Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Epiphany #59: I don't listen to music; I just ask my friends who the good bands are

The following remarks were delivered to the student body today:

Summer, which I guess officially ended two days ago with Labor Day, always makes me think of reading.  Not only do we all invest, in varying degrees, in our annual summer reading program, but summer is also a time when I get to do a lot of reading that I don't get to do during the school year when I am too busy. 

This may not seem like a dream vacation to you, but each summer I go to a condominium in Venice, FL for a couple of weeks.  Sometimes there are other family members there, but my wife is an attorney and the summer  for whatever reason, is her busiest season, so some of the time I am alone. 

During those alone times, I do a lot of reading.  Venice has an incredible public library system (actually its libraries are where the idea for your current learning center originally came from) and I go in several times a week to see what they've got.  This summer, for example, I checked out and read 8 books while down there.  It was a varied list-- a nonfiction book about being a sous chef, three recently released modern novels, three flat-out page-turning thrillers, and a biography.  Along with the Sherlock Holmes book and my East Of Eden book group, it was a good reading summer.  I wish I would read like that the rest of the year.

Each semester, as a final project in my "English For The Rest Of Your Life" course, I ask seniors to write about their reading experiences in high school.  They can approach the essay pretty much however they'd like, but there is one trait that tends to distinguish the essays as a whole: honesty.  Unflinching, soul-crushing (if you’re an English teacher) honesty.

Seniors at the end of a course, or at the end of their high school careers, will tell you anything, in this case, about their reading.  And here are some of the things they have said in years past:

"First, I would like to apologize for not reading more."

"I still want to read ____________ from Mr. ________'s class,  but the other books didn't interest me much."

"Prior to junior year, I had not dug deep into the true art of literature due to my lack of interest in English."

"My reading career is not something I'm particularly proud of."

"I hardly ever read, probably didn't even read a whole book. I began to realize that I may be able to BS my way through my school work, which may or may not have been a very good thing to realize."

"When I say that I didn't read a single book that whole semester, that is no exaggeration."

So let's talk about that little Mccallie secret for a few minutes--the fact that many of us don't read as much as we say or, put differently, that we read as little as possibly can and still do well.  It's true, isn't it?  We are a good school.  You are talented students.  You go to college and beyond and do well.  But the reading?  Well, we don't read as much as we pretend we do.  At least many of us don't.  We skim, we check with a pal to find out what the reading was about, we use a lifeline to Wikipedia, we walk into a class with brazen confidence that we can talk about the reading without having read it.

So let me be clear about one thing.  This is not about guilt.  I'm not really into guilt, and I'm certainly not going to try to guilt you into reading.  I'm not trying to shame you or to make you feel bad.  But the lack of reading?  It is, quite simply, more of a reality than I think it should be.  So let's talk about why we don't.  I've got 9 reasons that came to mind pretty quickly:

1. You are busy.  I am busy.  We are all busy.  When we are busy, when we are tired, it is hard to find the energy to read.

2.    We prioritize, and our priority is what is going to be graded.  And if we figure out that our reading isn't going to be graded, we try to get by without doing it.  It’s an academic gamble.  Sometimes we win.

3.  Reading is very difficult for some of us, and very boring for others.

4.  we have convinced ourselves that we know what we like to read and we don't want to read anything else.

5.  We have figured out that our teachers go over the reading in class any way, so we think there is no need to read.

6.  There are any number of shortcuts available to us that will help us to get by.

7.  There are so many distractions, so many other forms of entertainment, so many other ways to pass the time, so many other ways to get information.

8.  The process of reading, as done in school is strange.  Read x number of pages a night?  Who reads like that on his or her own?  More likely, if we get into a book, we will sit and read it for hours.  And if we dont, well....

9.  We no longer consider reading a natural act.  Neither do our friends.  Neither does society.  It has even been said that because of our lifestyle of brief bursts of technology, our brains are finding it nearly impossible for us to tackle and finish long books.  But given the numbers of you who worked through Game Of Thrones, East Of Eden, Lonesome Dove, Prince Of Tides, and a bunch of other really long books this summer, I know that when the desire and interest is there, that theory is simply not true.

At the same time, I know that I cannot stand up here and argue that reading is its own reward.  Not when the contexts of reading in the past, like the simple joy of sitting down with a good book, are disappearing.  Not when I cram much of the non-school reading I do into the summer.

