Books

Sucking The Joy Out Of Reading, The California Way

young girl reading

Sure, she looks like she's having a good time, but how much is that book worth? iStockphoto.com hide caption

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This opinion piece in the L.A. Times got me thinking about the way I read as a kid. The basic thesis is that California's system of measuring and scoring every bit of reading that students do is making it impossible for them to explore their own interest in reading. And I have to say, that argument makes a certain amount of sense to me.

When I was in middle school, probably somewhere around 6th or 7th grade, the school librarian gave me a copy of Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca, the first piece of fiction aimed at adults that I had ever read on my own.

She chose it for me, not because of the length of the sentences or the difficulty of the vocabulary, but because she thought I would like it.

And she was right. I read Gone With The Wind shortly thereafter, as I recall, and big, brick-like romantic paperbacks kept me company through much of my teenage life.

And, okay, my life now, too.

Stephen King, Jackie Collins, and why books don't need points, after the jump ...

Honestly, there was a combination of highbrow and lowbrow writing in my young life. I read a lot of genre fiction starting in about eighth grade: lots of Stephen King and lots of Jackie Collins, to name two.

Pulp and junk? Maybe. But I was reading without anyone telling me to. I was reading Shakespeare and plenty of other things in classes of all kinds, but on my own, I read huge quantities of semi-respectable and downright trashy popular fiction — stuff I doubt anyone would have wanted to quiz me on. (You want to write the quiz on Hollywood Wives? I think you do not.)

Part of the trick, to me, is that the importance of leisure-time reading doesn't necessarily mean that schools should be trying to manage all the reading kids are doing. As the Times piece points out, this makes it a chore — all of it, all the time, is scored. You're not really reading the book; you're studying the book.

And really, quizzes on the computer? I didn't take a quiz on Rebecca after I read it, and if I had, I have no idea whether I'd have passed it. To have any value, and to keep kids from passing it based on study guides purchased at the drugstore, the quiz would have to be on the details. Would I have passed a quiz on the details?

Reading is such an individual thing. As an adult, I've become more of a nonfiction reader than a fiction reader. I have particular tastes: I'm sort of a human-behavior nerd, and I love books like The Wisdom Of Crowds and Predictably Irrational.

I don't know that you can draw a direct line from the fact that I liked Stephen King to the fact that I like Malcolm Gladwell, but I think you can draw a line from the fact that I read then to the fact that I read now. And I'm not sure I'd have read then if there had been this many rules.

I'd love to throw this one open for your stories and thoughts: Did your tastes as a kid influence your tastes as an adult? Do your kids benefit from being encouraged to read books with tougher vocabularies? Have I missed the boat completely? Will you never believe anything I say ever again because I used to read a lot of Jackie Collins?

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