. says

    I think our schools are slowly making the shift. My high school English courses were much like you described. To this day, I can’t really appreciate Lord of the Flies like others, because my teacher insisted on the idea that there was basically a major symbol on every page. And Jane Eyre? Ugh.

    On the other hand, I had a teacher in middle school who got me to read all kinds of great commercial fiction – at 8th grade, when teens are straddling the YA/Adult world, he boosted me into the adult world of fiction. (Of course, “back then”, there wasn’t as much great YA stuff available like there is now). My 9th grade teacher made it so fantasy was cool.

    And as I started teaching English, I worked with many great colleagues who have done just as you suggested – gone “off list”, so to speak, and created new lists. Not only that, but we offered our students the opportunity to choose their own reading, and worked the lessons around those choice novels, instead.

    Currently, my own kids need to fill out “reading logs” and other book contracts that involve them reading whatever they like. My oldest is about to start high school next year, and fortunately, he devours books of his own right and left so that even if his HS English teachers end up being old school, I think he’ll still be all right.

    As a whole, I think we’re getting there.

  10. says

    It kills me that English has become my son’s least favorite subject in high school. But he tells me it’s because of all the analysis they are forced to do. Me? I eat that stuff up, but the average student, or non-English nerd, doesn’t care. They just want to be entertained when they read. And when I recommend a book to my son that is more in line with his interests, he tends to want to discuss it with me later — which of course warms my little writer heart. :)

  11. says

    This is too broad a topic to generalize. The first thing that comes to mind as a former high school English teacher is lack of funding to purchase and provide class sets of books. And, the preferences of every kid in a class will surely be polar. Trying to please all is no easy task. Of course there is the library, and our school had a wonderful selection. But there is still the nature of the teenager. Anti-classroom, rebellious, angry and moody in general. I have always loved to read, yet when certain teachers “forced” me to read, I went for the Cliff’s Notes to be quietly rebellious, yet still score my A in class. I think the best thing a teacher can do is teach books he or she loves whenever possible. Still, there is an entire school district telling you which books must be covered each year. If you teach AP classes, you would do students a disservice by not teaching them symbolism and author intent, etc.

    • Sarah M. says

      When I was in school, some 17 years ago, you had to buy your own books for class, regardless of any list.

  12. says

    I loved reading but even I struggled to drum up enthusiasm for certain assigned books in high school. A Tale of Two Cities has caused lifelong trauma to me… yet my sons (8 and 11) read an adapted children’s version of it last week and said it was a cool book. My older son loved Harry Potter but was equally impressed (if somewhat scared) with The Lord of the Flies. The difference being that they are not being forced to read these books. I think even Harry Potter could become dreaded, if it is analysed to death in class.

  13. says

    I always read the entire book on the first day it was assigned. Except for The Scarlet Letter. I tried! Oh how I tried! After all, my teachers hadn’t gotten it wrong before- I loved the Shakespeare plays they chose. I loved the classics they chose. We read some contemporary stuff and a lot of books from the Banned Books list. But I just couldn’t do The Scarlet Letter. I ended up sparknotes-ing it.

    One of my favorite stories from high school English was a test on The Lord of the Flies. For extra credit, we could name two ways to start a fire. One guy in my class said, “Rub two sticks together” and “Pour gasoline on a light switch.” He didn’t get the point. :)

  14. says

    Oh Keith this is brilliant and SO true!! Especially since so many of the “classics” are genuinely bad novels, and non-stories (read: purposely uninvolving, impenetrable, hard). Like Ulysses. Boring, boring, boring. What makes a story effective (read: enthralling) is its ability to capture our curiosity about what happens next, triggering that dopamine surge that makes the real world go away — literally anesthetizing us — so we can experience the world of the story. This is NOT something that can be faked or forced. It’s biological. Which is probably why a student of mine who’d just gotten her MFA from one of the most prestigious Universities in the country, said: “During the program they made us read novels that made me cry . . . because they were so boring.” It begins in elementary school and continues all the way through grad school. And don’t get me started on the heartbreaking way writing itself is taught in school, beginning in first grade. That’s another story. Here’s hoping educators take note of your post here — and to fighting the good fight!

  15. says

    Despite getting crammed with ‘literature’ at school in England, I managed to find other reading – Alan Garner, C S Lewis, Henry Treece, G A Henty – that transported me and made me an avid reader. Even read Beowulf at 17.

  16. says

    Great post, and I couldn’t agree with you more. Forcing books on kids won’t turn them into readers. But analyzing books was something (gasp!) I really enjoyed when I was a kid at school – but I can’t really say whether I would have enjoyed it if I had attended an American High School. I attended the French Lycée and to have to analyze what we read was literally a lot of fun, I suspect because it was presented to us as an intellectual challenge.

    Now I don’t know whether the French system is still that way – it was like that 40 years ago when I was young but I hear it has changed a lot so maybe the French have also lost their zest for reading…

    Because I really believe that you can make kids fall in love with reading – even “difficult” books – if you present them as a challenge, something against which they have to measure themselves. Is it intellectual masturbation as you suggest? Maybe, but as long as it’s fun, it works!

  17. says

    Since I don’t disagree with you, and yet I never disliked any of the books I was force-fed in school, may I take the opportunity to thank the teachers out there who DID or DO get it right?

    My WU bio starts with: “In the sixth grade, Vaughn’s teacher gave him a copy of The Hobbit, sparking a lifelong passion for reading and history.” And it’s true. And he had his hands full. It was 1972, the second year of busing for desegregation in our mid-sized Midwestern city. Due to a crowding issue, my teacher—the new ‘kid’ among the staff—was relegated to a “portable classroom.” It was basically a double-wide parked on the school playground, forcing us outside to get to the gym or to music class. Yeah, he had his hands full. I recently googled him. He’s a lawyer in a large nearby city. At the time, he was 23. It was his first year out of college. He was very laid back, sort of a counter-culture type (my parents called him “that hippie teacher of yours”). I fear the experience of dealing with us convinced him to go back to law school, but in any case, he changed my life.

    To the young man’s credit, during English lessons, he divided and conquered. He took those of us who already loved to read and offered us a variety of his favorite books to read on our own. My buddy Joey and I took The Hobbit. He met with us about once a week or so, just to “shoot the bull” about the book. We LOVED it (the book and the sessions). Afterward, he gave us each box sets of The Lord of the Rings, as gifts.

    I’ve always greatly appreciated the gift, but in hindsight I wonder even more for it. That must’ve represented a substantial chunk of a first year teacher’s salary. I can’t thank him enough.

    Way to stir a valuable conversation, Keith!

  18. says

    I loved reading, and I wrote papers and got As – but I couldn’t begin to tell you about any of the classics I was taught in school. I did well enough to satisfy my teachers, but I didn’t take anything away from my courses in high school. Because I didn’t learn anything that really mattered to me.

    I think teaching all kinds of books is important, because we need to show kids diversity. And, I think teaching them in a fun, lighthearted, creative way would encourage kids to voluntarily read books that aren’t ‘hot’ right now.

  19. says

    I truly wish that the schools would read across many genres so that kids would discover their own taste. The literary classics, the romance, the sweeping historical fiction. Yes, the classics have lessons to teach, but I fully agree that hammering a young mind with it is the best way to turn him/her off from loving it. Especially if the teacher insists that the kid’s interpretation is wrong. (This happened to me. I left that classroom certain I was incapable of learning or understanding literature. When I took a college class in American short stories, I took it pass fail because that high school teacher made me believe I couldn’t do well. The college professor pulled me aside after class one day and told me she was shocked when she learned I was taking it pass/fail. I would have gotten an A. Oh, well.) Now the schools are adopting this Core Curriculum which I hear will use very little fiction. Why? Why such a radical shift? To go from believing that the great literature has all the lessons to teach to believing the only thing worth reading is non-fiction? Our schools are a mess. I’m glad my kids are graduating this year.

  20. says

    I hated almost every book I was required to read in high school, with the exception of Lord of the Flies. It had young characters and social status and peer pressure issues in it I could relate to–in spite of how extremely different the details were from my life.

    As for symbolism… I realized early on the the road to a good grade was paved with as much bullsh*t as I could muster, so I found symbolism where I knew there was none. However, now as a writing adult, I find that I enjoy adding tiny parallels and subtle symbolism to my stories, even though I doubt most readers will see them–or care to find them. Do I do this because I exercised that part of my imagination as a student? Who knows….

  21. says

    I am very thankful we studied the classics in high school. I might not have appreciated them as much then as I do now, but the popular literature and comic books I read were built upon a solid foundation. My own kids are readers and although they chafe at having to do “analyses” I see how this exercise also helps them to read more critically. They are receiving a good classical Catholic education, much as I did, in all its richness. We expect our kids to be able to read St. Augustine or Shakespeare or Newton without stumbling over the language and the only way to have some familiarity with that kind of language is to read it. We have a large home library of both classics and contemporary works.