But I also know that reading is a routine.  And like weightlifting or drum practice or shooting free throws, the more we do it, the better we get at it.

I’ll focus on just two reasons why reading is absolutely essential.  Both are equally important and they work different parts of the brain.

 The first may seem obvious, but I'm not sure there is anything more important:  if you don't read for yourself, you are at the mercy of someone else to interpret what the world means.  And that could mean your knowledge of art, politics, religion, science, literature, health, the food you eat, the pills you take, the air you breathe, the climate you live in, the problems that need to be solved first, all would be beyond your control.  Given what you know about the divisive nature of our world, about any number of groups and ideologies who want to keep us polarized and in the dark, for whatever reasons, do you really want to leave your understanding in the hands of someone else? 

What becomes increasingly important today, probably even crucial, is your ability to understand both what is being said and how it is being said.  It has to be both.  If you don't know how to figure out a writer or speaker' tone, then you can't possibly know what he or she is saying.  And if you don't work through the words on the page, you can't learn to do that.  If you can't learn to figure out whether a source of information is reliable or not, then you have nothing to base any of your opinions on.  And if you don't grapple with the words on the page, you can't check statements and sources, assertions or representations.  Lastly, if all you have is someone else's summary, you miss out on the beauty of ideas.  So somebody told you that The Great Gatsby is about the corruption of the American Dream.  So what?  That doesn't even begin to capture the complexity of our country's values and hoped as represented in that book.  And that is as true in a science class as it is in history.

2.  The second reason for reading may be a tough one to accept, especially given how often we as men are told that we aren’t in touch with our feelings:  reading makes you more empathetic.  What is empathy?  Most of you probably know, but in case you don't, Merriam-Webster defines empathy as "the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else's feelings."  In other words, the ability to walk a mile in someone else's shoes.  Scientific studies have shown that reading novels, for example, "make you kinder, cleverer, more productive, and a whole lot more open to the experience of others."  I have no doubt that this is true of other types of writing as well.

Do you think that a bunch of boys in a boys school have any interest in empathy?  No?  Well, consider this--year after year, when my seniors write about their favorite books, novels like The Kite Runner and Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close bubble to the top, books that allow guys like you to experience situations that are foreign to our experience, but that resonate with your own experiences of friendship, betrayal, and loss.  Even McCallie's current favorite book, The Great Gatsby, I would argue, clicks with those of you who read it because, more than ever, the conflict between seeking wealth and finding happiness is something you want to understand.

And so, I leave you with a challenge. For all of us.  Let's buck the national trends of a decline in reading, the same way we do with our code of honor, with our sense of community.  Let's acknowledge a) that reading makes us better people and b) that we want to better people; otherwise, why are we here.  And let's read what we are asked to read so that we can become increasingly better at figuring out what we want to do with what we have read.  But the burden for that is not entirely on you.  As one of my seniors wrote last year, “When I was in middle school, I read everything I could get my hands on.”  That same senior didn’t read much in high school.  So something changed, and it is the responsibility of all of us to make reading a want-to, have-to, and can’t-live-without experience.  But it will require your buying into it.


Kath said...

Great talk!! Wish I could have seen how the boys received it.

rodle said...

"if you don't read for yourself, you are at the mercy of someone else to interpret what the world means." That was an awesome point. Loved hearing it, and loved reading it.

troutking said...

Excellent talk!

Robert Berman said...

Great article/essay/speech. Another possible reason that we fail to connect with a book: It deals with issues that don't interest us, as much as grown-ups would like them to. Game of Thrones has plenty (high fantasy heroics and villainy, dragons and zombies, knights that cuss, graphic sex and violence) to rivet the adolescent mind. The Great Gatsby, not so much. Its issues weren't a part of my teen world. Even now it takes outside study of the era to get half the references that were obvious to the original audience.

I remember thumbing through my older cousin's copy of Richard Adams' "The Girl in A Swing" as a teen, looking for the sexy parts. Reading it now in toto, I'm struck (1) by his evocative prose and erudite use of foreign languages and details about the arcane culture of ceramics collectors, and (2) the implications of a man in his sixties writing a book in which a younger Manic Pixie Dream Girl marries a frumpy academic type but then turns out to have a massive, tragic backplot he didn't know or care about. People write the things they write for reasons, and I find, "What does this mean about the author?" at least as interesting as, "What does the author mean?" I get similar pleasure contemplating song lyrics.