Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Need to Teach Fun Books

As much as this news hurts and frightens me, I think the most productive response as a writer and literature enthusiast is to write books that show people—young people in particular—that reading can be fun. If that sounds trite, you are grossly underestimating the appeal of video games, film, television and the entire goddamn internet.

If you cannot first light a spark that suggests there is joy to be had in reading, why will your students bother? Please realize that why they should bother is irrelevant from their perspective. In fact, whenever you start in on why another person should do something for themselves, you are almost always going to come across as an asshole. I’m not saying that all literature must lend itself to easy readings, nor should every book strive to be fun. But in a society that celebrates and aggressively peddles entertainment that is literally engineered according to endorphin-to-effort ratios, forcing people to slog through something that is both hard to understand and difficult to relate to does not seem like the smartest play. If The Grapes of Wrath is the best you can muster in high school, you will have lost them to Call of Duty by college.

Some educators and bibliophiles seem to think Stockholm Syndrome is the solution. They would have you believe the joys of close-reading and high-minded prose will eventually blossom in students if you simply assign the texts hard enough. The most poisonous of their breed extols the lofty virtues of the written word and disparages the entirety of popular fiction in the same breath. These are not educators, but jailers. Temple guards rather than evangelists. The last thing these people want is broader readership. They want to feel superior to "non-literary" readers. They take refuge in the arcane recesses of language and smite anything that challenges their concept of what books and writing ought to be.

If you as an educator are so desperate to play the iconoclast to today's idols, find out what books your students are freely reading and expose the shortcomings of those texts to the harsh dawn of truth. But be damn sure you have an adequate grasp of their appeal first, because that is probably where your classics are falling short. At the very least, such an exercise may help you present those ivory tower tomes in a way that is relevant to modern readers.

Better yet, seek to teach books that are fun, relevant, and meaningful. They are out there. More are being written every day. When your students encounter those books, they will be more willing to take on the hard stuff of their own volition. And when a student does something they ought to without first being assigned to do it, you have succeeded as a teacher.

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