I bet your’re a book reader.
That is: like attracts like, and I am a book reader, and you are here.
So we are readers, yes?
I’ll go even further and guess that, because love of reading is innate in us–or because we learned it as a joyful or comforting habit in childhood–we are well attuned to the gifts that books bring. For me, I know that during lonely periods in my life, I still had the companionship of books. I know that a three-hour delay at an airport, instead of making me to groan with dismay, causes me to think, “Yay! More time to read!” I know that the absence of a book, when I have free time, creates anxiety. I feel unprotected, exposed, even vulnerable without a book on hand.
As well, at least half of what I know about people has come from books. In reading stories and meeting characters, I have been given insights into humanity’s motivations, foibles, and vagaries. In reading tales set in foreign lands, I’ve gotten to know the world. In times of stress or confusion, books have clarified. Handing over a well-loved book to a friend or family member feels like we’re about to take a trip together.
In what is only a minor overstatement, I assert this: Books mean everything to me.
I want to hug all of the books, all of the time.
That’s why it can be so difficult to teach non-readers. When students proudly proclaim that they don’t read, I realize there is a chasm between us, a values disconnect so profound, a lack of sympathy so jarring…that I may not be able to bridge our differences. To put a finer point on it, the frustration I feel with non-readers makes it so that I sometimes don’t care to build a bridge to these callow youth who wear their puerile disregard for the written word like it’s a nose piercing worthy of comment and admiration.
This feeling of “Why do I even try?” was reinforced last semester when a male student made a loud announcement in class that he had never read a book and never intended to. After he spoke, my heart stopped for a moment. It had to stop so it could catch its breath and recover the will to beat. As the class looked on, many of them nodding in agreement with him, I responded honestly, “You have to know you’re hurting my heart up here. This makes me so very sad. Could we try this, though? Could I buy you a book? My gift? I’m not talking about some fancy book that is painful to read. I’m talking about a book that I really think you would enjoy–maybe a graphic novel? Or something about playing pool? You’re a competitive pool player, right?”
He stared me in the face, blinked once, and said, “Don’t even bother. Didn’t you hear me? I. don’t. read. books.”
And while I wanted to clip out, “And. you. don’t. talk. to. your. English. teacher. like. that, you ignorant buffoon who doesn’t belong in college,” I managed a more civil reply: “But you could. My point here is that you could, and so I’d like a shot at showing you how great a book can be.”
Blinking again, he responded, “Nope. I don’t read books. Save your money. I’d never read it.”
So, well, there’s that illustrative moment which will have a permanent place in the annals of my inspirational teaching history, most likely in the chapter entitled “Students School the Teacher.”
However, when I teach a literature class–those cherry classes that keep English teachers from spending the last twenty years of their careers with their arms wrapped around themselves, rocking in the corner of the classroom–the whole point of the class is to make students read. It’s then that I realize I am, in truth, power hungry, for I LOVE to make them read, especially if they don’t want to or if they have never explored the pursuit before.
My all-time favorite literature class to teach is the Introduction to Literature: The Novel course. It’s one thing to read essays or short stories in other types of literature classes, but in the Novels course, I get to increase the reading load significantly, and in doing so, I get the chance to unlock the world of reading for The Reluctants in the room.
It’s heady stuff, that power.
During the class, we read seven novels in fourteen weeks, which means they’re reading half a novel each week, roughly 160-200 pages.
Yes, a few drop out. But, surprisingly, most of them hang in there; retention rates are comparatively high. Yes, a few of them acknowledge that the reading load is intimidating. But most of them just shut up and drop their heads into their books, either through excitement about exploring new worlds or through a fear of the quiz and everyone-must-participate discussions. So they read.
Because I realize this is a rare chance to transform non-readers into readers, I stay away from Thomas Pynchon. There is no Heidegger. We don’t delve into Finnegans Wake. The books I choose, and they vary term to term, are fairly mainstream, yet they still qualify as literature. The books take work, but students don’t end up with beads of blood dotting their foreheads.