    And this training doesn’t being in high school, but when they are little. It’s with anything. You instill a love of reading when the child is young. If you haven’t already formed habits by the time they are 5 or 6 yrs old, it’s too late to do anything when they are 14 or 15. As Rosemary Wells wrote in a darling little book …”read to your bunny … and your bunny will read back to you.”

    I can’t stand the dumbing down of science and literature for kids. In our home, we read and discuss/argue about all kinds of things; we play and experiment. I love that my kids teach me something new every day.

    • says

      Thanks for commenting, Vijaya.

      I think it’s an oversimplification to say I’m looking to “dumb down” the literature kids study in school. Instead, I’m calling for us to choose books that the kids find relevant.

      Here’s an analogy. How many of you listen to classical music frequently? I’ll bet it’s a scant minority. Because for many people, classical music is “old” and not socially or emotionally relevant to us. Personally, I listen mostly to classical music, but I’m a trained professional musician who spent years in a classical conservatory. To me, the music *is* relevant. To my daughter, not so much.

      I think the same self-selecting model can apply to literature. Nobody will try to prevent a kid from reading Melville. But to force it on her – knowing full well how out-of-synch it is stylistically from all the other media and communications the kid is ingesting daily – is not a recipe for success.

      Books don’t have to be “dumb” to be popular. And let’s be frank: Dickens was a pop author of his era – more of a Stephen King than a Steinbeck. But now his books are revered as classics – as perhaps The Stand – or The Hunger Games – may be someday.

      Me, I think that if we can keep kids off the big C’s – crack and Cussler – we’re winning.

      • says

        Ah, but if you let kids pick solely what they think is relevant, they will dumb it down. It’s the law of least resistance. It takes effort to read the classics. I also don’t think children and teenagers have developed a discerning eye (or ear) for that matter. You have no idea how many times I’ve read an insipid picture book to them because that is what they chose. But they enjoyed the books I do as well and this is the beginning of developing taste. As a parent, I want them to be able to read and grasp the deeper meaning behind the beautiful works published now and ago.

        You make a good analogy with music. My tastes run towards the classical/romantic/baroque but at home we listen to a variety because we each have our own preferences. The fact that they were already exposed to classical music means that when we have a High Mass, they can appreciate the music. And it elevates their mind and heart to God. My daughter is not fond of Latin, but I’ve heard her singing bits of Mozart and Faure. She would never have picked to listen to it of her own volition, but she is richer for it.

        I want the best for my kids. I may have to settle for less, but not first without trying to give the best. And as for relevant, the old stuff is. We are building upon the shoulders of GIANTS.

        I do agree that some teachers can suck the joy out of learning, but that is a function of the teacher, not necessarily the subject. I’ve been blessed with an abundance of brilliant teachers my whole life. This community is teaching me lots too. Thanks for making me think about this topic more.

  22. says

    BTW, I would like to add that our local high school gives the kids a list of books from which to choose, ranging from classics to contemporary. An exciting concept, for sure!

  23. says

    If a child’s only reading is what he or she is given in school, that in itself says there must be no books in the home, and that’s sad. I think for kids who are turned off reading it happens at a much younger age – if they’re not read to as babies, if their parents don’t read – that’s what kills off a kid’s love of reading, because they have no good examples of readers, they don’t see the point of it.

    As one of the other commenters says, having to read set works doesn’t preclude children reading other books. If they have a ‘library habit’ ie established when they were young enough to go to the library with their parents, then they’ll know where to find the fun stuff. I was obsessed with Richard Scarry, then Alan Garner, Noel Streatfield, even romance writers like Victoria Holt. But I still enjoyed being ‘made’ to read Thomas Hardy, Charlotte Bronte and Ted Hughes, because although I never would have chosen it for myself, I grew to love their writing (while I was still at school). If I hadn’t been introduced to them, who knows if I would have read them. And guess what – those are the authors I still return to, not Victoria Holt.

    I find the idea that children won’t enjoy reading ‘serious’ literature because it’s not ‘fun’ a bit patronising. So ‘Grapes of Wrath’ is a downer? Who says kids aren’t mad for tragic stories? And yes I too was made to read Dickens a Tale of Two cities when I was 11, and hated it. Dickens still does nothing for me. That’s a matter of taste, not age.

    I agree with you about over-analysis, particularly when it comes to poetry, but I think that’s partly just laziness, ignorance or lack of confidence on the part of teachers. At least, I think that’s the case here (UK).

  24. says

    Great comments – thanks to all who are chiming in!

    The subject of reading lists has been mentioned by a few of our commenters, which reminds me of a whole ‘nother issue.

    When my daughter was in middle school, she showed me the list of books she had to choose from, and pointed out than almost none of them had any female main characters. How was she supposed to find characters to relate to in this required “literature” when they didn’t even have stories about characters who shared her gender?

    Don’t get me started on how cranky that made me. Grrrrrr.

  25. Carmel says

    Substitute “history” for “literature” class, and you have my story. I’ll even go so far as to say I didn’t enjoy learning anything until I was out of school. I have no answers for the school systems. I’m just thankful that the desire to learn hit me hard after I’d graduated, and learning was much more enjoyable on my own. And now the person whose worst grades were in history is writing a historical novel.

  26. says

    I agree with 4amwriter – most of the books I was required to read in school did not make an impression on me. At that time we were more interested in reading Judy Blime and any other slightly naughty book we could get our hands on. I recently read Jane Eyre and loved it this time around.

    We need to give children the love of reading – be it The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, or Harry Potter. Being forced to read a certain book took all the joy out of it, for me anyway.

  27. says

    I think it also depends on the teachers. I worked with high school seniors on their senior papers, and when I asked students if they understood the overall concept of a particular classic, they hadn’t a clue. Just as we discuss books in book clubs and on Goodreads and more, a student should understand why they are called to read certain material — what makes it a classic, and why they should care.

    This post saddens me. Reading and storytelling are two of the greatest joys if the human condition. If the classics aren’t reaching students, perhaps we should determine new classics and encourage teachers to have open discussions on what the books mean and why it was chosen. I submit even fondness for a certain classic is subjective.

  28. says

    Junior high and high school English classes are one of the major reasons I became a writer. No, not because they taught or inspired me – they bored me to tears with ‘symbolism’ and ‘inner meaning’ and the rest of that. I just tuned them out and sat and wrote my own stories. Got me terrible grades, but I kept my love of reading and literature.

    I have always loved to read – no one knows when I learned, but at four I read my parents a story from the Saturday Evening Post (am I dating myself?) that had arrived just that day. I also wrote my first book at four – one which, I hasten to assure you – will not be published as one of my backlist!

    I cannot help but feel that these English classes which are so dreadful are that way because the teachers themselves have no great love for writing and story, so they stick to the tried and true. My father always said that those who can do, those who can’t teach, although there are – thank God – exceptions! And lest you think that harsh, he was for a while a teacher. He left because he could not stand the rigidity and lack of enthusiasm in the educational environment.

  29. says

    I totally agree with this article. In 7th grade we had to read “Summer of my German Soldier”. Why would anyone force a boy that age to read this? Thank goodness I discovered Terry Brooks and Ursula Le Guin or probably wouldn’t be a reader/writer today.

  30. says

    Listen to yourself: “Some background: I grew up loving to read. My parents were both writers and readers…” etc.
    Anyone who grows up as you did is probably inoculated against the worst classroom abuses. But since precious few children these days live with adults who read anything, or ever read to their children, you should avoid resorting to the standard whipping boy, the teacher.

  31. says

    This was my experience too. I hated English class. I was bored by the books and thought that finding symbolism in the colour of the clouds was BS. Luckily, my mom instilled a love of reading in me at a very early age, so high school English class was not my first introduction to reading. But I think about other kids who didn’t have a parent like that and how school taught them one thing – reading is boring – and that’s a tragedy. I agree with Donnel’s suggestion above: maybe it’s time to determine new classics. There are so many fantastic YA books out there that would make for interesting and enlightening class discussions based on the book’s story and not the supposed symbolism.

  32. Patricia says

    “The Return of the Native” High school, 1966. Shudder. It was so tedious that we were split into two teams, each one reading just half the book.

  33. says

    As a retired high school English teacher, I can’t let this post pass by unchallenged. First, does everything in school have to be fun and entertaining? Did you find calculus entertaining? How about instead challenging and thought-provoking? As anyone who’s in a book club will tell you, sometimes you don’t like a book, but after you’ve engaged in conversation, you may come out of your meeting with at least an appreciation for it if not a complete change of heart. The same can and should be true in school. The trick is to get the students to explore and respond rather than force feed them your ideas. I completely agree with your statement about searching for author’s intent. That’s known as an intentional fallacy. What an author intends may not be what he produces anyway. And every reader brings his own experiences to a book, so while, certainly, not “anything goes,” each person may respond to one thing more than another. Learning to be a critical (and I don’t mean “hypercritical”) reader helps develop independent thinking. Perhaps the heart of the problem lies in teachers assigning books that are, if not intellectually, then emotionally beyond a young person’s readiness.

