Friday, June 1, 2007

Feeling the Heat?: Reading Under Pressure

By The Good Girl

All of us can remember, (or are still experiencing) the dubious pleasure of what I might call "forced reading" at school. I might say, being an eternal book lover, that reading, and encouragement to do so, could never be a bad thing. Lately the anticipation of receiving the reading lists for my up-coming A level courses (for those across the pond: that’s when English High-Schoolers start to specialize, at about 16) is sending me over the edge with excitement. But can reading under pressure actually hinder the love of reading that the practice, I have no doubt, is intended to engender?

Experience has shown me that books read in class are divided, in the minds of their students, into two categories: the first, “Dear God, why was this book ever written, surely all this symbolism is only in my teacher’s head, and anyway, who even cares?” and the second, “I love this book so much and would never have read it if not here, thank you, thank you, oh brilliant English class!” The latter can cause the student to be truly inspired – a plus, I’m sure you’ll agree, but the former can put the student off the usually worthy book forever.

After all, how many of us have revisited books we read at school and found them not to be quite as mind-numbing as we had originally thought? For example, I read Jane Eyre at the age of 9 and loved it, until we read it in class when I was 14 and came to loathe the very paper it was written on; after all, the nine year-old me had not seen symbolism or metaphor or hyperbole, just a damn good story, and 5 years later I was pretty upset to have it replaced with all this other stuff. However, I recently read it again with both narrative and "features" in mind and found that it wasn’t so bad after all.

The problem is that reading for academic purposes can be utterly different to reading for pleasure. For those so inclined, the need to analyze, evaluate and, if you like, nit-pick, tends to override the desire to get caught up in the prose or narrative; for those who cannot abide the idea of dissecting a perfectly good book, (much in the manner of vegetarians in a biology class), the pressure to do so can interfere with their liking of said book. On the other hand, one could argue that both types of reading are equally valuable, and indeed, interdependent. A dilemma indeed, and one that English lessons have no foreseeable chance of solving. Until such a time as they do, we might all benefit from revisiting our previous "forced reads", perhaps to find meaning and beauty where there once was none, perhaps to find that, yes, they are in fact still incomprehensible drivel.


Quillhill said...

Hurray for the second category! That was my experience.

Chris said...

School just sucks all the fun out of reading at times. I never "had" to read Jane Eyre. I read it for fun and it is my favorite book. I wonder if I would still feel that way if it was required reading.

Imani said...

I think that the problem with some high school curricula is that students are assigned too many books to read in a given term or school year, which pretty much forces the class to focus on the "features" to the exclusion of everything else, so that students are prepared for exams.