At the end of the semester, I send out a take-home final exam with four questions on it. The first three deal with analyzing character, plot, setting, and point of view, and then the final question is a “softball”–but one that yields the most interesting responses, answers that I tuck into my heart and take with me into the next classroom, into the next semester, into the next face-off with a disinclined pool player.
Below are two such responses, shared with the students’ permission.
Often times, fiction traces the personal journey and growth of a character. Of the novels read this semester, which character’s journey has the most resonance for you as an individual? Why? (Incidentally, if you aren’t familiar with the word “resonance,” there will never be a better time for you to look it up.)
One student wrote:
Of all the characters that I have met this semester, the one that I felt closest to was Little Bee. When we met her, she had survived a terrible ordeal. She was in survival mode, and spent an awful lot of time figuring out how she would kill herself if “the men came”. While I have never been in a situation like hers, I have been in an extremely abusive relationship. This relationship only lasted two months, but the abuse didn’t end when the relationship did. He stalked me for a year, and used his power over me to continue to hurt me and control my life. Even when he eventually went to prison for 4 years, and I was technically safe, I found myself making escape routs in my head, and planning what I would do if he showed up. She handled it better than me, continuing to live her life the best she could. I wish I were that brave. My post traumatic stress disorder turned into agoraphobia with panic, and I stopped living life for awhile. Years have gone by now, and I’m still not who I was. I learned some good things, and still have some ghosts that haunt me. But reading Little Bee, I saw a part of me in her. I had experienced the constant terror of thinking you would be found at any moment. We are both survivors of violence and feel the effects on a daily basis. It’s my favorite literary connection, and it’s one of the truest. Little Bee says something that will stay with me always.
I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defeat them. We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived…Sad words are just another beauty. A sad story means, this story teller is alive. The next thing you know, something fine will happen to her, something marvelous, and then she will turn around and smile (Cleave, 9).
I had never thought of the emotional and physical battle scars I had that way, but she was right. Survival is beautiful, and so are the marks we get when fighting for our lives, no matter what that situation may be. We read Little Bee right as I was finding myself again, which is probably why I connected with her so much.
Another student wrote:
Snow Child was the novel that resonated the most for me. I was really brought into the emotional life of Mabel. Having been in a very dark place in my life where there seemed to be no hope and no way out I felt strongly connected to her. I am a recovering addict and there were many times in my life that I felt like there was no way out. That I would not be able to stop and desperately wanted to change my life. Fortunately, like Mabel, a miracle happened and I was saved from the pit. I know longer live in fear and regret. I have a full life. I don’t have to wake up at 3:00 in the morning filled with anxiety, knowing that again that morning I would not be able to not drink and use. I was a prisoner in my own life. Mabel’s character expressed that same feeling when talking about the winter to come and the demons that haunted her. She knew what was coming, she did not think she could face another day like that. On the upside, the both of us received divine intervention and not only survived but thrived. Every day upon waking I realize I am not physically sick. I won’t have to take a 40 of Miller Lite in the shower with me in order to stop shaking and start my day. I have a place to sleep and roof over my head, a loving family in my life and true friends. Then I look at my dog. He rocks. Another blessing given in sobriety. A biggy, I am getting my degree. Like Mabel I am finally happy. For that I am truly grateful. That novel stays with me. It was truly magical, and easy to lose myself in;
The sun was setting down the river, casting a cold pink hue along the white-capped mountains that framed both sides of the valley. Upriver, the willow shrubs and gravel bars, the spruce forests and low-lying poplar stands, swelled to the mountains in a steely blue. No fields or fences, homes or roads; not a single living soul as far as she could see in any direction. Only wilderness.
It was beautiful, Mabel knew, but it was beauty that ripped you open and scoured you so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all. She turned back to the river and walked home. (The Snow Child)
So I read their final exams,
and I get a little misty at these glimpses of their burgeoning Readerhood,
and I wish them a lifetime of comfort from books.
Then I smile
and welcome them to the fold.
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