    • says

      Of course everything in school doesn’t have to be fun and entertaining. The problem is not discussing books in class, it’s forcing students to read books they don’t enjoy. And I get my back up when you suggest that maybe these classics are “intellectually and emotionally beyond a young person’s readiness.” That’s bull. Teens are not stupid. Often the classics are simply from a generation that doesn’t connect with them. Just because they don’t like a book doesn’t mean they don’t “get” it. That widely held belief discourages people from reading, and that’s a shame. Why not have the class read The Hunger Games and then have a lively discussion about the role of government in society?

    • says

      I’ve had both kinds of English teachers – ones who talked about character, setting, and plot, and ones who read symbolism into everything. The latter drove me nuts. In college, I wrote a poem dripping with symbolism (and yet having none at all) in protest. I wondered what those teachers would read into it.
      So, that’s the long way of saying, “Good point!”

    • says

      Christina, thanks for replying.

      You asked “First, does everything in school have to be fun and entertaining?” and brought up calculus as an example. It’s actually a very good example, because it shows how different a skill like calculus is from a skill like reading.

      No, calculus is not entertaining (unless there’s somebody whose idea of a good time is to pour a glass of wine and do some nice relaxing calculus after a hard day at work).

      But here’s the thing: it’s not supposed to be. And that’s where it differs from reading fiction, because ideally reading fiction IS supposed to be entertaining.

      But if we create the association in these students that reading literature is supposed to be as challenging (and potentially unpleasant) as calculus, then ultimately the majority of students may end up treating calculus and literature in the same way: as something to do only when forced. Which then leads to it being something they NEVER do once nobody is forcing them to.

      Case in point: I’ve never done another second of calculus once I passed that odious college course, and with luck I never will again. I just think it’s awful to realize that many people feel the same way about reading books.

      • Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

        Perhaps the reason applied to why lit is such a boring subject in school can also be applied to why math is such a boring subject in school. (There’s a pun there somewhere). I’ve viewed videos by scientists that talk about quantum physics and time travel that actually make math seem exciting. Imagine if your math teacher was was a philosopher along the lines of Dr. Who…

    • KDB says

      Completely agree with your point about author’s intent. Maybe the problem lies in a teacher presenting one interpretation as “the” interpretation. I can see how that would turn students off literature in a heartbeat.
      Also agree that perhaps the trouble lies in choosing works that students aren’t able to relate to emotionally (didn’t interpret that as “teens are stupid”). Maybe an answer lies in a mix: some thoughtfully chosen classics and more contemporary works.
      The “Hunger Games” discussion sounds intriguing, but I’d hate to think kids wouldn’t also get to the chance to read, discuss and just think about works like “The Great Gatsby” or “Hamlet” (two I loved from my high school English classes).

  34. says

    Behind you 100%, Keith. I was appalled by the books my youngest son was forced to read in High School, and so was he. Four years later, he still rants about the pathetic choices that were forced upon him. He says the only reason he survived was his love for books that began with my husband and I reading with him. Sharing our favorite books and the reasons we loved them, developed a passion he will never be without. He lives in Asia, travels quite a bit. When he’s looking for a place to stay he picks his residence based on how close it is to the best bookstore in town. Is that cool or what?

    Part of nurturing our children well, is rooted in showing our support for what they are enthusiastic about. That’s why it’s okay to read The Rainbow Fish 12 times in a row, or cheer even when they keep making the same mistakes on that clarinet for hours on end. When there is a spark of excitement in our children’s eyes they may very well be on the road to finding their dharma. No teacher or parent should interfere with their process.

    A little more genuine awareness, through “listening” (If you’re truly listening you’re not talking, even in your head—not forcing your opinion, but letting the exchange flow), to the children in our charge could save everyone a lot of suffering and grow the joy.

  35. Susanne Morlang says

    I find this discussion “Right ON!”

    I am a “voracious” reader and have been since age 4
    In HS it was a matter of pride to me not to read any of the books assigned. I got away with it because I had already read a number of them – and I had discovered commentary in many of the books.
    When I tried to get our older son interested in reading books I started with biographies of Lenny Dykstra (then very popular) and Lou Gehrig (a great role model). I had already read to him for years and noticed a distinct preference for non-fiction.
    Unfortunately our younger son is somewhat dyslexic: he wants his “books” to be movies or videos. Reading anything is a major chore although he applies himself to textbooks. Have you any suggestions for that type of non-reader? (He is in his 30’s now)

    • Tristi Mullett says

      Have him try audiobooks. This way he “reads” without having to put eyes to page and have his brain trip him up. And many of those audiobooks are fantastically acted out through the vocal talent…

      My $0.02


  36. Denise Willson says

    Great post, Keith.

    My children are young, but they are lucky to have teachers that allow them to roam the library and pick any book they want. It’s part of their daily curriculum to read and write reports on what they think of the story.

    I’m hoping high school will prove the same. If not, I won’t be popular with the faculty. :)

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth, and (coming soon) GOT

  37. says

    Your posting made me laugh because I was almost one of those high schoolers who was never going to read another book in my life. Since my high school graduation, I went thirty years without reading a single book. Yeah, I know, that’s insane. I read some magazine articles and that’s about it. Books seemed boring to me.
    Then I met my wife.
    She was reading a book a week. She knew my favorite movies were romantic comedies so she surprised me and bought me a novel for my birthday in 2011. BET ME by Jennifer Crusie. Wow. Loved it! That changed everything for me. Since that book (three years ago), I have read about 150 books, almost all in my favorite genre, contemporary romance. And a few more that were comedies or parodies.
    It’s like you said, I just needed something that I was interested in. Coincidentally, I’m going to be publishing my own romantic comedy in a couple of months.
    Funny how these things happen. :)

  38. says

    Great article.

    I once attended a very private gathering with one of my favorite poets, Gwendolyn Brooks. I witnessed the stumbling and errors of lit professors who, standing on arrogance, told her not only what her poems meant but also where they came from — only to be (gently) corrected.

    Analysis and interpretation are important, mainly in that critical thinking is important, in my opinion. But we can only know so much, and have to be realistic about the limitations of what we can know, especially with an artist’s intents.

    It would be great to get kids hooked on reading as well as interested in really thinking about whatever they read.

    I also think that if more parents are into reading, their kids might follow suit. It could even give families more stuff to do together.

    So… Parents! Suck it up and get into some books!

  39. says

    I think the responsibility for engendering a love of reading lies with the parents.

    I read to my children daily, starting when they were days old and continuing until they were in high school. It was a family bonding thing, but I also saw it as the start of a habit. I read Canterbury Tales, the Odyssey, Beowolf, Lord of the Flies, Jane Austen, you name it when they were in grade school. I’d read a “chapter” before they went to bed. The next night, they’d have read several more chapters. and I had to start at Chapter 4 or 5. They’re still voracious readers and read everything from Hunger Games to Milton to Garfield joke books. Of course, we always had books around the house, and nothing was forbidden.

    Their problem with high school English classes was that the teachers assumed no one wanted to read the classics. They were already reading Harry Potter, Robert Jordan, etc. and thought the teacher should be assigning things they weren’t already reading on their own. (I agreed.)

    A different POV.

  40. says

    I agree, even though I mostly enjoyed all the things I was forced to read in high school. What I most agree with is the stupid essays asking for symbolism. Your daughter’s example is funny and true. I always picture Counselor Troy saying to Data, “As Freud said, ‘sometimes a cigar is just a cigar’!”

  41. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    My dad was a writer and he taught me to read through comic books. We started with Superman when I was 4 or 5, and by the time I was 13 he gave me two books for my birthday, Logan’s Run and War and Peace. Seriously. I loved them both, Logan’s Run made such a great impression on me, I started reading SF and fell in love with Philip K. Dick. War and Peace instilled a love for history that went beyond the boundaries of US History. My parents were English. They didn’t understand the big hullabaloo my American high school teachers made about my love for Poe and Shakespeare. Because everybody in my family loved Poe and Shakespeare and Stan Lee.

  42. says

    I remember in elementary school I was given 20minutes for free reading time. It was the best part of the whole day for me because I could read what I wanted. I think that started my passion for reading.

    Then I entered high school where they tell you what to read and make you dissect it, taking the fun out of the reading portion. I believe like you, unless the author came out and said this is what this means then anything is open to interpretation. My English teacher disagreed and actually said your opinion can be wrong. I hated being forced to read Dickens and Hawthorne.

