The reading wars

Photo By Larry Dalton

I believe that even in today’s electronic force field of a world, young people can connect with the printed word. As a general on the front lines of adolescent-literacy wars for nearly 30 years, I have never ceased to marvel at the impact that a good book can have on a teenager. I have expended no small amount of energy in this war as an English teacher, wrestling kids to the ground and pinning them to the mat with the classics, force-feeding them Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau and F. Scott Fitzgerald. For the kids the process is similar to surviving a diet—they fight the daily grind but love the results. What a sense of power they gain from knowing they actually understand something worth understanding. Having taught college-preparatory English for years, I bear many scars from these wars. This is tightly controlled combat—the battlefield clearly delineated, the nightly reading carefully constricted, literary terms closely defined. The weak-of-heart need not apply.

In stark contrast is the warm, soft, comfortable place known as pleasure reading. This is where I live as a credentialed school librarian. I have been known to ask my colleagues, “How many of you curl up on the couch with a cup of tea and Crime and Punishment?” Good teen readers gravitate to a genre they like and live there—rarely does a girl who enjoys fiction about teen relationships pick up a science-fiction book. Rarely does a fantasy addict pick up a sports-fiction book. They like what they like, and this is just fine.

My special project, though, is the kids who never quite put the last pieces of their reading puzzle into place, the kids who don’t quite get it. These are the students who can never remember connecting with a book because they never fully learned to read and have been at war with the printed word for most of their lives. I am teaching these students this year, doing some of the most meaningful work of my entire career. With excellent instructional materials and strong dedication, these teens can develop the skills they never mastered originally. Non-readers can learn to read, but because the written word always has been their enemy, they need to learn to trust books. These suspicious, tentative readers are as finicky in their reading tastes as newly arrived immigrants in a land that serves insects and slimy, bottom-feeding delicacies for dinner. Sometimes a student takes one look at a book and shakes his head, sorrowfully disgusted that I would offer him such fare. “Vibes” are big in this crowd—they get them from the heft of the book, the jacket art, the length of the title and the size of the print. But when I match the right student with the right book, I discover again that what I thought was a hopeless case of illiteracy was really only battle fatigue. I have learned over the years that budding male readers like grit; nonfiction war memoirs are a favorite, with war fiction a close second, followed by non-stop, free-wheeling adventure. I think it has something to do with the male urge to vanquish the enemy and make the world safe for kith and kin. Budding female readers are more universal in their tastes, but most will go for a good mystery or realistic teen fiction. I suspect that females are trying to work out the mysteries of human interaction.

I read books by the boxful and dole them out to kids, learning their personal preferences, trying to match each student with the perfect book. Their excitement at being finally connected to the world of words, the high that we all get from that relaxed state when our brains are completely engaged in the world of a book, surprises them beyond measure. Because I work in a school district that makes these things possible, I believe that every young person can be a part of this miracle.