Today I read this article in The Atlantic, and I just really wanted to share some thoughts on it. It's a piece by Heather Horn on why we need to stop the practice of "close reading" in middle and high schools-- elementary schools, even, I'm sure. Close reading is what you do when-- and I know we're all familiar with this, especially if any of you Americans were Advanced Placement classes-- you take a tiny tidbit of a piece of writing and pick it word from word, searching for meaning and significance in every punctuation mark and capitalization and simile, until you have something that sounds very deep and insightful and having to do with literary technique. Horn thinks this approach needs to go.
As a lover of literature, as a former little girl who devoured books with relish, who wanted to read hard books, classics, everything I could, as an English major, as a journalist, as a writer of poetry, I want to tell you something that has been in my heart for a long time: it's crap.
I will say right off the bat that I don't believe kids shouldn't learn a lot of tiring, boring stuff when it comes to language. We need our kids diagramming sentences and taking intensive grammar courses again, because it's shameful how many adults are unaware of how our language works (and most of the time it's not that hard if you're actually aware of the rules). But close reading? Please. You can teach rhetoric and all that good stuff without making it absolutely miserable. You can read a book and then revisit themes and important passages and things like that, but you don't have to pick everything apart until all you have left are words. Dead words. There are worlds in books, in poetry and you can't really explore or enjoy them while trying to make up a reason why that rock is symbolic of unrequited love. I think close reading often doesn't go along with real critical thinking, which is a hugely important skill that we need and can be applied across the board. I think most of the time, close reading teaches great B.S.ing skills. I don't know what the answer is to the critical thinking problem, but it's not being addressed through any method that students, by and large, don't seem to find rewarding.
Though I've always loved reading, I don't do it much now. I am willing to admit that I rarely read for pleasure, something that started sometime in high school when there just stopped being time. All year I read and dissected books I hated. The summers before junior and senior year, I read 12 books in four months, most of which I hated because I was forced to read them and think they were good, for Advanced Placement courses. I couldn't even tell you what most of them were. A lot of them I skipped reading. In college, I'm drowned in so many texts that I certainly don't get through every one, and I end the semester feeling utterly drained and sick of reading (I don't feel as drained by classes when reading literature I like or when the professor takes a looser, more exploratory approach). I remember there were books I'd wanted to read like when I was little when my mother would take me to the bookstore and I'd pick several with intriguing covers and gobble them down in days. I couldn't. We were expected to know these books so we could sound knowledgeable on tests. Books are more than literary techniques, though: they can breathe like you and I. Books are the same now as they were then, waiting to immerse us and teach us, if we let them.
That's essentially where teachers, in my experience, get it wrong: we need to let children read for pleasure, at least some of the time. English classes should take kids to the library and let them choose some of their own books. They should ask what did you get out of this book? and then find a way-- there is one-- to turn that back around on how literature works effectively. You identified with the dog because it was personified. You thought everything happened at sunrise was important because it was a metaphor. And you had fun, right? And believe it or not, if kids can finally pick up a books and have fun without being pressured to get so much deep philosophy out of it, they'll be good readers. They'll be good readers because they might just want to read a lot. Maybe even for the rest of their lives, if teachers don't ruin it for them.
And I have to mention at this point the tragedy that is poetry taught in school. Poetry is a great way to teach how language works, since it's an example of using language in creative ways while making sense and bending rules, which poets can do because they know the rules so well. I don't know many young people who like poetry. Poetry is always the part of English class kids hate, because the whole thing is sitting there talking about what the word "was" meant in that sentence and why it was so well-chosen.
Teachers say that poets choose every single word so carefully that they have meaning, that you can examine them all and find something.
As someone who writes poetry, I call bullshit. No offense to any of you who may write poetry like this, but I find that this is just the way teachers want us to think poetry works, an art which to me is such a pure mode of expression that everything doesn't have to fit perfectly as long as it makes you feel something. By over-analyzing poetry, we kill it. We take the life from it, the life it needs to really make a person feel something.
When I was in a poetry-writing class in college, I said in front of the class that I don't think you have to analyze poetry, or edit it, or believe it has a meaning, or pretend it does. Sometimes a poet is just describing a really pretty flower-- enjoy it for that. I don't think poems should be edited because a certain word contains a really helpful mythological reference if you put that in there. No. If you can pull the reference out of your own store of knowledge, do it, but don't search for stuff for the hell of it. When you write poetry like teachers teach poetry, you miss the point.
The class looked at me like I was crazy, professor included.
Seeing kids hating books makes me sad. The only value I have for the oh-so popular literary fluffballs we call Twilight and Harry Potter is that they remind kids that books can be fun. Guess what-- no matter how easy these books are, they show that kids WILL DEVOUR LITERATURE if we let them enjoy it and become immersed in it. Kids aren't stupid: they're bored. I'm bored. I'm a college English major and I'm sick of being told what to read and making up crap essays about it. The education system needs to key into this ASAP (though not necessarily colleges across the board: students do elect to take their college classes). I don't say we need to do away with close reading, but we need to reassess how we teach the skill of close reading, preferably in a more engaging way. News flash, kids will love books if we take away the feeling of work. Reading makes you a good reader. Being a good reader makes you a good writer. Being a good writer helps you become an effective communicator. See how more reading freedom could turn into a very, very good thing?
To understand any kind of literature, we don't have to pick it apart or deconstruct it; yes, books are more enriching when we're able to read deeply, but seeing the whole picture is just as crucial. I think kids would get far more enjoyment and use out of literature if it was just let stand on its own. Read a book, love it, hate it, do whatever you want with it, but love it or hate it because you actually got a little intimate with it-- and that doesn't have to be through exhaustive analysis. I mean, let's put it this way: you're probably feel more intimate with your boyfriend/girlfriend who sees and appreciates you as an entire picture-- a mind and a body-- than your doctor/gynecologist, who views you-- all their niceness aside-- as a patient whose parts are to be examined and assessed.
I suppose that means I'm saying let's make love to books after we take them out for ice cream and their favorite movie, not make them put their feet in stirrups while wearing a humiliating johnny so we can get a better view.
Any thoughts on close reading? Love it? Hate it? Do we need to change how we include it in today's English classes?