Saturday, February 24, 2007

Standard Lecture #37

Yesterday I found myself repeating to my sophomores a speech I have made enough times that it's become almost calcified. But it gets at something that I believe to be both true and at least potentially significant. It goes something like this:

You're about to start reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. (A few smiles, a chorus of groans.) You've seen and talked with many other students at your grade level who have already been reading the book. I don't know what the word on the street is, but I do know this: at the end of the semester I always ask students to tell me which one book they think we should get rid of, and which one book they think we should keep. And by a margin of about five to one, The Poisonwood Bible is the one that students tell me we should keep.

Not everyone likes the book, of course. It's a long book, it is a book that is going to challenge some of your thinking, it's a book that is in all likelihood unlike any other book you have read up to this point. So I'm going to ask you not to judge the book before we get started. Think of it this way. Of all the people who have ever read this book (or pretty much any other book you are likely to encounter in school) there are a certain number of readers, perhaps a majority, who are going to enjoy reading it, get something out of it, and look back on the reading as having been a valuable experience. Likewise, there is a somewhat smaller group of readers who are going to dislike reading it, not get anything out of it, and, if they manage to finish the book at all, are going to look at it as being a waste of time. Let's represent the two groups this way:

Now, we have to add another factor into the picture: you. As you consider those two groups, I'd like you to think about the question of which group you would prefer to belong to.

Because here's my argument: you do have a choice. It's possible to be the kind of reader who will enjoy the book and get something out of it, and it's possible to be the kind of reader who won't. And which group you wind up in has a lot to do with how you go about reading the book. I had a teacher once who told my class that most good books teach you how to read them well as you go along. In the beginning the book may be confusing or frustrating or hard to get into, but if you stay with it and pay attention to the cues the book is giving you, you can learn to be the kind of reader that particular book needs you to be.

In my experience most students start with the assumption that a book is good or it isn't, and that whether or not it is good has mostly to do with the book itself and very little to do with them. I'd like to start suggest that you try out a different assumption: that whether or not a book is good for you has mostly to do with whether or not you can teach yourself to be the kind of reader that book wants you to be.

That's the real reason we're in school, and why when we're in school we read books. It's not about this particular book at all. It's about whether, in the course of getting a high school education, you can learn how to be a flexible, creative reader, a reader who can adapt to whatever you are asked to read and do it successfully. If you can do that, everything that you have to study in junior year, senior year, college, and beyond will be easier for you than it will be for the student who is stuck with the reading skills he had in fourth grade.

If you are reading a book and the way you are reading the book isn't working for you, you basically have three options. First, you could keep doing what doesn't work, which will probably be frustrating and angst-inducing and generally a bad scene. Second, you could just give up and reach for the Spark Notes or just try to fake your way through it; the problem is that even if you get away with it, which you probably won't, you will have forfeited whatever chance you had to actually learn something during the five weeks we will be spending on this book. Third option: you try brainstorming some ideas about how to read the book in a different way.

Let me give you an example. (I should warn you that this is my version of the story, and that if you asked somebody else they might give you a different version. But bear with me.) Several years ago, before you arrived at the academy, we had a program at Punahou called "The Book in Common." At the end of each school year, everyone—the students, the teachers, the administrators, the secretaries, the maintenance staff—was given a copy of the same book, with the agreement that we would all read the book over the summer. A different book was chosen each year, and it was really nice because when we came back in the fall there were lots of interesting conversations that took place in class and out of class and at lunch about the book we had all read in common, and it was one way of helping to pull a very large community into the same conversation. And they'd usually invite the author to come to the school during the year and speak at assemblies and meet with people who wanted to talk about the book. So that was interesting, too.

But it was always the English department that chose the book, and at a certain point in time the teachers in the other departments said, "Hey, why don't we rotate the choice of book so that different departments get to choose?" So they put together a committee and figured out a rotation and the department that got to go first chose Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif, which is set of essays about famous scientists who studied the origins of diseases. I had actually read Microbe Hunters when I was in junior high school and remembered some of the scientists (Pasteur, Leeuwenhoek) and remembered liking it when I read it then.

But as soon as I opened my brand spanking new copy of Microbe Hunters at the start of the summer vacation and started reading, I went, "Uh, oh." I wasn't much liking the book, and I suspected, correctly as it turned out, that most of the students would hate it. Now I could have done what most of the students did, and simply tossed the book aside after the first few pages. But I said to myself, no, we have this book-in-common program and I think it's a good thing, so I'm going to work through this, and in order to do that I'm going to have to shift gears. So instead of reading this book for information, which is what I might have expected to do, I'm going to read this book in order to find out what is bugging me about it. I'm going to read with a highlighter in my hand and I'm going to mark all the passages that irk me or make me feel angry or frustrated and try to figure out why I'm having such a hard time.

Well, a funny thing happened. First of all, I was able to nail down pretty quickly a few things that were affecting my reading. One thing was the author's sense of humor, or what he thought was funny, that wasn't coming across as humorous 80 years later. Another thing was that he had a kind of unusual, formal way of putting his sentences together, and that took some getting used to. But the most important thing was that I had turned the process of reading into a kind of detective hunt, looking for clues to what was making the reading hard for me, and that got to be kind of fun and got me far enough into the book that I started to be realize that the things that were bugging me weren't that important and that there were a lot of other interesting ideas and stories to pay attention to. The more I read, the more I enjoyed the book, and by the time I was done I was pretty happy with it.

So when I came back in the fall all ready to talk about the book with my classes, everyone looked at me like I must be out of my mind. "Read that book?" "No way!" "I didn't get past the first page!" "That was an awful book!" And so on. As it turns out, the reaction against the book was so strong that the next year they just let the whole book-in-common thing slide. So that was the book that killed the Book in Common.

Which, I think, is unfortunate. Understandable, perhaps, but unfortunate. Because if enough people had been willing to adjust their reading strategies to be able to become the readers that book needed them to be, we all might have been able to learn something from one another, and from the experience. And it seems to me that that is what we are here for.

So as we begin The Poisonwood Bible, try to keep an open mind. If the book is working for you, fine. If it isn't, ask yourself what you might do differently. If you have trouble coming up with something, come and see me about it, or bring it up in class, and we'll try to figure it out. My hope, my wish for you, is that reading this book will be an enjoyable and worthwhile. Let's try to make that happen.

1 comment:

Eric Hoefler said...

Great speech! Thanks for sharing.

When you said "most good books teach you how to read them well as you go along," I immediately thought of video games. Good games do the same thing (teach you how to play as you play), and it's that challenge and the experience of "figuring out" the game that keep students interested.

Perhaps if we could help students to see reading a book from a similar perspective (as you're doing here), it would help remove some of the resistance that reluctant readers have.

I'll be diigo-ing this lecture for future use. ;)