What ever happened to trust?
When I was in high school teachers trusted tthat we all completed our reading assignments over the summer. The first day of school we were asked if we read whatever book we were supposed to read. Everyone would raise their hands in the affirmative and some interesting and relevant discussion would ensue before we moved on to the real start of school.
This system worked well, and gave students like me, who pretended to read the book, the opportunity to remain silent in class in a resumed, if tanned, pose of fictional engagement.
Now it is different. My two high schoolers actually have a written test on the second day of school specifically on their required summer reading assignment. Presumably their teachers give a grace day for the summer slackers to read hundreds of pages in a single night.
Or at least the back cover. They don’t assign books that are made into movies anymore. It is that trust thing again.
The problem with required summer reading for kids is that the books they are assigned to read now are so dark and difficult. I mean really, who wants to go on a Nantucket beach vacation and read Moby Dick?
I read Moby Dick one summer. Or at least part of it. The first chapter. I quickly learned that this great American classic is really just a metaphor for reading where Captain Ahab is a high school student and the whale is an encyclopedia.
And we all know what happens to Ahab.
Thank god I had seen the movie.
My kids are studying American Literature this year. During the school year they will be reading The Great Gatsby, a novel I actually enjoyed and understood, despite the bad movie renditions.
But over the summer my kids had to read a novel of life in Montana in 1948 where a young boy’s uncle commits a terrible crime, and his father, the local sheriff, must confront his brother ultimately destroying the fabric of the family. As far as I can tell, the book is an American coming of age story which explores themes of betrayal, abuse of power, and racism set against a post WWII western backdrop amid a series of tragic events involving murder, rape, and suicide.
Now that is what I call a good summer read for teenagers.
Couldn’t they be reading about a pool party at Jay Gatsby’s mansion on Manhasset Bay instead? And besides, The Great Gatsby is so much shorter.
Or how about Ernest Hemingway? The Old Man and the Sea certainly qualifies as an American classic and it has really short sentences.
Or how about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? At least that is entertaining. Who can’t relate to a juvenile delinquent skipping school and rafting down the Mississippi?
Don’t get me wrong. I am not against summer reading assignments. And I am not against reading great works of American literature, although there are some books that I never understood and some I never want to read.
And I am certainly not against testing kids on what they have read over the summer.
I just don’t think it is fair that they should have to darken their long summer days while the rest of us lighten up with the latest page-turner that happens to sizzle on the NY Times Summer Bestseller list.
To make my kids feel better about their assignments I started reading The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. It is a famous historical book of nonfiction that is over 800 pages long. I put it down when the lengthy discussion of Uranium started to remind me of whales.
The book was on my bucket list where, at the rate I am reading, it will remain until I die.
I re-read Jaws instead.
Let’s face it. There are books that are read in school and books that are read for enjoyment. There is not a lot of overlap. I doubt any of us have an edition of The Scarlet Letter on our nightstand.
To read great works of literature, we need the help of educators, librarians, and recent college graduates looking for work to help us decipher what has been written. And this process, in turn, encourages us to join book clubs so that we can verify with others that we are correctly enjoying the books we read for enjoyment.
In case you are interested, I have a used, dog-eared copy of William Faulkner’s densely written As I Lay Dying on my nightstand because that is about when I will get around to reading it. I keep it there in case anyone I want to impress asks me what books I have on my nightstand. And having it nearby makes me feel better about all the the other important works of American literature I also have never read.
My bucket list library is getting pretty extensive.
And it grows bigger every year that my kids are in school.