Jan 27, 2012


Things have been boiling in the pot of what a reader is for a little while now.  Of course, there is this article that has had all sorts of people up in arms and justifiably so.

But one of my paying jobs is as a high school English teacher, and I'm teaching excerpts of THE SCARLET LETTER to try and get them a little foundation with some classics.  However, I was appalled at how many students over the course of four Junior English classes, could not understand the following passage.

It came to pass, not long after the scene above recorded, that the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, noon-day, and entirely unawares, fell into a deep, deep slumber, sitting in his chair, with a large black-letter volume open before him on the table. It must have been a work of vast ability in the somniferous school of literature. The profound depth of the minister's repose was the more remarkable, inasmuch as he was one of those persons whose sleep ordinarily is as light as fitful, and as easily scared away, as a small bird hopping on a twig. To such an unwonted remoteness, however, had his spirit now withdrawn into itself that he stirred not in his chair when old Roger Chillingworth, without any extraordinary precaution, came into the room. The physician advanced directly in front of his patient, laid his hand upon his bosom, and thrust aside the vestment, that hitherto had always covered it even from the professional eye.
Then, indeed, Mr. Dimmesdale shuddered, and slightly stirred.
After a brief pause, the physician turned away.
But with what a wild look of wonder, joy, and honor! With what a ghastly rapture, as it were, too mighty to be expressed only by the eye and features, and therefore bursting forth through the whole ugliness of his figure, and making itself even riotously manifest by the extravagant gestures with which he threw up his arms towards the ceiling, and stamped his foot upon the floor! Had a man seen old Roger Chillingworth, at that moment of his ecstasy, he would have had no need to ask how Satan comports himself when a precious human soul is lost to heaven, and won into his kingdom.

But what distinguished the physician's ecstasy from Satan's was the trait of wonder in it!

As if that isn't bad enough, the students got lost reading just straight SparkNotes summaries of some of the lesser important chapters. 

I can get my students to read books that jump right into the action, mostly YA which I don't have a problem with  but these are college bound students who can't understand a SparkNotes summary people.  A student was recently overheard saying INTO THIN AIR was boring because it takes time to set up the circumstances of the tragedy. 

So what does all this mean for us writers?  Does everything have to be fast paced to hook a reader? If we have a more complicated storyline, does that mean our beloved book is doomed to be a boring teacher selection, over-analyzed for the pure torture of students?

What about you?  What makes you pick up and read a book?  How much did the selections of teachers through your education make or break your reading habits?  Is there still value in teaching the classics in today's faster paced world?


Miranda Hardy said...

Gosh, there is always a benefit to teaching the classics. One day the books of today will become the classics, right? I'm giving literature of different eras to my 16 year old now. Although she has a bit of difficulty, she is enjoying the stories.

Truly, I didn't appreciate the classics until I was in college, but I started reading them in middle school.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I don't need fast paced action to enjoy a book. And while some of the classics are a bit dry, I'd recently downloaded some Dickens and Doyle and enjoyed them.

Angela Cothran said...

I love the classics myself, but it took some really great teacher to push me in that direction. I don't think kids think this way so it can be hard. I'm all for exposing kids to as many things as possible.

S.P. Bowers said...

I think it's good to expose kids to a wide variety of writing but I definitely believe the classics should be some of those. It's sad that the comprehension is down. I wonder if the fact that movies have become more explosion centric have changed kids reading trends.

I've been part of several group conversations where people admitted that they didn't read ANY of the books in high school.

Anonymous said...

Friend recommendations mean a lot. So do reader reviews at Amazon. I never look at what the publisher puts out there. Have to admit often its the cover art that attracts me to pick it up and read the synopsis.

Jenny S. Morris said...

It is sad that the comprehension level is low. But their reading attention reflects so many other things. TV, video games, movies. I admit that I can get bored at stuff like this now, when I know I should be really interested.

Great post!

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

The Scarlet Letter should really only be taught after you discuss proper deconstruction techniques covered by Professor Terry Eagleton. Then the brilliance of the book leaps off the page and you can compare this work with his contemporary, Herman Melville and also apply deconstruction in reading Moby Dick.

welcome to my world of poetry said...

What attracts me to a book is by word an mouth, also the cover front and back. Reading what is written about the book.

Enjoyed reading your blog.
Have a good week-end.

Deana said...

It really is sad, but it does seem if it isn't short, compact and keep you on the edge of your seat, it isn't good.
I love a classic that has so many commas in a sentence, it's more like a paragraph:)

Nisa said...

Interesting thoughts. I sure hope that isn't the case. I wonder... do youth not understand mood? Variety? I mean, I love a good fast-paced story now and then, but I love my historical fictions and classics, too. I don't have to have the same thing every time. I wonder if kids don't really understand that. Just a passing thought. It sort of came out of the blue and probably isn't discussed as much as other more obvious points, but I think about how self-control seems to be taught less and less. It's more accepted to do whatever makes you "feel good" and it's easy to get caught in doing the same things over and over again because they're comfortable or whatever the case may be.

vic caswell (aspiring-x) said...

what makes me pick up a book?- often cover, blurb, or rec

teachers selections making or breaking reading habits?- it seemed as though most the books i read in school were part of a required curriculum. i always assumed that was state requirements... i found some books i loved through classroom studies- the crucible, huck finn- but i read completely different stuff at home. i think what classroom requirements helped me with is building the endurance to read something i did not like. i refused to let myself use cliffnotes, and i think that using cliffnotes is a very dangerous habit to get into. it's like looking at the answer in the back of the book before you try to figure out the equation. the benefit of mind stretching exercises is to learn TO think- not WHAT to think.

is there still value in teaching the classics?- yes. but i believe that classics should be reevaluated. does a student learn more from the silliness and tomfoolery of jane austen's EMMA or from the poignant and equalizing of jennifer brown's HATE LIST?

a side note about THE SCARLET LETTER in particular: this was the one book in high school i could NOT get on my own. in all my years of study, it was the only time i asked my mom for help. we sat down together and she discovered that i never, ever learned to read aloud with inflection. we worked through the book together, practicing reading the words as we imagined the characters would say them or as the narrator would say them, and it made a world of difference. some books- especially when the language is very different than our normal usage (classics, lots of dialect) truly benefit from being read aloud. that is (partially) why a great many people understand the speech when it is acted out in a play or movie, but not when it is on paper. i believe this story to be one of those...

sorry for the blabbing! i really wanted to say thanks for joining our blogfest!!! looking forward to your entry!!! :)

Nancy said...

I am one of those first page kind of readers. I think it is a sign of our instant gratification world. I find I am rarely willing to sit half way through a book for it to grab me. The exception would be if it has been recommended to me by someone whose opinion I trust. I enjoyed reading The Scarlett letter in high school but for the story not the language and found myself drifing as I read through the passage. It is great work, no doubt and I think there is much to be gained by pushing through so I hope the classics do continue to be taught, as long as the teacher acknowledges to the students that it is harder than the books they are used to so they know they can still trust him/her to give thenm good book suggestions. Too often, in school, it seemed like the great story got ruined for me in the dissection of it.

Laura Eno said...

Oh my. I am now thoroughly conditioned to current trends, despite having read Greek Classics in college. Yes, they should be able to understand the passage but it's boring to read as is. The first-page action is a by-product of movies, I think.

Harmony said...

I think like so many things these days, it's become all about instant gratification. Unfortunately. I'm pretty sure I read The Scarlet Letter for a class 7th or 8th grade! I survived it, and I don't remember it being torture either.