"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       


Bring Back Recreational Reading

August 14th, 2014 by

By the end of my senior year of high school in 1974, I had read Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes three times, Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Oddyssy, Issaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, several collections of Ray Bradbury short stories, and The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I had read these books, not for a class, but recreationally, on my own time, as well as Frank Herbert’s Dune, C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, and Mere Christianity.

I read much more than these titles in my classes, certainly, though I could not have read these for school in those days. All of my school reading, except for two novels I remember loving, Dickens’ Great Expectations and a novel called When Legends Die, seemed to have only a minimal influence on my thinking until my senior year when I read some Hemingway and Fitzgerald stories.

In college, my recreational habit continued as I read most of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, most of Dostoyevski, and Saul Bellow, all authors not on course lists in the ’70s. As an adult, I have continued to read recreationally. In fact, I would argue that it is not the reading for English classes but the reading I chose to do on my own early on that makes me a reader today, though I will admit that I read little fantasy or science fiction now. Even so, it is the reading on my own that has been a continuous strand running through my life, and this started when I was in the fourth grade and read about composers and baseball players and then discovered science fiction. All of this, what I did on my own, made me want to become a writer. It was those books that moved me or struck a chord in me somehow that made me think that writing was worthwhile. And some of that recreational reading happened in school—not in and for classes—but where such things were allowed in an hour of study hall.

My reading list above may not reflect the best taste; it does reflect what was mostly popular at the time. And I have gone on to appreciate all kinds of writing, especially literary. I think this is why so many English teachers have been so happy to push the Harry Potter books on our kids during the last twenty years, and I think it is why no one should look down on a young girl first reading Twilight (though I admit that I have too often drawn a line with that series). Today, they might be reading British fantasy or a story about loving vampires. In twenty years, like me, they will probably still be readers.

Today, with the new push for standards, most schools have done away with recreational reading. My daughters did it in the ‘90s, when it was called “silent sustained reading.” But it isn’t a part of school schedules any longer, just as band is now seen as an invasion on school property and taking away from time better spent on math and English.

I think this is wrong-headed. We should restore “silent sustained reading” where it has been removed. We should also restore band and art programs. We should encourage everyone to find where their interests are going to be found. It is just possible that the writing we most love has the most profound effect on how we think and feel and create sentences.

The current emphasis on testing treats reading as a “basic skill.” But the kind of reading I am advocating here is not just a skill but an act of imagination, the kind that is also used in solving problems. When someone opens a book and stumbles into another world he or she hadn’t known was there moments before, skill is transcended by desire. Schools should be about skills. But they can also ignite our desires.

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Comment by Tim Riter on August 14, 2014 at 8:52 pm

Tom, two thoughts. I never took a writing class before my 9 books were published–I just read a variety of genres (a lot of SciFi too!). That free reading taught me how words work. Also, the HS where I teach has a weekly 451, 30 minutes of nonacademic recreational reading. Of course, we teachers also have to.

Comment by Tom on August 14, 2014 at 10:28 pm

Tim, maybe it is true, as I tell my students every semester: If you want to learn to write, then read a great deal. Read widely. That’s where you can really learn. I’m glad your high school has the 30 minutes of reading. As a teacher, I would do that.

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