In case that title is confusing, let me clarify: I do not hate summer reading. I do hate – despise, really—Summer Reading (note the capital letters).
Perhaps a couple definitions will help explain:
the action or practice of enjoying the written word, specifically during the period of time between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox.
the requirement that students spend the days and nights between the summer solstice and approximately the first Wednesday after the first Monday in September interpreting the words of one or more dreary, old texts in order to allow school districts to feel like they are helping to ensure kids don’t forget how to read. Typically, this is accompanied by ridiculously large numbers of questions for which there are usually no right or wrong answers but for which a grade will nonetheless be assigned during the first weeks of the new school term.
Obviously, Summer Reading is something which gets my blood pressure up. It has done so since I was a student and was handed the annual pile of deplorable dreariness known as the Summer Reading Packet. Today, as a parent of an incoming high school freshman who is required to read Great Expectations as part of her Summer Reading requirement, I’m feeling it all anew.
My wife would tell you that in reality I’m just upset that they *still* don’t require students to read Isaac Asimov, and perhaps she would be right. I have never understood why we value one work of fiction over another in terms of its cultural or educational significance. Is Dickens a worthier author than Asimov? Some may say yes, I unequivocally say no. But would I suggest that Asimov should be “required” reading for anyone? Maybe, in a classroom setting, I might. But as much as I think everyone *should* read Foundation (or any of his other works), I would certainly not require it during the summer—because summer reading should not be about what I want people to read. It should just be about reading.
Students spend their school year reading the moldy oldies someone decided to require for their classwork. I don’t complain about this (well, not much). The classroom is where Great Expectations, Silas Marner, The Scarlet Letter, The Red Badge of Courage, Of Mice and Men and many other books some might call “classics” should be read. The interaction between the students and the teacher can breathe life into these texts or at least provide insight into the time period for which or about which the author was writing.
But outside of the classroom, when the guidance of a teacher is not available, kids should simply be encouraged to read. That is, they should be encouraged to experiment and find what they enjoy reading. They shouldn’t be forced to read Great Expectations if they would rather be reading comic books or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or Harry Potter or anything by Dr. Seuss. Heck, they should be encouraged to read Twilight if that’s what they want. The point should be about reading for the sake of reading, not about ensuring that everyone has to suffer through brutal-to-read books from a hundred years ago just because their parents had to suffer through them. They may very well pick up a book and hate it (for me, the book Succubus Takes Manhattan would fall into this category), but at least they will have tried it. Perhaps it would be more like my experience with Stranger in a Strange Land, where I struggled to get through the first 100+ pages (and almost threw the book away), only to find that I couldn’t put it down once I got past the first 100 pages. As much as I love science fiction, I find Heinlein difficult to read. But I wouldn’t know that if I didn’t have a reason to have tried. Again, it is hard to know what you like to read if you don’t read a wide variety of books in a wide variety of genres and styles. This was my argument 25 years ago while I was in high school and it remains my argument today.
And yet, here we are. My daughter is (and therefore I am) slogging through Great Expectations. What’s worse is that her Summer Reading obligation includes the additional requirement that she must do two projects before beginning to read–because, as the teacher put it: without the projects the students would be unable to read this book. Which, again, is why I think these old “classics” belong in the classroom and not by the pool. If I as a student am required to do research into Charles Dickens’ life and the Victorian Era in order to afford me the ability to read a work of fiction, I should be doing this with the support and guidance of a teacher who can help explain the important historical and social points which are critical to understanding the text. Even after doing this pre-reading project, the book has proven difficult. In fact, it took me several reads and then a half hour of discussion to surmise that the word “wittles” is really a mispronunciation of the word “vittles”… and that was just Chapter 1! (I am not exaggerating).
I asked a teacher to explain what the purpose of the Summer Reading program is in our school district and was told that it is “to prepare the student for college”. Now, I cannot be the only college graduate who experienced the fact that the focus in college was much more on writing than it was on reading. Essays, research papers and lab reports were required in most every course, whether it was a Literature course or an Operating Systems Theory course. Summer Reading did not help me succeed at these essays and it won’t help my daughter, either. Frankly, if the point of these summer requirements is to help prepare students for college, Summer Reading should be replaced with Summer Writing. The students should be reading (anything) and writing essays, reports or simple diaries about what they read.
I’m no fool, so I recognize that I won’t be able to change the policies relating to Summer Reading programs. Summer Reading will continue to be a drag for my kids, just as it was when I was a student. But I can’t help but wonder what books could be on a list of suggested readings for (experimental) summer reading. Off the top of my head, a few come to mind, though I admit my list has a speculative fiction slant:
- Foundation by Isaac Asimov — because it paints a vivid picture of what happens when humanity loses touch with itself.
- 2001 – A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke — because we are constantly evolving in a universe which is constantly evolving, even if at times it seems inertia has won.
- Dune by Frank Herbert — because it wasn’t actually a movie first.
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald — because its tales of social (class) conflict and the decline of the American Dream are still quite relevant today.
- Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card — because it tells a tale that is so incredibly unbelievable that you hardly notice it could really be true.
- Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card — because it is the same story as Ender’s Game, from a different character’s perspective.
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain — because it looks at romantic myths and how they tend to blind people to reality and because it is an early example of time travel fiction.
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams — because sometimes it’s good to just read a book that is fun.
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon — because it is a quick, enjoyable read which will leave you emotionally spent and tired and, perhaps, more understanding.
- Nemesis by Isaac Asimov — because it provides a recent example of science fiction foreshadowing real discoveries. And, well, because I really liked the book.
- A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle — because it is an early portrayal of a female protagonist in science fiction.
- Needle by Hal Clement — because it has non-hostile alien life forms interacting with humans.
- Miracle on 49th Street by Mike Lupica — because it is a family story, a sports story and a holiday story, all rolled into one.
What do you think? What titles would be good to have on a list which could be used to suggest books to students to help them discover what they love to read? Why would you add them?