Andrew Kern once said that most reading lists are motivated primarily by pride. School administrators, teachers, and parents hope to impress with long, intimidating reading lists. Our students read all of these great works of literature; therefore we are a good school. Be impressed.
And lots of people are impressed—probably the same people who are impressed when SAT scores are recited. I confess I am not.
These reading lists have the opposite effect on me. I am horrified when I see a book like Moby Dick on an eighth grade reading list. Certainly there are some gifted teachers who could unpack all the goodness of Moby Dick and make it accessible to eighth graders. But no teacher can do that in the three or four weeks usually allotted to a book.
It is not enough to check boxes off an impressive-looking reading list. I wonder, did the students understand any of it? More importantly, did they love it? Will they reread it?
CS Lewis said an “unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books only once. There is hope for a man who has never read Malory or Boswell or Tristam Shandy or Shakespeare’s Sonnets; but what can you do with a man who says he ‘has read’ them, meaning he has read them once, and thinks that this settles the matter?”
We risk creating unliterary students when we have no greater goal in creating our reading lists than to “expose” our students to authors. The exposure theory of teaching literature encourages students to read widely–quickly scanning as many authors as possible. The idea is that later a student will return to these books and study them more in depth. But far too often the student’s encounter discourages the student from ever reading the book again. And sometimes the experience is so bad, the student never reads anything again.
Lewis feared that students would neglect books because they “have read” them and have falsely concluded that they have mastered the book already. Modern students are far more likely to neglect books because they “have read” them and “hated” them.
We serve our students far better when we create much smaller reading lists, choosing to read deeply rather than widely. Instead of exposing our students to a dizzying list of authors covered at breakneck speed, we should give them and ourselves the luxury of time.
Scaling back the reading lists allows us to do more than “expose.” We can contemplate. We can cultivate a love of literature. We can read and reread because as Lewis argues, “We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties.”
If we teach them to savor, they will return—again and again.