You Must Read This

Maybe it’s just our school district—maybe we’re slackers—but I have noticed something that tortured me endlessly in my school days seems to have miraculously faded from popularity. I speak of the dreaded Summer Reading List and accompanying Book Reports.
Maybe it was just the fancy ass private school my parents insisted on sending me to (some drivel about a good education, I don’t know—I actually hadn’t turned down the volume on my Walkman the way I’d been instructed to when they started the conversation), but for years when classes would end in June, they would pass out a list of “Recommended Reading.” Maybe I misunderstood the definition of “recommended” but I was always under the impression that a recommendation wasn’t necessarily a direct order to execute. With a recommendation, you had the option not to participate. That was not the case here. On the first day of school you were to bring back with you some appalling number of reports on books you’d read over the summer.

I hate you, I hate you, I hate you
I love to read, do now and did then. It was probably my favorite thing to do as a kid (since sports clearly wasn’t high on the list). But to read books and then have to write book reports just plain sucked. In the first place, they seldom picked books that I wanted to read. They always picked all those coming of age books like “Up a Road Slowly” (and really, why did it seem that every heroine in the books on these lists wanted to be a writer? I get it—write what you know, but where does imagination come into play? Couldn’t these people imagine a little girl who wanted to be anything other than a writer, even though that was clearly what they wanted to be when they were kids?) and deep books like “Bridge to Terabithia” and “Where The Red Fern Grows.” Frankly, my problem with all these sorts of books is, they’re depressing. They never picked things like “Starring Sally J. Friedman As Herself” or “Hangin’ Out with Cici” (which is apparently out of print now, but was written by Francine Pascal, so those of you who were “Sweet Valley” high fans might want to see if you can find it at your library).
I had enough trouble with depression as a kid. It was not necessary for me to read about kids with dying moms, dying friends, dying dogs, or other unfortunate circumstances. I had enough trouble dealing with my own problems, I didn’t need to read about problems other kids had that I couldn’t do anything about. And if it was about animals suffering (lookin’ at you “Incredible Journey”) just forget it. Fuck that noise. I was a huge animal lover, and couldn’t stand the idea of an animal in any sort of pain. I didn’t even like “Socks” because of that.
But I had no choice. Every summer I would go through and pick the least depressing of the gloomy lot. Of course now I go look at my school’s website and not only have they changed the requirement (only one book is mandatory, and no reports on the others they have to read), but they’ve added all the good shit—Judy Blume, E.L. Konigsburg (loved “The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler”—I just read it to my kids, and they loved it too), and J. K. Rowling. Not that J.K. Rowling was in print when I was a kid, but just to illustrate that they’ve really broadened their offerings.
Naturally I never did this exercise voluntarily, or ever particularly early on in the summer. Mid to late August always found my mother hounding me to figure out which books to read, and me spending multiple hours reading books I hated, and then having to write up some sort of stupid summary of them. Part of the reason I hated doing this is because I stink at it—there’s a reason I’m not writing reviews for the New York Review of Books. Although, ironically, I have an English degree, but an English degree is surprisingly easy to fake. If you can’t think of anything else to write, you can pick a pet theory, and apply it to every text.  Treatment of women? Even if you’re reading “Lord of the Flies” (which was one of the dogs I had to read in high school at one point—dear lord how I loathe that book, and I’m sorry to say it’s still required reading if you’re going into Grade 10 at my old high school) you can make it work. Postcolonialism? Sure. Freudian theory? No problem.
But these were “little kid” book reports, not a treatise on the application of a literary theory to a text. Most of the time they wanted the title and author, main characters, and a description of the conflict. Then they wanted you to say something you liked about the book. This was always a huge challenge for me, because, as I’ve said, I almost never did like the fucking book. I would have been glad to detail what I disliked about the books, but my school didn’t want to know (or perhaps my mother wouldn’t let me be honest). They were all “la la la what did you like about this book?” I would have said, “I thought it was depressing as shit and it brought me down for days to have to read about these dreary people in these cheerless, miserable circumstances with bleak prospects.” (Or, you know, the ten year old version of this.) Oh no, in spite of having made me read these lugubrious tomes, they wanted me to say what I liked.
Please don’t think I wanted to read nothing but Nancy Drew or V.C. Andrews or other similar literary junk food. I was willing to read decent books, I just didn’t want them to be such downers. I read and loved the Little House books, “The Secret Garden” (“A Little Princess” not so much), and the whole “Ramona” series. But they rammed “The Bluest Eye” and “The Once and Future King” down my throat (in high school, naturally—not when I was nine). And to be fair, “The Once and Future King” isn’t depressing, but holy hell is it long as shit and quite frankly not my genre.
Absolutely the only good thing that ever came out of this whole experience through which I suffered for more years than I care to count is that I learned to spell the word “character.” At one point I misspelled it on one of my reports, and my father made me write it over some absurd number of times to learn to spell it correctly. To this day, when I write that word, I think “char-act-er” because that was what my brain was saying the whole time I was writing it out to learn to spell it back in the day. But I’d say that’s a fairly small payoff for what I can assure you was hours of thankless work, between reading and writing up reports.
And now it seems the whole practice has either disappeared, or been reduced down to a more reasonable effort. To have been asked to read a single book and just be able to discuss it, without having to fabricate a positive response to it would have been heaven. Maybe that’s why I was actually successful in getting an English degree. I remember telling a professor once that I refused to read “Wuthering Heights” and asking if there would be a problem with that when it came time to write papers. I was reading it, I explained, when my mother died suddenly of an asthma attack two years earlier, and I couldn’t read it again without remembering the whole horrible experience. Her response was that reactions to books are very personal, and she wouldn’t force anyone to read something that would cause them to react in a way that would make them uncomfortable. I wish she’d been in charge of my summer reading program all those years ago. If nothing else, I might have been spared “Lord of the Flies.”


