How to Teach Books to Kids

This is a good comment in our ongoing conversation about books, education, and maturity:


Just about every "great book" or author that I was forced to read in high school I didn't understand until I was old enough to get it. I was assigned to read Walden over a winter break my freshman year in high school (very small, very liberal arts high school) and I dealt with that impossibility by just not reading it, and learning to skim in class and pick up on the discussions and cite the text right along with everyone else. We also "read" The Stranger, the Odyssey and Iliad, Siddhartha, and a number of other great books that I'm not sure I had the capacity to understand, even with the discussions and papers we had to write on them, and even if I didn't fail to read them mostly because I was being forced to read them at someone else's pace. 

Now, I'm a poor student, and I'm not trying to imply that kids shouldn't be taught tough books, because they should. My response isn't going to be everyone's, and even for the people who have that response, it's still a great exercise. I'm much better at discussion and argument as a result of being forced to cite a text I had not actually read before entering class. But there's no way I could appreciate those books then like I can now that I've lived what I've lived. I've totally ignored great books that I didn't understand when I was being forced to read them. 

Only recently have I started picking those books back up, and it's been quite the experience. I just started reading The Stranger recently, and I don't recognize it at all. There's no way I could have understood it, and in fact my memories of the book in high school are just mental pictures of the book, like it was encrypted text, I didn't understand a word. The great books I've come to later in life have not had that problem. There have not been first-impression scars that I've had to dig through to get back to them, I can just read them. I read 100 Years of Solitude recently, after years and years of people telling me I should read it, and I'm glad I waited, because I know I would have tossed that book aside and never looked at it again.

There's a lot here I identify with, and I want to double down and extend on a few points, so that we don't end up in violent agreement. First, some of us are poor students, and I'm not totally convinced that any form of mass education can fix that. That's a statement of autobiography, not accusation. I simply wasn't interested in the notion of sitting in a chair for an hour at a time and receiving information at a predetermined pace. I don't even know that I'm interested in that now. I say that knowing that there are very good reasons for why this is the case. Moreover, there are children who excel at this model. I think a conversation like this should always remember that.

With that said, a few months back I was doing a reading from my own book when someone told me that they were going to assign it to their ninth-grade class. I was polite enough but inside, I was recoiling in horror. The notion of anyone ever being forced to read something I wrote was rather deflating. For me, the love of books is premised on a kind of voluntary submission. The authors I love, are the authors I trust. I freely hand over a portion of my consciousness to their work, and settle back to see what they make of it. The notion of someone being instructed to hand over that consciousness just sent shivers through me.

That isn't a particularly rational, or correct, response, but it's my response and it reflects how I have come to love books, and art, in general. I think the problem is that, on a bone-deep level, I'm an individualist and a bit of a snob. I don't want to be told what to read, how I should read it, when I have to be finished, what I should get out of it, or what questions I should be able to answer upon completion. I want to take off my clothes, drop my things and promptly get lost.

I don't know how you teach that in public school. I don't even know that you should. School is utilitarian. Given that it's supposed to prepare you for the job market, it kind of has to be, right?
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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