They Would Prefer Not To

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?

9 thoughts on “They Would Prefer Not To

  1. (Long-time lurker; first-time poster)

    I’m an “old school” mom and I know I’m going to sound reactionary, but the idea that a child should never read, eat, watch, or listen to anything they don’t automatically like (or don’t think they’ll like) is the reason children today are so insulated in their knowledge. Just as I wouldn’t let my kids choose to eat only junk food or choose what time they go to bed or choose whether to get their shots, so they don’t get to read only what they want to read. Yes, they have read Dear Dumb Diary and Twilight and A Series of Unfortunate Events, but in between they have read Huck Finn, The Count of Monte Christo, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, David Copperfield, all of the Greek & Roman myths (and lots from other cultures too), and, yes, Moby Dick, among many other works. Sometimes a book functions as broccoli—“I know you’d rather have a twinkie, but this is better for you”—and one day, your child surprises you and asks for broccoli (or, in this case, asks “Are there any other books by Charles Dickens?”) Children need to stretch their minds on occasion with books that are difficult and that express themes and ideas that are not immediately assessable. We’re not doing the next generation any favors by not making them broaden their intellectual horizons in any way.

    1. Deb, that sounds horrendously authoritarian, even by parenting standards. How do you make a kid read a book he doesn’t want to read?

      Ma turned me onto good books when I was young, but the introduction was completely passive on my end. I read what I wanted to in elementary school (the Lad series, mostly), and ma read Tolkien to my brother and me before bed.

      I hope your approach works, even if it sounds like the familial equivalent of micromanaging a child’s personality.

  2. You read Ulysses in high school? Really?

    I am tempted to claim that it is impossible that any high school student could understand Ulysses.

    By the way, you aren’t missing anything in that Yglesias comments thread. I read it. Most of it is dedicated to a silly argument, fueled by that first poster, about whether the study of literature is worthwhile at all.

    1. I’d agree that it’s impossible for any high-school student to understand Ulysses. I did read it then, but I wouldn’t claim I read it *well*. I did have some supporting texts handy, though, so I wasn’t flying blind entirely.

      On a related note, I didn’t date much in high school.

  3. I should be a little more precise: what I am tempted to claim is that any high schooler attempting to read Ulysses would find it so dense and baffling that s/he would be unable to get through it. You may be a counterexample, of course.

  4. I was persuaded by nearly everything in that NYTimes article — by the teachers arguing for the self-directed approach, that is — except for the comment by one source who said that it doesn’t do any good to make kids read something they don’t enjoy. I wish they had qualified that more to say it doesn’t do any good to make a kid read ONLY what they don’t enjoy. It is necessary, and even does good, to sometimes read something we don’t enjoy. If nothing else, doing things you don’t enjoy is a kind of a basic requirement for being part of a community. Forcing kids to eat their carrots may turn them off carrots permanently, which isn’t the ideal outcome, but sooner or later they have to eat the carrots. The goal is to get there in such a way that they’re open to carrots after they finish the finicky stage.

  5. I am always intrigued by these arguments. On the one hand, getting a child to exercise their brain by engaging with text is a good thing. On the other hand, does that text have any further value? If the goal is to “enjoy” reading, then I think it’s valuable to define what we mean by “enjoy.” Is it mere entertainment? If so, then the goal can be reached by teaching Twilight or James Patterson (maybe). But if “enjoy” means something more, something longer lasting, something that has effects beyond the momentary thrill (and I think it does), then those books will not work. Reading literature is much more, and, as you said, with the help of a smart teacher the enjoyment of literature can be one of the most meaningful lessons in life.

  6. I agree that having a good teacher makes a huge amount of difference. I also think choice of text matters and I fondly suppose that there are books somewhere between Moby Dick and Twilight that manage to be both engaging and complex and teachable. But that would probably spoil the argument the journalist wanted to incite.

    I did laugh at your comment about Ulysses and the absence of dates. I feel there’s a sociologist’s dream thesis waiting to be written there.

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