How to Get Kids to Read Literature without Making Them Hate It

The Great Gatsby

           “It makes a lot more sense now why it’s called The Great Gatsby.”

            I overheard a teenage boy saying this as I was leaving the theater after watching Baz Luhrmann’s imagining of the story. In the film’s final scene, Nick Carraway, played by Toby McGuire, scribbles the words “The Great” over the original title, which was simply “Gatsby.” Earlier in the movie, Gatsby himself, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, had told Nick he was only thirty-two years old and could still be a great man someday. The idea is that Nick is conferring with his title the posthumous greatness on his friend that an unjust world denied him in life. It’s sort of touching.

            Fitzgerald gave Gatsby no such line of course, no such explanation of his book’s title. But does the pair of scenes capture something of the novel’s essence? Was the kid correct in the interpretation that was helped along by Luhrmann’s liberties? My own sense is that Nick’s attitude toward Gatsby is more negative in the novel—though in both renditions his feelings are complicated. After saying that he was repulsed by the people he’d met in Long Island, for instance, he reveals, “Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction—Gatsby who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.” The first two words of the title thus strike me as more searingly ironic than sentimental.

            But should we hold this discrepancy against the movie-makers? Or, a more interesting question, is a teenage boy really ready to appreciate searing irony? This line of thinking led me to wonder how likely it was that a teenage boy could be ready for Gatsby at all.

            I was in my early twenties when I first read The Great Gatsby, and I still remember the scene that resonated most with me then. After Daisy’s infamous line about hoping her newborn daughter is a “beautiful little fool,” Nick says,

I felt the basic insincerity of what she had said. It made me uneasy, as though the whole evening had been a trick of some sort to exact a contributary emotion from me. I waited, and sure enough, in a moment she looked at me with an absolute smirk on her lovely face as if she had asserted her membership in a rather distinguished secret society to which she and Tom belonged.

Cynical yes—but I knew what he meant. I knew people like that. Still, I admit much of the rest of the novel eluded me then; I recall enjoying it on some level, but much of the nuance I would discover in readings at later ages was lost on me.

            What do kids in high school make of all that sarcasm layered over and tangled up with awe and disgust and admiration and jaded disillusionment? My guess is that very few of them grasp any of it on any level. They’ve never been to parties with self-important socialites and sycophantic social climbers, at least not in anything but their nascent guises. They’ve never witnessed an encounter between old-money types and the newly rich. Nick writes of Gatsby’s party guests guessing at his corruption while standing oblivious of his incorruptible dream. High school kids, I imagine, know next to nothing about the type of corruption, let alone the type of dream, Fitzgerald is referencing.

            Yet kids are assigned this book in schools all over the country, and if it’s not Gatsby it’s something just as difficult, presuming just as much worldliness. For many of us, it’s not hard to recall what it’s like having a teacher assign a book that offers little meaning we possess the wherewithal to grasp; after a while, you stop even trying to make sense of the words your eyes are slipping over. And, if you’ve ever taught an English class, you’ve probably been confronted with students who insist they read the assignment, even though they can’t recall a single detail. That’s understandable considering the language and the thematic material are completely beyond them.

            Therein lie the seeds of a lifelong apathy—if not an outright antipathy—toward reading. The student’s reasoning goes something like this: All my teachers keep saying there’s so much great stuff in these books, but every time I try to read one I get nothing. So either my teachers are full of it, or I just don’t have a head for this reading business. Reading comes to be thought of as work, and unrewarding work at that. What you’ll tend to hear them say aloud is, “Reading is boring.” By the time the kids are out of school, books are things you pick up only when you have to—when there’s not a movie to watch instead.

The Reading Mind by Daniel T. Willingham

            We can bemoan their laziness or lack of curiosity, or we can acknowledge that we’ve set them up for failure. Attitudes toward reading develop as a result of past encounters with the printed page. If your experiences with books are characterized mainly by frustration, bewilderment, and drudgery, the chances of you being positively disposed toward the endeavor aren’t good. The cognitive psychologist and education expert Daniel T. Willingham, in his book The Reading Mind: a Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads, describes an interplay of attitude, motivation, and self-concept in determining how much an individual reads—and consequently how proficient that individual becomes at reading:

