Assigned reading almost ruined my love for books. How I got it back

I hated my assigned reading in middle and high school. Hated All of it. I mean, I did it. I read every single book, story, or poem I was assigned throughout my many years of education, up until my senior year in college when I was having far too much fun being what I was sure was a fully-grown adult to read an assigned book about the constellations for my astronomy class.

We had to write a paper about said book, and at 8:00 p.m. on the day it was due at midnight, I called home and wailed to my mom about how not even I could read an entire book and write a paper on it in just a few hours. She wearily advised me to skim, summarize, and generally stop freaking out about a class I cared so little for that I often referred to it as "Astrology 101."

I did as she advised, and I believe the paper got a B. I strongly suspect the professor paid even less attention to it than I did.

But that was unusual for me. I was and generally am, as my students say, a Try Hard. Even when it truly did not matter, globally or personally, I still did the work I was assigned. My grave marker may someday read, She read every page.

This characteristic has stayed with me all of my days, which are now spent in academia, aka Try Hard Central. We of the English department did the reading. We always did the reading. Somewhere along the line, we enjoyed what we were reading enough to get multiple degrees to allow us to teach others about the reading.

And yet… many of us hated the assigned reading, at least some of it, at least some of the time. Most people do. It’s the nature of assigned reading: it must be hated.

We, you, I, my colleagues, all of us read because we had to, and it just about ruined reading for many of us.

Of course, I’m referring to the assigned reading of English classes, which always bear the brunt of our blame. Our other courses were full of terrible assigned reading, too — apologies if you loved "American History: Our Country, Its Story" more than I did.

But we only took the assigned reading personally in English class, for some reason, perhaps because we incorrectly believed that science could never be made interesting, anyway. But novels, stories, poems, they were supposed to be good.

For centuries, people had been deriving pleasure from literature, or so we were told. Surely, the works we were assigned in English class had the potential to be enjoyable? At some vague point in the past, people must have read Alfred Noyes’s poem, “The Highwayman,” for their own pleasure. It was not originally published in "American Literature: Our Country, its Stories," right? And yet I did not enjoy “The Highwayman,” nor "Tess of the D’Urbervilles", nor “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, nor pretty much anything that my English textbooks and teachers offered for my reading consumption.

Even works that under different circumstances I might have liked — "Mrs. Dalloway — comes to mind became considerably less interesting to me once they were assigned. I didn’t enjoy the few plays we had to read, not even when I got to play John Proctor in "The Crucible". I also played Elizabeth Proctor. Not a lot of people in my class liked to read aloud.

It’s true that I’m a stubborn soul and don’t like to be told what to do. But my antipathy for assigned reading went beyond mere crankiness. Like my classmates, like you, I knew what was to come after the reading: worksheets, quizzes, essays, a test. I was good at all of these. I just didn’t like them. Not when I knew what reading could be, the kind of reading I did on my own, where the goal was to get lost in the world of a book.

I wanted to lose myself in "The Crucible", truly a fantastically unnerving world. But it’s hard to do that when you know you’ll be asked to write a five-paragraph essay on what Arthur Miller’s purpose in writing it was, using at least three quotes, one from each act of the play.

Nothing kills the experience of reading a good book more than having to answer questions about who the main character is, what his motivation might be, and what the giant glasses symbolize. It’s not as if my high-school class — a high-achieving and well-behaved bunch — openly disdained answering those questions. We completed the assignments, but we saw no practical reason for them, not in the present and not for our futures; mostly, I think, we were right. Excluding me and the other three people who became educators, I bet that no one from my class has made much use of the skill of correctly answering worksheet questions over the last 30 years.

And I also bet that the four of us have mostly used that skill to… write more worksheet questions. I tend to be skep- tical of the idea that every task undertaken in high school should directly tie to a necessary adult competency, but those worksheets also didn’t enhance or build our love of reading, or our appreciation for literature, or our understanding of the human condition. They were busywork.

Probably because I had always been a reader, long before I got to school, the worksheets didn’t faze me. I kept right on reading anyway, learning to think of making my way through the assigned books as something I had to do, while actual, real reading remained a pleasure. But many of my classmates just abandoned reading altogether, understandably underwhelmed by the way school turned it into a fact-finding mission. Many of my students tell me that’s what they’ve done, too. They arrive in my class eager to learn to write books even though they no longer like to read them (or so they think). At best, they, like me, have tacitly learned to split their reading into the categories of Assigned Reading and Reading I Actually Enjoy. At worst, they don’t read much of anything at all.I want them to read more.

