Friday, April 26, 2013

Cultural literacy, take 2

A confession: I have never much enjoyed reading. As a graduate student, I once found some early elementary school report cards that my parents had saved. My teachers praised my interest in writing, and my general congeniality; they had no complaints about my math skills and were impressed by the maturity with which I used clinical terms in sex ed (it was the 1970s, after all, and my mom worked for Planned Parenthood); but they sure wished I would show more interest in reading.

Part of the problem, as I recall, was that I was supposed to have been smart, so I always ended up in school reading groups for which the books were consistently 6-12 months beyond my developmental ability to grasp. In 4th grade, for example, I was in the "advanced" reading group that was going to read Ramona. I was dismayed to discover that instead of reading Beverly Cleary's Ramona, we were reading a different Ramona. I could relate to Ramona Quimby--remember the time when she wanted to make sure that all the apples in the bushel basket in the basement were OK, so she took a bite out of every single one?--but I couldn't relate to the other Ramona, the "mixed-race Scots-Native American orphan girl, who suffers racial discrimination and hardship in Southern California after the Mexican-American War" (to quote Wikipedia).

The earliest of Beverly Cleary's Ramona books was about 12 years old when I was born. Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona was 83. When I read the latter in 4th grade, it was 92. Even Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House Books (my essential resource for understanding what it was really, truly like to be caught out on the prairie in a horse-drawn buggy with your suitor and his handsome horses when the weather turned wacky and funnel clouds appeared on the horizon)--even those books were far newer, with Little House in the Big Woods published a mere 36 years before my birth.

OK, so maybe I enjoyed reading some books as a kid. I don't read much fiction as an adult at all, maybe one to three novels a year, and I tend to favor children's and young adult literature (loved Harry Potter, loved Holes)--easy reads, I suppose. Given how little I enjoy reading, I'm amazed I managed to get a PhD.

So where did my reading go awry?

A few years ago, leading some writing tutoring outreach in one of Durham's public high schools, I learned that kids were reading--and disliking--many of the same novels that I had read and disliked in high school 25 years earlier. I was a too-young white female small-town/midwest-university-town reader at an academically privileged high school when I first encountered Lord of the Flies, a 1954 novel (25-29 years old when I read it) about a bunch of kids from a British boys' school trapped in circumstances that revealed the innate barbarism of humanity (yeah, middle schoolers are mean, so what else is new?). I had a hard enough time relating to the book; I could understand how, 25 years later, inner-city Durham kids might also have a hard time relating. And The Odyssey--which, as a too-young reader, I found to be quite the slog--was still part of the canon--but then, what's another 25 years for a story that's ~2.8K years old?

Maybe, I thought, I hadn't always disliked reading; maybe I learned to dislike reading thanks to a school system that, in its interest in keeping me challenged, ignored my immaturity.

Yeah. So last week, I was driving somewhere in my car, listening to the classical music radio station, when on came one of Vivaldi's Four Seasons. This immediately triggered memories of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Around the time I read the book in high school, I was in the habit of getting to know my parents' LP collection, and I would put records on the record player to help make reading more pleasurable. When an LP reached the end of the first side, instead of turning the record over, I'd simply lift the needle up and move it back to the beginning. I memorized a lot of great music this way (to this day, I can mimic much of the Four Seasons on the piano, without needing to look at a score), but I also indelibly printed The Scarlet Letter onto Autumn and Winter.

Listening to the radio last week, I wondered: what if I were to read The Scarlet Letter now, as a 46-year-old with some significant life experience behind me? Would I like the book any better than when I was a naive, too-young high schooler?

(I keep writing "too young"; I really was too young for much of what I read. I started elementary school early, and I was 11 when I started 7th grade. My secondary school was a 5-year high school that combined 7th and 8th grade into one year, so everyone there was younger than students in equivalent grades at other schools, but I was younger than most going back to Kindergarten. I graduated when I was 16, and started college when I was 16, and it really was way too young--not academically but emotionally--and I wouldn't recommend that sort of path to others.)

Anyway, listening to Vivaldi on the radio, I hatched a plan: I would choose 3-4 books I didn't enjoy the first time around, and reread them, to find out whether they might be more enjoyable 30 years later. Doesn't that sound like a fun experiment?

Knowing how slowly I read, I decided library copies weren't the best option, but I didn't want to invest a lot of money in books I'm not necessarily expecting to enjoy. Imagine my delight, then, when ordering some cheapo music scores from Dover, I discovered that Dover publishes super duper cheap reprints of The Canonical Classics--$2.00-$3.50 each!

Arriving soon at my door will be:
The Scarlet Letter (eek);
The Odyssey (a 1921 translation rather than the fabulous new translation recommended by a friend, the better to reproduce high school conditions);
A Tale of Two Cities (which, OK, I didn't read in high school: I read it in 6th grade, when I was 10. Way too young.).

Lord of the Flies isn't available through Dover, but guess what I found instead--Siddhartha! Friends tell me this is a good book. I totally didn't understand its point in high school, although I remember the vocabulary word ascetic being significant. When I found the title in Dover's listings, my gut reaction was "dang." I guess that means this experiment will be good for me in some way or another.

Finally, I decided to give myself a bit of a break with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which I read in high school but actually understood and enjoyed (so it only half qualifies).

E will likely encounter some of these texts at school himself in the next few years. Perhaps we can re-live one of the joys of his earlier youth by reading together out loud. Doesn't The Scarlet Letter sound like the perfect material for such mother-son bonding?


Janice McCarthy said...

This is very interesting. My educational background was the polar opposite of this. I went to school in a lower-middle class blue collar town.

I was never challenged.

I wrote essays in math class and did my math homework during English. I knew the meanings of the vocabulary words without studying them.

I read many of the same canonical texts, though my take is a bit different. I was definitely exposed to them later - I think I read the Scarlet Letter in ninth grade. I actually liked the Scarlet Letter. I LOVED Shakespeare. (Z learned a sonnet a couple of years ago, and it turned out to be one that I had hand-written and posted on my bedroom wall. :)

What I HATED were the books about wars and battles. I remember despising Red Badge of Courage. It was painful to read - not because of the violence. I was BORED TO DEATH. I remember being dismayed on the SAT (only took it once, so I actually remember a particular question). It was an analogy "something is to something else as lilliputian is to ...". I found out later that this was a reference to Gulliver's Travels, which I never read and would not consider reading, because I HATE adventure stories.

Somehow, I think you are going to find that maturity is not the problem. We are interested in certain stories because we can relate to them, or they touch our imagination in some way (Sure, partly changes with age and experience, but a whole lot is just personality). I am pretty sure that I would find Red Badge of Courage as painfully boring as I did in ninth grade. Just not my thing.

Looking forward to updates!

Liz Paley said...

Thanks Janice. It's going to be interesting to try this. I remember finding Red Badge of Courage gory, bleak, and depressing in H.S., but I very much enjoyed All Quiet on the Western Front (also gory, bleak, and depressing) in college, so there's more to it than genre (my wars-'n'-battles-books data set is greater than two, but those are the two that come to mind). I think there's also a difference in how I read now vs. how I read as a kid, as evidenced, e.g., in my Tolkien trek of 2010 ( (Hmm, come to think of it, LotR probably qualifies as another data point in the wars-'n'-battles genre. And then, of course, there's the delightful Tweetle Beetle Battle at the end of Dr. Seuss's Fox in Socks, which is an all-time favorite.) I'm sure personal preferences have much to do with what we enjoy reading, but I also expect that The Scarlet Letter will speak to me very differently now than when I was 13 (assuming I read it in 9th grade). Or maybe not; I guess that's part of the experiment!