    Years later, I read some of the authors I was forced to read for myself without the pressure and found I highly enjoy Dickens and I can understand more of it when I’m not given a time limit to finish each chapter.

  43. says

    I am afraid I’ll be representing the minority here. First, as a high school English teacher, I am distressed to hear so many people assert that this is an overall “truth” about education in America, specifically in the English classroom. I would like to defend first my own great English teachers, who made me LOVE the classics we were reading because they taught me to see the craft applied by the person telling the story, and because they encouraged discussion, which will bring out the pros and cons of any book, if students are given the voice to elaborate upon them.

    Second, I’d like to defend the teachers who do a good job, whether they teach classics or YA literature or both, of eliciting student responses and encouraging the SKILLS of speech, analysis, and differentiation. I know there are bad teachers out there. I’ve met some of them and observed in their classes. But let’s not assume that the bad ones are the only ones, or that good things aren’t being done for and with young people to advance their love of reading. It’s happening–I see it every day.

    My class is currently reading THE STRANGER–a classic, but an undoubtedly great book in any age–and one of my reluctant readers just finished ahead of schedule and called it “the best book ever written.” It was the text which engaged her, but also our class discussions, which are always lively, respectful, and encouraging of individual scholarship.

    Don’t believe it. Fight the bad, but encourage the good. There’s never just one way to view education.

  44. says

    Cool post, Keith. And so remarkably timely for me this week.

    Art Spiegelman is in town this week, talking about graphic novels. I know about him because a few months ago, my 9th grader read his graphic novel MAUS in her freshman English class. MAUS is about the Holocaust – Art’s parents were survivors.

    My daughter’s a big reader anyway, but she told me the graphic novel gripped the entire class, in a big way. And it certainly gripped her that way–after reading it about 10 times, she asked me to take her to one of our local indie bookstores, so she could buy META MAUS, in which Art explains the writing of MAUS.

    Which then led her to ask her dad to take her to Amsterdam, to see Anne Frank’s house. He told her he would take her anywhere in the world, and that’s what she chose.

    And so, as I type this, my daughter and her father are standing in Amsterdam, outside Anne Frank’s house. And because she’s there this week, not here, I’ve been lamenting about how she’s going to miss meeting the very man who inspired her to go there.

    But after this post, I realize she hasn’t missed out on meeting that inspirational man at all. *That* man is her 9th grade English teacher. And she is not the only kid whose love of reading and learning he fueled by ditching the conventional “stuff” and handing out “comic books” to his students.

    Thanks for the reminder, Keith — I owe that man a thankful email.

  45. says

    It’s good to see that other people think like I do. One boy I know who’s 18 and reads at a younger level was being forced to read The Scarlet Letter. Will he pick up another book once he’s out of high school? No way. I also think that, for the kids who are into it, have an advanced lit class and read classics. I started out as an English major in college, but switched. The breaking point came when we were discussing the symbology of the color orange in some book I don’t even remember.

    For the record, I read A Tale of Two Cities voluntarily in high school and I have never gotten through Moby Dick.

  46. says

    Thank you for this post, Keith!
    My perspective is from HS in Sweden, where I grew up. Swedish class (as it’s called there), too, comes with a reading list. However, I was lucky enough to have a teacher with his own ideas. He told us to pick and choose whatever books we wanted to read, and write our papers about them. This resulted in me reading Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Solszhenitsyn in HS. People in my class started with Jackie Collins as juniors and ended with August Camus as seniors. And we all did it voluntarily. At home my mother encouraged us to read comic books. I learned how to read with Marvel’s Fantastic Four (in Swedish translation). Whenever we were going on a trip, no matter how long or short, Mom brought us to the comics section of the bookstore and told us to pick out something we wanted to read. Why did she do this? Because she wanted to read comics as a kid but my grandparents wouldn’t let her because it wasn’t literature. And because she knew that it doesn’t matter what kids read, as long as they read something.

  47. says

    Ahem! Everyone sit straight, swallow your gum and put your phones away!

    I just sent the link to this post to my daughter’s English teacher. He may pop in any time.

    Look busy!

  48. says

    “After all, if you kill a kid’s enthusiasm for something before they can connect with it, you’re really blowing an opportunity.”

    I read to all three of my girls, every single night, and they LOVED books. Then they went to school. They slowly grew to hate reading. Now, none of them read unless I press a book into their hands and threaten bodily injury such as removing cell phones. Which is so very sad to me, as I write for kids now.

    I became a writer despite school. I absolutely hated my English classes. I was bad at dissecting stories (and frogs, but that’s another story). I seemed to see things that no one else was focusing on, which made me feel stupid. Come to find out, years later, I wasn’t stupid, I was simply picking up on deeper layers. Who would have thought?

    Anyway – I wholeheartedly agree.

  49. says

    Agreed. My approach to teaching literary analysis (even in the elementary grades) is to have the kids read ALL the grade-level books the teacher’s prepared the summer before the school year (this would be about 8-10 books or so). Then they pick THEIR favorite four to do the deeper analysis on.

    Win-win. The kids are exposed (in at least a skim-read way) to all the desired books. But we don’t kill their love of reading by making them analyze books they find boring. :)

  50. says

    I know people who enjoy calculus. It’s a tool, not a punishment, just as reading can be.

    Reading can also be fun, but that’s not its only purpose. I submit that many of the fiction classics were presented as a way to look at the human condition. Lord of the Flies was a study in group dynamics; Ethan Frome was about adversity…there are actually ideas in those stories that the good teachers seek to offer for their students’ consideration. The Hunger Games could be used the same way. In my opinion, there’s nothing fun about that storyline, either.

    I think kids learn to love reading in their early years at home. Maybe the memories of painful analysis and symbolism papers stand out as all painful adolescent memories tend to do, masking more satisfied experiences.


    • Steve Bridge says

      “I think kids learn to love reading in their early years at
      home. Maybe the memories of painful analysis and symbolism papers
      stand out as all painful adolescent memories tend to do, masking
      more satisfied experiences. ” I am a librarian and a parent. SOME
      children learn to enjoy reading at home — if they have parents who
      learned to love reading when THEY were children. If not — and
      there is an awful lot of NOT out there — schools should help build
      a love of reading for those who haven’t gotten it. And the schools
      should avoid beating the love of reading out of the students who
      have picked it up. It’s a real challenge for those of us who are
      parents who love reading to keep our children motivated as they go
      into high school and face literary criticism. Our library system
      has a huge Summer Reading Program which works hard to keep children
      motivated through the summer, giving prizes and ignoring past fines
      and other problems. That can also help; but parents, schools, and
      libraries need to work together to keep children excited about
      written stories and information. The approach I often use is to
      tell children that reading books is the closest we can get to
      mind-reading. A writer takes thoughts from his or her mind and
      writes them down; then YOU read them and they go into your mind.
      (Just don’t connect them with boring thoughts or with thoughts that
      their young brains aren’t ready for yet.) It works for

  51. says

    For some reason I feel compelled to chime in with a contrarian take. Is the purpose of a high school literature class really to instill a love of reading? Isn’t that lowering the bar a bit much? It should be so much more than that. Classical literature has so much to teach us beyond simple entertainment. Dickens and Steinbeck and Shakespeare and Melville show us the true power of language in a way that “pop-fiction” generally cannot.
    A love of reading should be present long before the freshman year of high school. Give them Harry Potter in 6th grade, not ninth, if they haven’t already discovered those kinds of books at home. Then stretch their minds in high school with something meaty.
    I do agree with the ridiculousness of trying to read the author’s mind and picking out symbolism on every other page. My 9th grade daughter’s teacher gives more open – ended assignments, frequently comparing characters or scenes. She’s learned to think deeply about fiction while understanding there is typically no right answer.

  52. says

    Oh, wow… you’ve got me going here! Warning: (long) soapbox moment. I apologize.

    I had my secondary eduction in The Netherlands, and apart from English, the languages I studied were Dutch, French, German, ancient Greek and Latin. I remember reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis in German because my teacher said it was a great book. It left me slightly puzzled and thoroughly depressed. I dropped French as soon as I was allowed so I didn’t have to read anything beyond Le Petit Prince. French just wasn’t my thing.

    Dutch and English weren’t optional though. The first two years were mostly about grammar, spelling, vocabulary etc, so more the technical side, but then the big word was dropped: Literature. We were going to start reading literature. I remember someone asking the teacher what literature was, and how you knew if something could be labeled literarary. We never got an answer other than “Well, it’s obviously nothing published by Harlequin”. Anyway, I started my discovery of Dutch literature. I don’t know if you’ve ever read Dutch literature, but eventually I formed my own definition: literature is anything depressing written by dirty old men who make everything to be about sex, in crude language. Or it’s about WWII. Or both. As long as it’s weird and thoroughly depressing.

