Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Assigned Reading

My daughter, wife, and I were comparing notes about the books we were all assigned to read in school. I escaped "Lord of the Flies," and "In Cold Blood," but had to endure "1984," "The Jungle," "Catcher In The Rye," and "The Grapes of Wrath."

(Last night I watched a TV show where Gordon Ramsey witnessed a woman rub red chili peppers into her eyes. My wife just said, "Why?") These books gave me as much literary pleasure as a capsaicin eye-wash.

All of the above were inflicted upon us as tender young high school students without the experience and gumption to cry, "Bullshit!" Such assigned reading easily explains why I chose a career in math, science and technology.

Star Trek techno-babble notwithstanding, science, technology, engineering, and math have the common virtue of having to work.  If you bluff your way through a degree in one of those fields, something big can fall down--say a bridge or a building. People tend to notice those sorts of failures a lot more than when little Johnny doesn't know compound interest or thinks that voting for Santa Claus is sound fiscal policy.

My first inclination is that forcing kids to read lame novels should be a firing offense. On the other hand, lame novels can drive smart kids so far from literature that they'll become Engineers instead. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose.

Let the little dears wait until they are enrolled in a hard-science major and then they can discover Robert Heinlein.


  1. mmm 1984 I love; those others you mentioned you can keep, but lets be fair I am bias I studied English Literature at University and I am an active feminist who has a passion for writings such as Goblin Market.

    1. I suppose an Active Feminist is better than a Passive one. There is a sense in which I can be accurately cast as a feminist (the radical equality of all humans without regard to sex, race, etc.) or as an anti-feminist (some patriarchal notions of how a family should organize itself). If you're ever in Grand Rapids, MI we should have a lively conversation over our favorite beverages.

  2. Well, to each their own, right? You can dislike a book, but to say a classic is "bad" or "lame" just seems... short-sighted. I don't mind if my students hate the books they read, but they should try and articulate what they dislike. The author's long sentences and extraneous description? A slow-moving plot? Heavy-handed moralizing? Backing up your opinions with evidence is a great skill no matter what career you pursue.

    Of course, I teach high school literature to juniors and seniors, and a cornerstone of my courses is that they choose their own literature (within certain parameters; they must cover Brit Lit, World Lit, and something written before 1900). If they hate the books, they have no one to blame but themselves, and they become better at identifying their own tastes.

    Also, I think our opinions on books vary based on when we read them. As a teenager, I could NOT stomach any of Jane Eyre or Pride & Prejudice. As an adult, I love them both. Dare I say, perhaps you should revisit your old anathemas?

  3. My son, like every other kid, had to read Shakespeare, and he hated it. When I asked him why he said there were too many hithers and dithers. I loved that. He still doesn't like Shakespeare. I, on the other hand,dispite the hithers and dithers, love Shakespeare. Such language. As for Catcher in the Rye - hate it. Bye the bye, I hope you haven't given up on your math or engineering. While writing is a nice hobby, math, physics, engineering is awesome.

    1. We'll get along just fine. I fought my way through Pilgrim's Progress just b/c it had hithers and thithers. As for the math stuff, yeah, I'm still into all that.


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