Yes, that’s right…after holding out for forever, and feeling buried by work and so many other things, I finally gave up and decided to read Fifty Shades of Grey. Why? Well, as Neil Gaiman said, we all need an escape sometimes, and sometimes the heavy fiction I am so prone to reading is just not good to read in the midst of a school year. Also, friends of mine – and my mother-in-law (YIKES!) – have read it, and they seemed largely unaffected by it (both literally and intellectually), so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to read just the first book of the series. After all, an escape is fine every once in a while: a balanced approach is always good, right? After all, I try to read “real” literature the majority of the time.
So why do I feel shameful about it? Not because of the content – I’m not prudish, though I am being quite deliberate about hiding the book from my 13-year-old daughter’s eyes, as she is unfortunately rather knowledgeable about the book’s reputation. Part of my feelings of shame come from the fact that I consider myself well-read, and well, I feel like reading the book is a bit below my usual standard of Austen, Shakespeare, Atwood, and even my usual escapist reads (Tolkien, Martin, Rowling, and I will admit I even read the Twilight series, though I justify that digression by saying all of my students were reading it and I wanted to be able to talk intelligently with them about it).
I feel shameful partly because, to mark my place in the book, I am using my Jane Austen bookmark…on it is her famous quote from one of her less popular, though still noteworthy, novels, Northanger Abbey: “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” The operative word in the quote, of course, is good, and that of course begs the question of, “What is a good novel?” Well, Lynn Neary has some idea, and she reported on it way back in June of this year (five months is, of course, a lifetime in today’s digital world.)
In the report, she quotes research that “shows that as young readers get older, they are not moving to more complex books. High-schoolers are reading books written for younger kids, and teachers aren’t assigning difficult classics as much as they once did.”
She also quotes author Walter Dean Myers, a popular choice for inner-city teachers of readers. He had the following to say about fan mail:
“I’m glad they wrote,” he says, “but it is not very heartening to see what they are reading as juniors and seniors.” Asked what exactly is discouraging, Myers says that these juniors and seniors are reading books that he wrote with fifth- and sixth-graders in mind.
Also, Anita Silvey, author of 500 Great Books for Teens had this to say of students she surveyed:
“Every single person in the class said, ‘I don’t like realism, I don’t like historical fiction. What I like is fantasy, science fiction, horror and fairy tales.'”
Now, I love those genres (maybe love is a strong word for the horror genre but it applies to the rest). There’s nothing wrong with them. In fact, as I quoted Gaiman saying in a previous post, the genres – singularly or together – are responsible for nudging imaginations into gear and helping people to imagine – and do – more.
However, the problem is, as Neary outlines,
“Last year, almost all of the top 40 books read in grades nine through 12 were well below grade level. The most popular books, the three books in The Hunger Games series, were assessed to be at the fifth-grade level.”
Most of the assigned books are novels, like To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men or Animal Farm. Students even read recent works like The Help and The Notebook. But in 1989, high school students were being assigned works by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Emily Bronte and Edith Wharton.
The Notebook? And I didn’t just italicize that because it’s a book title. I do know that in my former school, 9th and 10th grade students read books such as Divergent, and other dystopian novels. I myself did a lit circle for my seniors that included the titles Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, Life of Pi, and Like Water for Chocolate. Why did I choose those titles? Well, because they ranged in level of difficulty and allowed my lower – and second language-learner – students the ability to access literature (Like Water for Chocolate). Then, the difficulty level increased, until the highest-ability students were reading The Handmaid’s Tale. Problematically, the most difficult novel I assigned is judged as a 9th grade reading level. So are Brave New World and Like Water for Chocolate, while Life of Pi averages around the 7th grade level. At least, according to Scholastic. I will argue that I had to consider the reading ability of my (below grade-level) students, and also that the “reading level” of the book does at times depend on what the teacher does with it. Are the students reading just to read and say they did, or are they analyzing figurative language, motifs, character archetypes, etc. As Margaret Atwood says (in the aforementioned book, no less), “Context is all.”
At any rate, back to my shame, and back to where I’m actually going with all of this. No, I’m not arguing that we should revert back to a completely canonical method of teaching literature. I understand that encouraging students to read is important, and meeting them where they are in terms of ability is important. However, the most important thing, as Neary pointed out in her report, is that, the majority of the time, we are not pushing student readers to reach higher once they achieve a certain level.
I’ll use my daughter as an example. Currently in the eighth grade, she is reading the Twilight series. Yes, I know, but she literally had to beg me (she reads so much it’s difficult to have enough books in the house appropriate for her age level). The agreement we came to, though, is that she read one book from the series, then a “real” book. So, after reading the first book, she read Wuthering Heights. Of course I made the connection for her that Meyer referenced the Brontë novel in the first Twilightnovel, and that reading Brontë would help her understand the series better (gotta love sneaky mom logic)…and amazingly, she liked the novel. Her only real comment when reading the book was, “Mom, Joseph talks kind of funny.” I reminded her that Hagrid did as well in the Harry Potter series, and told her to read it aloud as she had with Hagrid’s speech. She got it. She liked the book. The challenge, I will admit, based on this experience, is getting her interested in more challenging books. Personally, I didn’t start self-motivated reading of “heavy” classics until I was in high school – and beyond.
All of this is really to reinforce the idea that literature is how we access the experiences of others, either through the products of their imaginations or otherwise, and how we learn to imagine. Also, it is to reinforce the premise of this blog: we have to be able to value and hold tight to the humanities, and encourage access to them whenever possible. As clearly demonstrated by Lynn Neary’s report, American society is losing ground when it comes to reinforcing the value of reading good books. Reading a variety of books is important. Reading nonfiction is important. Reading fiction is important. Reading is important. Reading is the basis of our learned culture and history as a human race. If we start to only read books that, well, lack in merit and lack in substance, what are we learning – and teaching – about our culture?
So, there is my shame…I, a proponent and defender of the humanities and lover of literature, am reading Fifty Shades of Grey.