    I never wanted to touch literature again. Actually, I haven’t touched Dutch literature since, and I never will again. Life’s too short. Fortunately, there was something called the Victorian Novel. The Brontës saved me in English class. So did Oscar Wilde and Daphne Du Maurier.

    I started reading again when I started writing again. Because apart from putting me off reading (which I had been passionate about as a child), my Dutch and English teachers also managed to put me off writing for a very long time (even though I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was six). They never taught me how to write. They just told me when I had it wrong. I managed to get it right once, when I played the literary game: I put in as much “literary” crap as I could think of. The teacher loved it. I drew my own conclusions: writing wasn’t for me. Fortunately, I rediscovered both writing and reading more than ten years later. Literary is no longer a dirty word in my dictionary. But never again in Dutch. I read and write in English. It gives me more space to breathe.

    By the way, I’m a teacher myself, and although I know that there are many good and great teachers out there, I also know that my literature teachers failed me. I never felt they really cared about my interests, or ever knew anything about me. A good teacher would have picked up that I enjoyed creative writing, and would have encouraged me with helpful feedback, not just a number without explanation. Teaching is far more effective if the teacher takes the time to get to know the student and builds a relationship.

  53. Tristi Mullett says

    The Scarlet Letter was so dense, boring and horrific for someone who loved Anne McCaffrey and C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia that it made me hate English, what was up until then my favorite subject. Having my civics teacher teach The Lord of the Flies was a much different experience. As for A Tale of Two Cities, my senior English teacher made it easy to pass the class without cracking the book so I never did. I don’t regret never reading it since I had to get through Great Expectations, but if I hadn’t already loved reading I could see losing my will to read anything after that. Analyzing symbolism made me want to bang my head against a wall. So frustrating.

    Maybe if the analysis of story moved through other mediums like film, TV, graphic novels, etc. there would be a greater understanding of story, and not the emphasis on symbolism.

  54. says

    I agree with a lot of this. My daughter was taught a book in her MS LA class and came home and asked for (and read) the rest of the series. IMO she should have gotten an A and the teacher a commendation.

    I’m a writer too and get asked about symbolism and questioned on how I handle things A LOT. I try to keep in mind how Tracy Hickman answers the question: “How do you pronounce that character’s name?”

    “How do YOU pronounce it? Yes, that’s right.”

    I’d really like for the approach to be in LA classes: “What does the story mean to you? What do these pieces, scenes, characters, etc mean to YOU?”

    Teach the kids to own the book and you’ll teach them to love to read.

  55. says

    I had 7 brothers and 2 sisters, but I was much younger than them. I was the “baby.” My father quit school in 8th grade because his father died and he had to support his younger brothers and sisters, and he was the oldest. My mother bore 9 kids and raised step-children, so about 13 in all. My point here is that neither parent was a reader to my knowledge. I never saw them read that I remember. The only sibling left at home while I was growing up was the one closest to me in age, my brother, Richard. He was 9 years older than me. I do not remember learning to read. My earliest memory is of him reading a page or a chapter to me, and me reading the next page or chapter. Then at 4 years of age, I was fluently reading his textbooks. I read everything I could get my hands on, even the cereal boxes. I loved to read. I always projected myself into the story and I was a strange child. I even liked book reports. So, even the ones that others hated to read, I loved them. Yes, even A Tale of Two Cities, in fact, that is one of my favorites classics. As long as the books are well written, sans grammar and numerous typo issues, I can usually read almost any genre, with a few exceptions. :) Thanks for the great post. I agree that children should be taught what interests them, not what others think should interest them!

  56. Erin says

    I went into high school loving to read. It took me ten years to recover. High school was a valuable lesson in how much I hate The Great American Novel. Now, I am reading again, but I stick to genre novels. If a book is on the “literature” or general “fiction” shelf, I will not read it.

  57. says

    I was fortunate, I went to a non-traditional High School. My literature classes were not strictly focused on the “classics.” While we had required books, we also got to choose books we wanted to read. In addition to reading The Lord of the Flies, Moby Dick, A Tale of Two Cities and Wuthering Heights, I also read:

    A Brave New World
    Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
    I, Robot
    2001: A Space Odyssey
    Goblin Reservation
    The Hobbit
    The Dunwich Horror
    Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
    Fahrenheit 451
    Starship Troopers
    Tales from Earthsea
    The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

    This is just a sampling of what I read for High School English. The English teachers had a long list of approved books to choose from. If we wanted to read a book not on the list, we had to submit a request for approval. Of all the books I read in High School, the only one I hated was the Lord of the Flies. To this day, I can’t imagine not having a book I am currently reading. In fact, I usually have 2 to 3 I am reading at any given time.

  58. says

    And yet it’s interesting…when I ask writers what they consider great novels, most of the titles mentioned are classics. Anna Karenina comes up often. Most also in some way illustrate the qualities of “good” writing that were taught in high school.


    • says

      The question is: do these writers really believe that The Classics are great novels, or do they respond with The Classics because that’s what they were taught to say?

      If someone is a literary writer, and she is asked by a literary agent looking for new literary genius, What is great literature?, she’s not going to answer honestly that she spent many hours of her youth reading Danielle Steele. She’s going to answer with the big names that have been bashed into her head since middle school: Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Hawthorne, etc. etc.–the names that make her look intelligent and cultured and refined.

      I liked The Scarlet Letter in high school. I read Anna Karenina, Middlemarch, Vanity Fair, and the works of Jane Austen, Dickens, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Edith Wharton, et al. voluntarily, outside of school. But I was extremely odd, and I watched all of my classmates learn to despise reading under the tutelage of well-meaning English teachers.

      The only reason many of The Classics are forced down teenagers’ throats is because they have always been The Classics. They’re what English majors are taught, so they’re what English teachers put into the curriculum. Why is Great Expectations so great? Is it really so great after all? Ask, and ye shall be snarkily chastised by The Learned.

    • says

      In my case, I just wasn’t ready for most of the books I was forced to read. For my oral English exam, Wuthering Heights was one of the books on my list, but through lack of time I couldn’t finish it, so I studied the synopsis instead.
      Recently, I read WH properly for the first time. It was one of my most intense reading experiences ever, but I’m sure that I would never have had the same experience at 17. The same could probably be said for most of my favourite literary novels now, and of Shakespeare. I love Shakespeare now, but as a teenager I never understood what all the fuss was about.

      I guess I just don’t agree with any kind of force-feeding.

  59. says

    Love this post, Keith. I HATED the literature classes in high school and even my first year of college because I never could figure out that deeper meaning. I did enjoy reading the classics, but the analytics were so stressful. I’ve had some reviewers try to ferret out some deep meaning in one of my books, and I just shake my head. The only motivation I was concerned about was the killers. (smile)

    And I do have to mention that I have a writer friend who would be so jealous to know you have played drums with The Boss. She is a huge Springsteen fan and has a reference to him in her book, The Last Prospector.

  60. says

    The entire purpose of education should be to create a thirst for
    learning and the competencies to slake that thirst. As a former English teacher, I was required to teach certain things from the syllabus.

    But the most important, most satisfying compliment I ever received was from a former student. It had been a disastrous year. One in which I told friend-husband on the 12th of September that signing that teaching contract was the worst decision I ever made in my life, bar none.

    This former student was an adult with a newborn. We were conversing, reminiscing, and I felt compelled to tell her I thought my students that year deserved an apology from me because I had been stretched way too thin.

    She responded that no apology was necessary. It was the year she learned to love reading. Now she is an avid reader, as are her three daughters. I had, in effect, just been handed the Nobel prize.

  61. says

    I came out of high school hating the classics because of teaching like that. I was never very good at finding themes or symbols. If someone said, “What’s the meaning of the red room?”, I would have said, “That the color was probably in style at the time.” As a result, I ended up guessing what the teacher wanted. What exactly was I supposed to be learning with this?

  62. says

    Sorry, I’m not a fan of Charles, Hemingway, Poe, Twain, or Shakespeare. They were the big talk at my school. I’m not going to say I don’t like the classics. I didn’t read many novels growing up. I read comic books. So I’m not really familiar with “The Classic.” I’m sure there are tons of stories that are considered classics that never reach schools.

    We shouldn’t depend on schools to introduce good stories to our children anyway. It’s a pretty big opinionated institution, and they don’t always have our best interest in mind. They are given a budget, a focal point, and a direction to follow. Every now and then there comes a teacher that rises from the ashes like a phoenix and ignites the student body. I got to school 3 years after that teacher retired

    My childhood environment sucked assets. It was a few levels above the “Warrens” *smile*. Reading the classic was not in the family’s agenda. Grow up, get a good job, and stay out of trouble was the main emphasis. Follow your dream Brian, bah, don’t be a dreamer was more like it.