            If you’re a good reader, you’re more likely to enjoy a story because reading it doesn’t seem like work. That enjoyment means that you have a better attitude toward reading; that is, you believe that reading is a pleasurable, valuable thing to do. A better attitude means you read more often, and more reading makes you even better at reading—your decoding gets still more fluent, lexical representations become richer, and your background knowledge increases. We would also predict the inverse to be true: if reading is difficult you won’t enjoy it, you’ll have a negative attitude toward the activity, and you’ll avoid it whenever possible, meaning that you’ll fall still further behind your peers. This cycle has been called “The Matthew Effect” from the biblical verse “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance; but whoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath” (Matthew 25:29). Or more briefly, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. (139)

The formula is: enjoy reading, read more, get better at reading, start to think of yourself as someone who reads, enjoy reading, read more, ad infinitum.

            Following this recipe, it seems the goal of English teachers should be to match reading materials to students’ current aptitude and preferences. (Another commonly overlooked key is focusing on reading materials that reference topics the students already have some familiarity with.) If you want your students to be able to eventually appreciate Gatsby in all its richness, in other words, you should probably back way up and start with Harry Potter. This isn’t a flippant point: contemporary books with more social currency will be more rewarding because students can discuss them more widely; books with themes about the social pressures of school will be far more likely to resonate. Comprehension and enjoyment will be maximized—and so will the likelihood of each student picking up another book for enjoyment.

            Comprehension and enjoyment—or rather immersion—suggest themselves as the highest priorities for any curriculum meant to cultivate better reading. Unfortunately, English teachers the country over seem to be suffering from the delusion that as long as they’re supplying their students with the proper tools and training them to employ the most advanced techniques, it doesn’t matter whether reading offers any pleasure. “Education’s goal to have people develop opinions about what they’re reading instead of just having a good time, as they would watching a movie, is not something to generally disparage,” a high school teacher recently commented in response to some criticisms I leveled against the current trend educators are calling “active reading”.

            Writing opens a portal onto a world, whether that world be the one we all inhabit, the one as represented in a character’s mind, or one that’s entirely fictional. Teachers’ role should be to help their students step through that portal, so they can have genuine encounters with the characters, get a sense of the settings, follow the ideas, and work through the dilemmas conjured up by the author’s words. But many of the practices kids are taught have them fixating on the portal’s architecture as opposed to what it opens onto at the other side. The rationale for this fixation, according to my teacher friend, is that many of his students simply can’t make it through the passage on their own.

What if students struggle with comprehension, let alone analysis? They need tools and strategies. You’re throwing all of those out and saying “just immerse yourself.” They can’t. They do not understand the text. They have no point of reference to immerse themselves. You are vastly overestimating a student’s ability to read by assuming the solution to their reading deficiencies is to just read it. You can’t immerse in what you don’t understand.

To which I say, tools and strategies are well and good—if they work. But why not instead assign texts the students can understand, works they do have a point of reference to help them immerse themselves in?

            Active reading is the new catch-all term for the set of behaviors students engage in to try to make difficult texts more accessible, including practices like underlining, annotating in the margins, and summarizing. The idea is that if teachers can get their students to work harder, they’ll be able to comprehend more complex writing. This approach has two main drawbacks: first, experiments have demonstrated many of the techniques that go into active reading are only moderately effective—if not completely counterproductive. (Willingham cites research showing comprehension has much more to do with background knowledge of the topic being written about than the amount of effort put into decoding the text.) But the even bigger problem with pushing students to work harder at deciphering difficult texts is that it trains students to see reading as, well, work.

            We shouldn’t rush to judgment. Teachers try to get their students reading hard books in response to pressure from parents and administrators to help them achieve higher test scores, read at grade-appropriate “levels”—whatever that means—and prepare them for what they’ll face in college or in the business world. It’s a huge responsibility. But teachers also want to challenge their students to do serious intellectual work. As my friend argued,

It’s a laudable goal to have a public consuming media (even books) and do something besides enjoying it. I’m not going to have them read Hunger Games and “have a good time” in a classroom setting. We can have a good time with Canterbury Tales, enjoy the hell out of it, and have some intellectual goals along the way.

The reality is that the books in the Hunger Games trilogy offer plenty of opportunities for rigorous intellectual discourse (the story is actually quite harrowing), but those opportunities are being overlooked because what’s most important to those in the education system is the perception of seriousness. If kids are assigned Hunger Games or Harry Potter, can you really even call it homework?