So what do I do? I assign reading.

It really is the great conundrum of my teaching life, an irony I rue every day of the semester: I hated assigned reading, everyone I knew (and know) hated (hates) assigned reading, and now I get paid to assign reading. O Irony! If 16-year-old Shannon, head bent wearily over Woolf’s "Mrs. Dalloway", could see 48-year-old Shannon now, adding a little Woolf to her syllabus! Life comes at you fast.

But the truth is that for all my bluster above, I have come to see the point of assigned reading. Not the worksheets, not the quizzes —neither of which I ever use in my classroom now — but the direct prompt to engage with the works themselves.

Take John Steinbeck’s "The Grapes of Wrath". It’s a strange, sad, beautiful book, one that I think about surprisingly often. Being forced to read it in my sophomore year of high school introduced me to and gave me a way to think about American poverty, American striving, and the narrative uses of dialect for good or ill. I cannot say I liked the book — my mom and brother can still recollect my specific and bitter complaints about that dialect — but, on some level, I enjoyed it. It stayed with me. I would never have read it on my own, not in a million years, and perhaps it wasn’t the best possible choice for a 14-year-old girl in Western Pennsylvania who got skittish around all discussion of boobs … but ultimately I’m very glad I did read it.

I want such experiences for my students, that broadening of their minds, that glimpse into other times and lives, like and unlike theirs. And the strange beauty of the writing.

In a perfect world, perhaps, I would have come to "The Grapes of Wrath" on my own, just as my students would ideally pick up "Little Fires Everywhere" during their downtime rather than arriving at it through my syllabus. But this is not a perfect world, Candy Crush has too many levels to ever be conquered, and I know that I myself haven’t gotten around to reading many worthy books without being assigned them.

So now, part of my work with my creative writing students is to fold the categories of Assigned Reading and Reading I Actually Enjoy back together. What I try to do is assign well- written books and provide my students help in understanding them. This seems tragically basic, but the idea that books ought to be enjoyable is not at all pervasive in academia, alas. I insist on it, though; everything we read has to have the possibility of giving a reader pleasure.9 I wish I could share with you a photo of my students looking skeptical when I tell them that they will like the books I’ve assigned. At the outset they do not think so. But eventually, they (mostly) do.

Community helps. In a way, the community is another assignment, as my students ended up with each other in my class through no fault or merit of their own. But when I assign a book, we’re all in it together. Such camaraderie was often missing from my high-school classes, unless you count the kinship of furtively passing around pirated photocopies of CliffsNotes about "Wuthering Heights". In my class, I try to to give us room to talk about the books, to unpack them as a group. I hope that this might encourage them to want to read more deeply and broadly than they have thus far.

I won’t deny that I’m partly relying on peer pressure here, the Teacher’s Little Helper that we aren’t supposed to admit to activating; but more, I’m hoping that the communal aspects of reading will win the class over, too. Reading is a solitary pursuit, by nature, but the pleasure of discussing what one has read is deeply collective, the reason why we seek out book clubs, press a novel we enjoyed into a friend’s hands, and jet to review sites to warn others away from (or beckon them into) a book. All sorts of wonderful things happen when my students talk about the books we’re reading together: they realize that they were not the only person who didn’t understand chapter three; they learn which of their classmates has the most insightful ideas; they mirror the pleasures and sorrows of the narrative to each other; and, I dearly hope, they make friends with their fellow readers. Sometimes, we even learn a little bit about writing!

To my surprise, bringing students back to enjoying assigned reading is a true pleasure of the job. So many students tell me that they most likely will not be able to get through our assigned reading on time. I smile, knowing that in a week or two, they’ll be telling me they raced through all of "Gone Girl" in a day. It’s a delight to allow them such an experience. To assign it, really. No quizzes or worksheets or essays about themes loom. My only request is that they come to class ready to discuss together just what they think of the book and the experience of reading it. As much as I love the thanks, I don’t deserve it. I mean, it’s not as if I wrote "Gone Girl" or discovered and brought it to international attention. All I’ve really done is release my students from the pointless rigor of those assignments we all hated while prioritizing and gently shoving them toward books that are, well, good, and not just canon, which I admit is a luxury I have because I teach contemporary fiction. I’m glad I catch some students before they sink completely out of reading. Life is so much better with books than without.

Excerpted from Why We Read: On Bookworms, Libraries, and Just One More Page Before Lights Out by Shannon Reed © 2024 by Shannon Reed, used with permission from Hanover Square Press/HarperCollins.

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