    As an adult, it is a goal of mine to find some of these classics and feed them into my matrix.

    My classics have been written by Weeks, Gardner, Baldacci, Ilona, Stieg, Westerfeld, Patterson, Twelve Hawks, Picoult, and Maass.

    As I continue to read more will be added.

  63. says

    What many fail to understand is that today’s average 15 year old student does not have the same depth and nature of life experience as did someone who was 15 in 1935. In other words, people need a bit more time get to a place in a life where they may more fully appreciate a deeper, more symbollic or poetic work of literature. That isn’t to say literature should be ignored, but to assume that by forcing today’s teenagers to read Faulkner is going to suddenly awaken in them a love of Faulkner is like assuming you’ll have an all-state basketball team simply because you force student to go out and practice basketball 7 hours a day, (whether or not they have ever had even the slightest interest in the game.)

  64. says

    It was always BOY stories. That is, the girls would automatically read the assignment, but the boys had to be enticed. Silas Marner, Julius Caesar, The Scarlet Letter (well, the heroine should have torn off that confounded A), and other boy books. The only one I liked was The Idylls of the King, but that wasn’t actually part of the standard curriculum. But the public library was my friend; so I didn’t suffer too much.

  65. says

    Keith, I love this post so much I’m going to send it to every parent I know. I was a pretty serious reader and even I was bored to pieces by repeated analysis of Old Man and The Sea and Other Important Literature. Meanwhile, I was gulping down everything I could find at the library and a lot of it was literary, but more to my taste (I had a particular passion for Faulkner and African American writers–my family was Southern and I was struggling to know what they had experienced). A lot of it was not literary, too, but the point is that I was reading approximately a book a day when people would let me get away with it and it was a big mix of everything–science fiction and romance and Serious Novels and YA and Trixie Belden and dusty historical things I found at the library, forgotten.

    Readers are born when they find what they love between the pages of a book, plain and simple. All the Serious Study practically ruins it, as it often does for writers who begin writing for joy and then end up suffering for Art.

    Love this. Thank you!

  66. Jim Nuttall says

    My reaction to the “classics” in high school is Heminway,
    Steinbeck, and Dickens and so many others did not write for
    teenagers. They wrote for the adults of their times. So why do we
    think cramming them down teenage throats makes sense. Also when you
    come upon adults who read, they read contemporary authors. Let the
    dead bury the dead. Read today’s authors with age appropriateness.
    Lastly, when most adults who read today’s authors don’t worry about
    symbols and hidden meanings. They read for pleasure. Imagine

  67. Francene says

    As someone who devoured books at home and yet hated much of what was taught in high school English I have to agree with this post. English does have a lot to answer for when it comes to turning people off reading. We can argue till the cows come home about whether the classics have important themes/ideas that students need to be exposed to, and whether English should be enjoyable. If English is turning people off reading then it’s failing because the objective should be to create life long readers with the critical skills to analyse texts. This isn’t going to happen if people don’t read.

    I have also taught English at high school level and my experience is not that students don’t appreciate the classics but that they need a lot of scaffolding first. Rather than slogging through a whole book like Moby Dick I found it better to teach a themed unit which included films that explore similar ideas and also popular, accessible books they could relate to. These students might not get to read all of Moby Dick but through reading selected passages and activities they are exposed to a sophisticated writing style and they hone their critical thinking skills. Best of all they don’t develop a deep and abiding hatred of the classics.

    I taught the novel Lord of the Flies in conjunction with the most recent film to a class with poor literacy and they loved it! We read a few chapters and then watch that section of the film and my students read every word of that book without complaint. We also watch the Simpson’s Lord of the Flies episode which was a huge hit with them.

  68. says

    I hate Return of the Native for just these reasons.

    Conversely, I *love* The Scarlet Letter because of how Mrs Sweeten taught us to read it. Essentially, her method was how to recognise “The Good Parts” Version. And yes, she did say, “Don’t bother to read this page/that chapter unless you really want to. What we’re looking for are These Elements and Those Elements. And doesn’t that make this a really ripping good story about sex and betrayal?”

    Absolutely, Mrs Sweeten. Absolutely. I wish more English teachers taught literature the way you did.

  69. says

    I’ve always been a reader because my parents were readers. My dad loved westerns and my mom liked human interest. My dad took me to a great little neighborhood library as soon as I could read. Before that he bought me comic books and read them to me. He enjoyed them as much as I did. I knew that people read for fun and grew up enjoying it. We moved to the country where I didn’t live close to other kids, so I read a lot. Dad bought books that were geared to kids like Black Beauty and Heidi. We then discovered a great little library in a nearby small town. My son chose his own books like the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. He still is a lover of LOTR and has reread it many times. My daughter didn’t read that much so I bought her Garfield cartoon books just so she’d read something. She then joined a book club at school and is now a reader. I totally agree that you have to interest children when they’re young. I read to mine before they could read. I bought a book of words with cute pictures to go with the words and we just about wore it out.

  70. says

    Great post, Kieth. Love this: “Kids have their whole lives to develop critical reasoning and good taste.”

    And they’re too young to get that in high school. Why don’t we teach them to love reading instead – then maybe they’ll wander to the classics on their own, when they can appreciate them.

    And if not? BFD. They’ll have been exposed to many wonderful worlds in the meantime. Can that be bad?

  71. R Coots says

    I homeschooled high school. We had to fulfill credits and all, but there was more leeway in what I got taught. So for my English courses, I took creative writing and Science Fiction. Yes. Science Fiction. It was a full blown course, remote teacher and everything. Analysis of story, how it reflected the thought AT THE TIME, and possibilities of the future. There were alot of the greats in there, and to this day I can’t take Hitchcock’s version of The Birds seriously. Mainly because I read the original story in that class and it is FAR creepier.

    That said, any of the ‘classics’ that get force fed highschool students (my husband hates reading and tells horror stories) are books I’ve never read. And, simply BECAUSE of the stories my friends in public schools have told, I don’t plan to get in arm’s reach of some of them. Ever. The classic’s I’ve read either came for fun (Count of Monte Cristo, Three Musketeers and Le Morte de Arthur in Old English-ouy) have mostly come from my love of reading. I got Joyce and Chekov in college and didn’t mind. But my love of reading is firmly engrained and for every book I had to write a report on, I read three that were just for kicks.

    I think you make a good point. Teach books and stories in Lit class that aren’t going to kill the kid’s love of reading. Or hey, maybe it’ll KINDLE a love of reading in them. My husband loves math so much he does it for fun, but ask him to read a newspaper article and it’s like pulling teeth. Maybe if they’d given him histories on Einstein and Newton and Bowditch instead, he’d like reading more.

    Or, thought, what about geographic location as an inspiration? Find works related to your area, or a predominant profession there (we grew up in a port town. I credit that for my interest in Shackleton’s adventure and other seafaring books).

  72. says

    My thought is why not use a both/and approach? I had a Popular Lit class that covered pop lit (admittedly, from earlier than the 1990s when I was in HS) and had required reading AND assignments where we chose our own books. I believe that the way the classics are taught expands vocabulary and teaches critical thinking skills, which are necessary for all other subjects and create thoughtful citizens. We also used the classics to discuss social issues like slavery, racism, women’s rights, etc. I loved covering the classics. However, there’s no reason you couldn’t use a few more short stories to teach all of the aforementioned things and then leave a little more room for students to choose their own books for other assignments. I think my study of and appreciation for the classics have made me a better writer. I didn’t always like them (hated Steinbeck and Hemingway as a high schooler, now a devotee of both) but I learned from them. And there were plenty of other things I did like to balance them out.

  73. says

    I’m with Erin on the both/and. As a professional writer, Mother of elementary age sons and drug-like book addict, I think the problem starts way before high school. My children’s reading (in first and third grade) is so regimented that their schools actually DISCOURAGE reading anything above grade level. Instead, they are forced to read boring stories about ducklings and cats in the woods twelve times over. Without seriously involved parents, these kids are taught to hate reading long before high school.

  74. Leslie R. says

    I’ve always loved reading, even some of the classics I had to read for class. Alas Babylon remains a particular favorite among the works I was assigned to read for school (I started reading my assigned three chapters one weekend and finished the whole book). Oddly enough, I enjoyed reading classic literature more then than I do now. I loved Lord of the Flies and Great Expectations and Tale of Two Cities. But I recently read Jane Eyre and Oliver Twist and didn’t particularly enjoy either one. (I actively disliked Jane Eyre, in fact).

    But I always thought the analysis was pretty ridiculous. I used to get a kick out of writing poetry and giggling to myself imagining the messages future English teachers would try to tease out of it. And while I managed to love some of those books in spite of having to analyze them to death, most of my classmates clearly did not.