Ulysses by James Joyce

            I read Gatsby in my early twenties right after I slogged through James Joyce’s Ulysses, cover to cover. This was because I was going down the list of the one hundred best novels in the English language as voted on by select members of the Modern Library. Gatsby is tough reading, but Ulysses is truly a book only academics can love—or for that matter even comprehend. Joyce didn't write it to be enjoyed so much as studied. I don’t just mean it’s complex; you literally can’t make any sense of it unless you have a large store of historical, linguistic, literary, and mythological knowledge to apply to deciphering the allusions. It’s more a grand literary puzzle—or a punishingly lengthy series of puzzles—than a work of literature. But at least Joyce’s puzzles have solutions. The Modern Library’s list mostly predates the rise of postmodernism, represented by purportedly brilliant works like Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest. Books like these also read like puzzles, only with no solutions. The idea is that they represent tricks readers willingly let the authors play on them. Somewhere in that awkward dance is supposedly something quite profound, by some accounts even genius. (If you want more details on my take, check out my essay: What’s the Point of Difficult Reading?)

            Personally, though, I like stories. I like novels that bring me face to face with characters and vicariously expose me to their thoughts and experiences. I like to step through the portal instead of just standing there staring stupefied at the walls. It’s in these genuine encounters that we experience the beauty of literature—those scenes where we ache with sympathy or uncomfortably withhold judgment, the turning points when we’re desperate to see our favored character persevere and prevail. And isn’t it this beauty that compels us to read these stories in the first place, impelling us to continue reading regardless of how complicated the plot and the language become?

            Though I’d find it shocking, I’m prepared to allow for the possibility that some people find Ulysses or Gravity's Rainbow narratively immersive and even beautiful—their authors clearly intended for them to be so at least on some level. I became immersed in Saul Bellow’s Herzog after all, even though it’s chock-full of high-brow allusions and the main character is an über-nerd. All literature balances somewhere on a continuum between purely aesthetic experience and grueling intellectual exercise. If a novel hits all the pleasure centers in a student’s brain, though, far too many teachers will be apt to dismiss that book as shlock. It’s commercial fiction, they’d complain, not literature—something you read outside of class, just for fun.

            I arrived at the Modern Library’s list of great novels along a journey that began with Doctor Seuss and E.B. White, meandered into territory inhabited by the likes of Batman and the X-Men, overnighted in Jurassic Park (four times) before being swept up in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, and only then, in my junior year of high school, got knocked on my butt by 1984. In the middle of that first leg of my literary trek, I fell in love with Edgar Allan Poe—a love that was grossly incompatible with the lessons my seventh-grade lit teacher subjected us to as part of her misguided efforts to help us appreciate the stories. Ever since, my reading has taken two separate tracks, one personal and the other academic. Even when I’ve discovered books I loved in school, I felt I needed to experience them separately, in my own way—because the teachers just didn’t get it. They were obsessed with turning art into algebra.

            Just as I have to admit the possibility that some readers derive great pleasure from the postmoderns’ execrably extravagant prose, with their tedious profusion of pointlessly cul-de-sacing plots—though I suspect, if I’m not speaking to a masochist, any claim along these lines is a pretense—I also have to acknowledge that, like my teacher friend, some students “enjoy the hell” out of all the apparatus and rigmarole of underlining, notetaking, marginalia scribbling, and classroom discussions, which always veer ever farther from the reality behind the text into the realm of highest, most bloodless abstraction. Still, it seems to me that in all these strange rituals the book itself becomes all but moot. I would wager it’s the same kids who develop this kind of fetish for marking up books who grow up to boast of how fascinating they find Infinite Jest.

            Whether it’s a pretense or a genuine feeling, I won’t begrudge them their fascination. I simply have to point out there’s an entirely different set of readers out there who love the books themselves, who experience them and find them beautiful and engrossing as real encounters and not as mere empty gestures. And if we want more kids to read—more kids to enjoy reading—we would need to see more readers from this set teaching, more of them assigning books based on what their students are ready for, not what would look serious or impressive to parents and administrators, more of them encouraging their charges to put down their pens and look at the worlds created by the authors as real, if only for a brief time, places where they can meet people like they’ve never met before, worlds where they can have experiences like none other on offer in their lives, settings almost magically conducive to personal transformation and self-transcendence.  

            There’s real beauty in these otherworldly sojourns. Let’s forget whatever it is we’ve been trying to prove and start helping kids approach that beauty.