Gigi said...

Summer Reading is alive and well here. I can't remember whether or not I had summer reading lists; so I'm thinking I didn't. But my son did, and he despised it, despite the fact he loves to read. But, I have to admit, some of the books his school came up with looked so interesting to me that I would read them as soon as he finished them.

Tracy said...

I think they've made progress. I did go look at the requirements for my high school, and they've made a LOT of changes that I would have welcomed. Just not having to write the reports would have been an improvement!

My main objection was the book selection list, because of the generally gloomy plots and characters. If they'd said, "Read five books and write reports" with the goal of a) getting you to keep reading over the summer and b) getting you to apply some critical thinking to them, I'd have been OK with it. But Toni Morrison was just the end of my rope. Please pass the Prozac.

I also know that when my kids get to high school, they will be assigned books to read that I'll think, "Oo! I want to read that!" so kind of looking forward to that phase :)

Sarah (est. 1975) said...

Where the Red Fern Grows made me ugly bawl like a just born baby. I will NEVER read it again, and I hope it is never forced upon my very sensitive son. Good book, too emotional. Don't wanna.

Tracy said...

Right? I can't count the number of depressing books my teachers forced me to read. I didn't actually read "Where the Red Fern Grows" but I read plenty of others that were equal downers (including "Bridge to Terabithia"). I spent all of the last two to three weeks of August, and the first part of September, of every school year in a deep funk because of all that shit they made me read.

Unknown said...

I'm sorry about your mother. That's awful. Nobody with a heart would make you read a book w/ that kind of association. I agree that a discussion would be much more beneficial to the students. I could see a book report but then they should allow you to write how you actually felt about the book. Even good books have objectionable passages. Somebody (a private school teacher) recommended The Red Fern for my kids. No? It was never on my reading list. See, if you go to public school, you don't read the heavy- weights (or have to do 5,000 reports) but we did have to read Lord of the Flies. I remember liking it, but I bought it as an adult & I have to say nothing happens in the first 100 pages & it's a fairly short book.

Tracy said...

Yes, she didn't make me, fortunately. Red Fern is about a kid who trains two coon hunting dogs. Any book that has a dog as one of the main characters is going to be a downer. If you google it, you can read the whole plot on Wikipedia. Based on what I read, I wouldn't recommend it, but to each his own...

Unknown said...

Ahh – Nancy Drew! I read every book in the series…and then moved on to the Boxcar Children. I am probably dating myself – but you already knew I was old.

Tracy said...

This probably falls into the "Humiliating Confessions" category, but I never read a Nancy Drew until I was *cough*over 35*cough*and now I've read almost all of them*cough*

I didn't like mysteries as a kid, so I didn't read them, but now I love Nancy Drews for their innocence, their soothing formulaic style, their predictability.

If you loved Nancy Drew, let me recommend a book called "Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her" by Melanie Rehak, which, if you like Nancy Drew at all, is FASCINATING.