    One of the good things about my school was that there was some choice about what you read. My freshman/sophomore English teacher had these quarterly “Book Project” assignments where you got to choose your own book – each quarter was a different genre, Mystery, Science Fiction, Non-Fiction, etc. So that was kind of fun. And my junior/senior teacher had book lists – I think we had to choose 2 books per quarter. The lists were still all of “classics” – those important titles you should read – but at least there was an element of choice.

    I think it’s really important to get kids hooked on reading early – although clearly even that’s not enough sometimes for them to continue enjoying reading through the slog of analysis in high school – but I also think it’s important to read at least some of that classic literature. It informs so much of our culture. But certainly, if you can get people to love reading in the first place, there’s a much better chance they will choose to read more widely on their own later.

  75. says

    Wow! You really hit a nerve. Worked as an assistant
    principal in a large suburban high school and saw plenty of this.
    It broke my heart. And my two sons were totally turned off by their
    high school English teachers and dislike reading to this day. A
    total bummer for me as a writer. And it bothers me when other
    writers trash authors who are hugely popular, saying the writing is
    sub-par. If people love reading Twilight, Harry Potter, and Fifty
    Shades of Grey, who are we to trash them? Reading should be all
    about enjoyment, and to each his own. I consider “literature snobs”
    to be just vile. Get off your high horses. I saw one truly amazing
    teacher who had her entire room filled with shelves of books. Kids
    were aloud to pick ANY book they wanted to read and she had a
    worksheet for them to consider what they read and they had to
    present what they liked/disliked about the book to the class. Her
    students read voraciously and these weren’t what you would consider
    “honor students.” We need more teachers like that!

  76. Jim Nuttall says

    I’ve been exploring the Kindle Fire HDX. It offers immersive reading. This is a pairing of the audiobook and the ebook for reading. Many of the books required as classics are available this way. The audiobooks are extremely expressive and well narrated. It is like listening to a play or movie. This adds a lot of interest to the books and for those with low reading levels allows for easy reading of the book. To test this out I just downloaded Great Expectations. With the classics buying both the audiobook and the ebook comes as a discount. I got both the ebook and the audiobook for $2. And what’s more I’m actually enjoying it.

  77. Patrick Stemp says

    This post is right on the money. I was dreading my oldest daughter starting high school. I was trying to instill a love of reading in her (quietly…monkey see, monkey do) and was worried high school would ruin it.

    Sure enough, she’s slogging through To Kill a Mockingbird and hating every minute. How the hell is she supposed to know what a foot washing Baptist is, and why should she care? She’s already dreading Twelfth Night which is next on the docket.

    I read the same books in high school over 20 years ago. It’s time to update the curriculum. And not just in English class.

    I would much rather they watch Cosmos in science than memorize the periodic table. Get them interested – THEN start specializing. Why are they still teaching sewing instead of personal finance? Because the school boards are stuck in the 1950’s – probably the last time they wrote a new math textbook or bothered to read a book themselves.

    They haven’t completely ruined her yet! She’s reading Holes and Harry Potter. But they’re doing absolutely everything in their power to teach kids that reading is boring, and that science, math and history are memorization rather than art.

    The entire system needs to be reworked and updated.

  78. says

    THANK YOU! Someone finally gets it. It is not that reading should only be “fun” or that the great books are not really that great after all, but I have to agree that to a young person they just aren’t that appealing. Most teenagers have little exposure to the greater world, and therefore the great works of literature are, as you said, a “downer” and completely nonrelevant to boot. I distinctly remember dutifully reading the assigned stories in our 10th grade book, and then skipping around to the stories that were really interesting. I still remember the interesting ones, and have no memory of the other stuff we had to read. Of the few assigned pieces we had to read that I do remember, most are not remembered fondly. There were a few exceptions, but very few.

    Now, I won’t necessarily say that we have to encourage kids to read solely by providing the latest bestseller teen books. But there are plenty of YA or other fiction books that are well written, thoughtful, deep enough to be analyzed, and relevant to the world that teens know. We need to utilize those books to teach kids both the joy and the value of reading.

    Will there still be some people who never read again? Of course. Some people are not readers – either by choice or through home environment growing up. But you would probably have far fewer non-readers if you avoided creating an impression that books are all either boring or depressing.

    By the way, my husband had to do a book report one time and they asked about the author’s motivation for writing the book. The teacher was not pleased when my husband pointed out that the author himself stated he wrote it because he needed the money!

  79. says

    It’s both things – not just books that young readers don’t connect with, but the way they are “taught”, so I totally agree.
    The situation is even worse with poetry. To me, you start by finding great poems students will like and see themselves in (a lot of Billy Collins’ work has this, as an example) and then use those poems to get kids writing. Forget the mind-numbing analysis. In fact, Collins has a great poem about beating a poem with a rubber hose “to find out what it really means”!
    I did hardly any poetry at high school but I discovered Robert Graves on my own somehow, and his poem that starts “Love is a migraine”. Yeah!
    Yes, you could use Harry Potter as your text, but the way “analysis” is taught, you’d kill HP for most kids as well.

  80. Hilary says

    “Send them to an American High School” – I can assure you, British schools have much the same effect!

    Fortunately, I loved reading before I even started at school age nearly 5, so my love of books survived, but it took me decades to be willing to read anything that counted as “a classic” again. Jane Austen and the Brontes have never floated my boat, though I now like Shakespeare, and I regret the years I spent refusing to read Conrad.

    I belong to a book club, and for every book we read, someone loves it, someone hates it, and the rest are somewhere in between. Presumably it will be the same in any school class, yet the teacher picks a book and seems to expect that everyone will like it or at least appreciate it. It would be so much better to acknowledge that most people will dislike most books, and let those that hate it move on to something different that they do like, or at least give them a chance to write an essay/speak in class pulling it to pieces. What sort of discussion can you ever have if everyone is pretending to be positive? If you have to justify why you think “this book sucks” or “the plot makes no sense” or “the characters are all people I’d cross the street to avoid” or “in this book, nothing happens” you actually have to work harder at analyzing it, and you can end up with a real humdinger of a discussion.

  81. says

    Great post. When fiction is first and foremost about storytelling, readers of every age enjoy the experience. Fiction as puzzle solving does not appeal to most people. (For one thing, it takes the reader out of the story.) Great literature tells a story, and the craft is supportive, not an end in itself.

  82. says

    i think i was rather lucky. my mom gave me a love of
    reading way before i was in high school. so, luckily i had a whole
    bunch of “fun” books at home. then, i was super lucky to have a
    high school english teacher that allowed me to read what i want for
    the book reports she required as long as she approved the books. i
    was forced to read huckleberry finn and i quit reading it after
    four chapters. i couldn’t stand the use of a word. again luck was
    with me, i knew enough of the story to scrape by. in my senior
    year, i had a teacher that just rocked. when we had to do chaucer,
    she brought in a recording of it, and i fell in love with how the
    man was speaking. she made the middle english fun! so when we read
    the modern english, it was bad. it was poetry that was ruined for
    me. for me, poetry should be about feeling something and not
    breaking it down to figure out what the author meant. grr. so
    sufficed to say, i’m not a poetry person now. i like some of it,
    but i don’t go out of my way to read it.

  83. says

    My literature scars from school are Frostian, not
    Dickensian. It seems that every year, from around 7th grade through
    10th, we studied “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening”, and every
    year the teacher tried to convince me this is a suicide poem. I
    didn’t see it—still don’t—preferring to enjoy the pretty picture
    rather than search for hidden meanings that Frost may not have
    intended. Since I hated English classes, perhaps in part because of
    poetry, I always read the minimum from the reading lists. Did a
    book report on The Grapes Of Wrath from the
    Cliff Notes. Have read it twice as an adult, and love it. Except
    for the poetry, nothing stands out as a negative. I did a report on
    Cooper’s Leatherstocking Saga, which my 11th grade English teacher
    praised more than she probably should, trying to encourage me I
    suppose. Thank you, Mrs. Rosen. On the other hand, no real
    positives stand out except what I’ve mentioned here. While I had
    and have a love of reading, I got that from Mom and Dad, not

  84. Lynn says

    I am a library director and I will not read “The Great
    Gatsby” — it was ruined for my in high school. Not only did I have
    a teacher dissect it for most of a semester … every book we ever
    read after it was compared to it. I was speaking to a teenage
    patron lately who loved the movie and wanted to talk about the ins
    and outs of ambiguity in “The Great Gatsby” and I had to admit that
    I couldn’t continue that conversation. I have no problem with any
    other author and I have read high literature to early readers. But
    my skin turns cold when G2 gets near me.

