I suspect that there are a few bright thoughts about books in the 160 comments to a post by Moby-Dick enthusiast Matthew Yglesias. But, because the very first line of the very first comment is “Fuck Moby Dick,” I’m dissuaded from exploring further. Yglesias’ post is inspired by a New York Times story in which a New York University professor suggests that no child is interested in reading Moby-Dick. The story as a whole is an interesting look at an experiment to let elementary and middle-school students pick their own reading assignments; though it’s not quite anything-goes, some are permitted to read Twilight novels and James Patterson thrillers.
Benjamin Dueholm talks a lot of sense about the matter in his post, “A Child Who Picks Up Moby Dick Won’t Actually Like It”:
[A] classic out of season is worthless to most anyone. You don’t learn to love reading because you were blown away by Moby-Dick; you learn to persevere through Moby-Dick because you learned to love reading from simpler, trendier, more instantly-gratifying stuff. Chase thrillers, Star Trek novelizations, Judy Blume, whatever–it’s the Pixie Stix of literary pleasure that get us hooked and in need of subtler, more thrilling highs.
To the extent that it’s doubtful a middle school ever assigned Moby-Dick anyhow, it’s a moot point. But what I wish the Times story were clearer about—and this is tough to quantify, I know—is whether the choose-your-own-adventure approach increased an overall interest in reading, or if being force-fed Huck Finn actually decreases it. (The story mentions one study that says choice improved performance on comprehension exams, but doesn’t say by how much, or if those cases involved a mix of choice and assignments.)
Like Yglesias and Dueholm, I’m a big fan of Moby-Dick; like Dueholm, I didn’t read it until I was out of college. Maybe it’s ambitious reading in high school that makes you a lifelong reader, though I sometimes wish I had a do-over for the classics I read then that I didn’t have an especially good grip on: Don Quixote, Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury. What I do know is that the comic books and Star Trek novelizations I also read back then didn’t adequately prepare me for those books; what I needed (and sometimes got) was a smart teacher who could speak about how thoughtful literature works. Which is why I’m a little skeptical of the idea of a curriculum designed to support pretty much whatever the student feels like. It smacks of everybody-gets-a-trophy-ism, and risks avoiding a cold fact of adult life that school ostensibly prepares you for: We’re often charged with reading things that are complicated but which we are obligated to understand anyway. Classics can be difficult, but isn’t that why we teach them?