Okay, fine, this is a catchy title for a post —

Via The Passive Voice, a link to this article: High School Reading as an Act of Meaningful Aggression

Now, I have become pretty well proof against the … and you won’t believe what happened next! types of clickbait. But this title is one that practically compelled me to click through and at least skim the article. Which does not, at the beginning, seem to have a lot to do with the title. Here is the first paragraph:

Towards the end of each year I do one of those anonymous surveys where I ask the students—high-school sophomores and juniors—how much they read, as a percentage, of each book. I’ve been doing this for the last 10 years or so, and the results are remarkably consistent: most students read most, but rarely all, of each book. About 15 percent read every single word of every single thing, some of it twice. These the kids who would read the contents list of a 7-11 freezer if told, the same students who tend to sit in the front row and take the kind of notes that end up in the Smithsonian. Another 15 percent admit to struggling to even open the books, but would gladly read the 7-11 freezer list because of its novelty value and the refreshing lack of obfuscating adjectives and modifiers. The 70 percent of students in the middle make up the dominant percentage, the ones who often leave little notes, not quite apologia, but regretful explanations about wishing that they had more time to do all the reading because they would have liked to, that they did most of it, that what they read of The Great Gatsby was really good but what with other homework, and athletics, and Uncle Steve’s birthday dinner, and the cousin in Jersey with leukemia, and x not yet having said anything about prom…well, there was a lot to think about.

Okay, so, the author (Giles Scott) doesn’t mean that kids read most-but-not-all of the books they choose to read. That initially baffled me, but by the end of this paragraph, it’s clear he means that they read most-but-not-all of assigned books. That makes much more sense, and in fact I don’t see anything surprising about it at all, though so far I have no clue about this “act of meaningful aggression” thing.

Is this good writing or bad writing? Is Scott deliberately prompting an initial misunderstanding of what he’s talking about, or is he not seeing how much clearer it would be to say “I ask the students—high-school sophomores and juniors—how much they read, as a percentage, of each assigned book.” Perhaps everyone else read it that way automatically, and I just didn’t because 99% of all the reading I did in high school was not assigned.

Also, is he deliberately withholding the connection between his article and the title, and if so, is that playing fair with the reader?

Scott goes on:

For most high-school students, the act of “reading” recalls the soft glow of something done at night, before bed, in jim-jams with a cup of hot cocoa—the equivalent of night-time elevator music. Or, if not that, they’re “reading” on the bus, in the car, while standing outside class two minutes before the bell. And, at best, gaining an understanding of situation and context: who did what or said what to whom and where at what time in what kind of weather. Seeing words but not really reading them, a marriage without contact.
I want them to see reading as something far more intimate, even fractured at times, as something combative, vulgar, assertive—a constant back-and-forth between reading and rereading, moments of stepping outside the text then coming back and battering at it with questions. Something better done in a flak jacket than pajamas. And high school students hate doing it.

Oh! Ah ha! Now I see. Scott has his own personal definition of reading, which excludes reading for fun, instead equating reading you enjoy with mindless, meaningless activities that don’t engage your brain. Naturally this means that books you enjoy reading probably aren’t worth spending time with. What counts is, I guess, philosophy textbooks plus whatever novels Scott personally approves of.

Scott has his students annotate their texts — he’s talking here about The Great Gatsby, among others — and while I think slowing down and paying attention and even annotation might be fine in class, I am baffled by his implication that all reading should involve such exercises. Also by his report that some students feel he has “ruined reading” for them — surely they don’t feel any need to annotate the books they read for fun?

As you might expect, Scott winds up by waxing philosophical:

The skill of delaying judgment, at least categorically, until sufficient questions are in play stands so powerfully at the center of empathy. … if reading can teach us how to begin to push preconceptions about fictional characters further aside (“banish” seems overly hopeful), then reading perhaps serves as a model for a similar push in response to people in the world, and not just those that enter our interpersonal spaces, but also the persons in the worlds outside ours—the cultural, social, and political worlds so often represented in binary ways in the media. To effectively annotate and read the fictional worlds of Jay Gatsby, Janie Crawford, Esperanza, Macbeth, et. al. allows students, ultimately, to be able to do the same for hurricanes, race riots, economic policies, state of the union speeches, even wardrobe malfunctions—but to do so from a place that begins with witness, a place that works aggressively to keep preconceptions at bay—questions not answers. This what real reading can accomplish—an aggressive stance, a flak jacket, that stands as a condition, ironically, for more empathy. Romanticized? Maybe—actually, not even maybe. But still essential.

Not a bad point. Perhaps it could have been made, and made effectively, without dismissing as worthless the act of reading for fun, or implying that only close, analytical reading promotes empathy when that does not appear to be the case. Perhaps reading might be worthwhile in a multitude of ways, even if someone might like to do so at bedtime, with a mug of hot chocolate in hand.

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3 thoughts on “Okay, fine, this is a catchy title for a post —”

  1. I clicked through and read the article before reading your post, and I have to agree I was confused by his writing and progression, although I immediately assumed ‘assigned’ books for the survey.

    I clearly recall some analysis of Pride and Prejudice for class that made me think if I did that all the time it would ‘ruin reading’ for me. And I was grateful to have read it several times previously! It’s certainly no fun to be asked to analyze why red is such an important color or what the deal is with white noise. This is one reason I did not major in English Lit.

    On the other hand, learning to read a bit critically adds depth to otherwise interesting and fun works. It also helps you catch sly writing that illuminates details or interactions you might not notice else. I will say I think he’s really talking about students who don’t do this at all– literally reading for plot and not paying the slightest attention to diction or writing or illuminating hints.

    But the elevator music equivalency thing really ticks me off.

  2. Interesting! Maybe I am alone in not instantly assuming assigned books. I didn’t actually realize the person writing the post was a teacher at first, so if that was clear and I just missed it, that would sure be a biiiig clue.

    I do agree an emphasis on close, attentive reading is a good thing, though perhaps in small doses. I liked Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer, which is all about that. I can’t quite see focusing down at the level of “Why is red so important?” But maybe that could add depth if you try that kind of analysis now and then. But now I’m kind of grateful Pride and Prejudice was never assigned to me. Probably I enjoyed it more coming to it as an adult, without having to consider discussion questions at the end of each chapter or whatever.

    But even if you want to guide younger readers into an ability to read closely and attentively, I have trouble seeing why you would want to try to make that an invariant part of the reading experience. What a strange way to think of reading, like it should always be work and if you just fall into a novel you’re doing it wrong. That idea was so repellent to me, I think it made me extra critical of the whole post.

  3. It’s a really offensive idea to me too – it entirely misses the purpose of writing as art: to provoke an emotional response, transport the reader, etc. It makes me pity his students.

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