  85. says

    Absolutely agree! I hated everything I read in school, with
    the exception of The Scarlet Letter, which reminded me of General
    Hospital with Puritans. Because of that, I avoided literature with
    a capital “L” until grad school…more than 15 years later. It’s
    taken me that long to get past the dread and hatred of “school
    books.” And this is coming from someone with two degrees in
    English, who makes a living as a writer. If the high school
    curriculum failed someone like me, who already had a demonstrable
    interest in the subject, I can only imagine how badly it failed
    those who didn’t feel the pull I did toward the written

  86. says

    I’m bit late to this party, but I have to say AMEN to all that you’ve said. I remember hating Moby Dick in high school and made some off-handed comment about burning it. A bunch of kids took me seriously and burnt the book in a fireplace. With glee. Personally, the only book in high school that I liked was Jane Eyre because there were no papers assigned on it, no essays, no stupid analyses, just a fun project at the end of it.

  87. says

    When my daughter was younger, she wasn’t interested in
    reading anything other than manga. I was often asked why I
    encouraged her interest in it, why didn’t I insist that she read
    “real” books, didn’t I want her to grow up to be a reader? But
    that’s the thing: she already was a reader, and a voracious one at
    that. If she’d had enough time and manga available, she would’ve
    gone through ten volumes a day. As she’s gotten older, her
    interests have broadened to YA and classics, some of the latter
    directly attributable to her interest in manga. For example, right
    now she’s reading Arabian Nights and Dante’s Inferno, thanks to
    having read Magi and Devil May Cry. She’s also read Kafka,
    Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Orwell, etc., just because she wanted to, so
    for her, this definitely rings true: “And later on, many of those
    same readers may turn to Steinbeck or Marquez, but they’d be doing
    it because they want to, not because they were forced to.”

  88. says

    Don’t get me started. I agree with you, Keith, and I think this approach is why so few young men go on to read fiction. I have a smart, articulate and rationally-oriented son who wants to see relevance and applicability in his fiction. If he can’t have those, at least give him fun. But no, the education system here is not set up to accommodate that mindset.

    By the way, I don’t mean to imply female students don’t have the same need. In my world, it’s just that many of them are willing to BS the teacher to pull off a good mark. Is that what we want in our education system, though?

  89. says

    As a Middle School English teacher, I can tell you that it has always been one of my goals to make kids love reading. I was a reading teacher for years, and it is harder than you think. I had to read Anne Frank, Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men, and the worst…The Great Gatsby. All in Middle or High school. I wasn’t overly impressed by any of them. I liked the story of Anne Frank, but the whole diary is long.
    What was I, as a kid, choosing to read? Realistic fiction about teens who were dying of cancer, or breaking up with their boyfriends, or other characters who were having trouble with friends. That is how I DIDN’T lose my love of reading. I have since learned to love Gatsby and all the others, but I came to them on my own and reread them.
    These days many times, especially in urban areas such as where I teach, kids don’t learn to love to read. It isn’t the teacher, or the books, it is simply not important at home. There is only so much we can do, but man I try all the tricks! I mean when I, as a Literature nerdy type person, would rather read Harry Potter than The Grapes of Wrath…can you blame kids for wanting the same?
    One more note. Last year I taught the wonderful book Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie. My students wanted to know if it was a true story, so I emailed Jordan Sonnenblick who wrote the book, and asked him. He sent me back a great email explaining where he got the idea, and all sorts of fun stuff about the book. Talk about buy in from my students! They were hooked and we were only on about chapter 6. I can’t email Steinbeck

  90. Marcy Clark says

    I hear so many people complaining and read that very few of you are teachers. How many of you have tried sitting in a classroom full of 30 students 7 times a day and inspire each of them every single day?! I am a first year teacher and yes I had dreams of wanting my students to enjoy learning and love the subject and want to come to my class everyday, but I learned very quickly that it does not work that way. I spend most of my time babysitting 7th and 8th graders because they have become lazy and do not want to spend time putting in the work that is required. I am a science teacher and have a lab planned for every single class and yet they would mess around with the supplies and not do it when it was something that required only following directions. Currently we are doing a rocket project where they build rockets, research them, and launch them. I never did anything like that in middle school and so many of them just refuse to do the reflection about how well they think their rocket flew.

    I understand that the symbolism stuff is probably unecessary but you cannot just allow every student to pick what ever topic that they want when you have 175 students and are suppose to teach them the basics about life.

    I have told my students many times that the goal of public education is to give an overall view about the world so that you will be able to conversate with other people when you get older. When you get into upper high school and college (or community college or training school) you will have more and more choices about what you want to study. What type of sciences or literature you want to learn about but through middle school and most of high school students need to be taught the basics about everything otherwise they will slowly be lost with each generation that dies. A student that does not like science and math still needs to know basic skills for when they are out of high school.

    Also many books like Harry Potter would not be allowed to be forced at a public school because it is suppose to be fair for all students without suggestion towards individual beliefs.

    Instead of just complaining, if you don’t like what the curriculum is then do something about it. Go to your communities Board of Education meeting and work on getting proposals and things changed. If there is a teacher that is not supplying your student with what you think is right, then it is your responsibility as a parent to make up for that or defend them at school not complain on a website.

  91. Rachel Franke says

    I always hated the term “classic” when it comes to
    literature. It’s not a genre. I think it’s supposed to be a measure
    of the quality or literary merit of a book, but that is so
    incredibly subjective. Some of my all-time favorite books have been
    classics: To Kill a Mockingbird, Brave New World, Lord of the
    Flies, The Great Gatsby, Animal Farm. But I’ve also read — or,
    tried to read — other books that are considered “classics” and
    found them mind-numbingly boring: Pride and Prejudice, Treasure
    Island, Wuthering Heights, Julius Caesar, The Scarlet Letter. Thing
    is, the classics I enjoy are books that have something to offer
    besides symbolism and history: they have an interesting story
    that’s written in such a way that doesn’t read as dry as a legal
    brief. The story should come first. I think, while the other stuff
    to dig into is great and all, the books that should be considered
    true classics are those in which there’s plenty to dissect, but you
    don’t have to do so in order to get something out of the reading

  92. Sarah says

    YES. I LOVED reading when I was a kid, so much. But then
    high school came and then college and they made us read so much
    that I didn’t have time to read what I wanted to read anymore.
    After freshman year of college, I didn’t read a non-school book for
    more years than I can count. I’m finally back to reading, and it’s
    good to be back. I can see what I learned in high school, but I
    still harbor a deep hatred of Billy Budd and Odysseus and the

  93. Carl says

    Killing the love of reading happens much earlier than in
    HS. Too much “textbook” approach to reading and LA instruction does
    in the students, probably by third grade. When I completely
    revamped my own teaching for my fifth graders, I was shocked when a
    vast majority of students told me that the book we had read orally
    to each other was the FIRST book they had ever finished…

  94. says

    I agree with your comments. I read to my boys when they were younger. It helps to build their imagination and creativity besides intelligence. They may not think about the moral to the story, but it sinks in.
    I started reading at a young age. The books took me to another place–safe and beautiful. I started writing in my teens, but they were nothing great. I enjoyed English in school, but the dissecting of books never made much sense to me.
    Also, I never liked Shakespeare. I thought he was a terrible writer!

  95. Alex says

    I, personally, am a bit of a weirdo, and loved reading the classics in the semester of English I took through the public school. What I did not like was getting forced into reading at a particular pace, and having to read a book which was poorly written (Tex, particularly), and not reading any poetry because, and I quote, the teacher thinks “poetry is stupid and pointless” and didn’t like it.

    However, I got sick pretty quickly of trick questions on quizzes over the book, on things which had little or nothing to do with the plot, on being told to analyze XYZ thing which was not something which likely had any deep meaning (“Why were they using toothpicks for sculpture in art class in Tex?” and the like). While I love reading, and now, as a senior, am reading books like “The Prince,” and “The Count of Monte Cristo,” this is because after my one semester, my parents decided to home-school me for English.

  96. says

    Heck, I nearly gave up reading in first and second grade. “See Spot. See Spot jump. See Dick and Jane.” Ad nauseum. It was a passion for writing that drew me once again into reading.

    Great article. Thanks. Hope the word gets out.

  97. Joye says

    I think kids should read more lively classics, like The Three Musketeers, Treasure Island etc. Also historical fiction that features a character their age. The book report should be what the student thought of the plot, characters, style; ask them what they would change. I’m still for promoting the classics, because kids need to know that life was going on before they were born.

    The teacher could also recommend ‘fun’ books, but don’t have them do a report. With no pressure to perform, the kids can truly enjoy reading.

    On the other hand, book reports are good practice for the workplace. Sometimes we have to read (and write) boring stuff to succeed! :)

    • says

      When reading aloud is a shared activity, children are encouraged to ask questions and talk about the story. This is a perfect opportunity to teach values, encourage integrity, and give children high ideals to reach for.