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What are We Choosing When We Choose a Book

This summer, the website Edutopia published an article called “The Reading Wars: Choice vs Canon.”

It’s worth a read, and it articulates several major problems that High School English teachers face in America today. The debate seems to be promoted by a discouraging fact: American teens are simply ceasing to read books. It’s not just that they won’t crack open Shakespeare on their own, it’s that given the multitude of other options beside reading books, most involving their smart-phones, books seem less and less interesting and immediate. Even if they have a hankering to read in order to stay informed (which may be less common than we would hope) they can arguably do that better by opening the news or Twitter app on their phone.

Enter the English teacher, who is not only tasked with getting teens to read multiple books each year, but also of instilling in them an understanding of literature as an art form with a history and discernable, shifting role in culture over time. Finally, there is an ultimate goal beyond the merely practical (get a teen to actually read a book), and the informational (present teens with facts about the history of books); this goal is the instilling in the heart of the student an ongoing love for books that will continue past their schooling into their daily adulthood, enriching, informing, and even transforming their lives.

But alas, the Edutopia article shows that teachers are still too often stuck on accomplishing the initial practical goal: getting everyone in the class to give one book, ANY book, a cursory read from cover to cover. According to the article, there are two warring schools of thought on how to do this. The first is the “classics” route, wherein high school students are assigned representative classics in English / American literature. The “classic” mentioned most often in the article is William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies. Shakespeare also gets a mention, but mostly to decry how difficult his plays are for students to engage with. Both Golding and Shakespeare are presented and understood as classics that belong to a canon, a list of culturally valued and approved texts that form a discernable literary tradition.

Pitted against these classics from the canon are “choice” books. These are books that are not assigned by a teacher, but rather chosen by the students. Both graphic novels and YA (Young Adult) novels are mentioned as typical “choice” books.

The article does a good job of showing how English teachers really are torn between canon and choice: with canon you have tried and true books that can be read and studied together in class, but that the typical student just doesn’t want, and perhaps will refuse, to read. With choice you have books that immediately appeal to students, but that are far from possessing those qualities that “classic” books do, and may even appear to the typical English teacher to not rise to the level of literature at all.

This dilemma is a difficult one and I will not attempt an easy solution here. Rather, I would like to propose a problem with the formulation of the dilemma as one of “classic” books vs “choice” books.

First, it is simply untrue that “classic” books belong to traditions and canons and “choice” books do not. Second, while we might expect a typical high school student to choose relatively new and popular YA books for their “choice” reading, in truth, this is not always the case: sometimes a student’s “choice” book is a classic which she chooses to read not because it is a classic, but because it is simply appealing to her as a curious reader. (In fact, I would argue that the greatest books are those that continually fit into both categories).

Let’s examine more closely the concept of “choice” books. Contemporary teens, many argue, feel disconnected from classic works– they seem written about times, places, and people that are unfamiliar, that don’t look, talk, or act like they do. So, presumably, when given the choice, students want texts that are relatable, about characters that think, talk, act, and live like they do. It’s not surprising, then, that YA novels are popular “choice texts”.

YA fiction seems written for the teenage audience, from the perspective of a teenager, in the language that teens today speak. Except, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that YA fiction is marketed to a teen audience in the language that adult novelists imagine teens will enjoy reading. After all, novelists who write YA books are not (with few exceptions) teens themselves. Just as in every novel, what appear to be realistic settings, conversations, and characters, are objects of extreme artifice. I do not mean to condemn fiction when I say this! A novel, like any piece of literary art, is a wholly created thing: every word, every phrase, every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter, every character, every plot is a crafted object, the product of thousands of creative decisions on the part of the writer. The more thoughtful and intentional each of these decisions are, often the more rewarding the book will be. As I like to remind my students, all writing is creative, and the more we think of everything we write as a series of creative decisions, the more we can improve as writers.

So, back to “choice” texts; they are not, (and can never be, in an important sense), authentic representations of today’s teens. For one thing, “today’s teens” is an ever changing demographic. Many YA texts are indeed marketed as such, and insomuch as they are, they are deceptive. We must not forget that YA fiction is an extremely lucrative industry, and there are corporate interests at play in every book stand or internet banner that advertises the new John Green or Suzanne Collins YA bestseller. Much has already been written about how uncritical reading of “classic” texts can inadvertently support questionable ideas and trends in culture. We should not let “choice” reading off the hook either, for it can and does lead to paydays for big publishers, and further encourages them to require the most faddish books from their authors and continually manipulative advertising and design from their marketing and art departments.

So, what is it that YA novels can do positively? They can present the author’s own imaginative constructions–plots, themes, sentences, paragraphs, conversations — involving teenaged characters. They can present them engagingly, perceptively, beautifully, and–perhaps most interestingly, in conversation with the imaginative constructions of other writers. For, just as YA novels don’t drop wholly written, edited, and marketed from the heavens as authentic, realistic depictions of today’s teens, so they don’t exist in isolation from other YA novels, nor from the many traditions of writing for and about teens.

This is easy to see with Suzanne Collins, whose Hunger Games books proved massively popular, and who has another book, sure to be a bestseller, coming soon to a bookstore near you. Yes, Collins writes about teenaged characters who seem relatable to the teens (and adults!) who read the books, but also her books can best be understood and evaluated in the long tradition of English-language novels about dystopias, which includes Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, and yes, even Golding’s “classic” Lord of the Flies. It also includes Collins own imitators, among them the also very successful, if less critically acclaimed, Divergent series. If a teacher allowed a student to read Hunger Games for literature class credit, I would hope that they so contextualized the book for the student, made them aware of the larger genre, including texts that are better examples of the craft of fiction. To fail to do so would be, at the very least, to fail at the second level of literature education that we laid out in the beginning of this article, namely to provide the student with a vision of the historical and cultural contexts in which texts emerge, battle for attention, and affect the reading community.

In the end, the distinction between choice and canon is an illusion, if by “canon” we mean books that emerge and exist in conversation with a literary tradition. For EVERY book that a teen could conceivably choose has emerged and exists in conversation with one or more literary traditions. The “classics” of English literature are simply those entries in the English literary tradition (and there are many other traditions, we must remember) that have proved the most enduring, the most influential, the most often found by readers in later generations and loved for their own merits of creative artifice and imagination, though their authors are long dead and their contexts long past. It is the duty of the literature teacher, I believe, to reveal to each student the beautiful, embattled story of stories and storytellers, to lead young readers from the book or books they happen to already like to the books that inspired that book, or that that book inspired. Students who read and love the civil-rights-era-focused graphic novel March, by Congressman John Lewis, should next be given Maus, a classic graphic novel about oppression and resistance in Hitler’s Germany. Beyond this they might be introduced next to the work of pioneering graphic novelists like Will Eisner, without whom neither Maus nor March may have been written or published. They could also be introduced to the writings of the characters depicted in March, including classics like the writings of Martin Luther King Jr. In this way, the intrinsic, natural delight that a teen takes in a book can be educated, directed, and matured, by steps, into a more historically and aesthetically informed adult taste.

We must not forget that there is a moral dimension to all of this. We may read a book, disagree with it, and put it back on the shelf. But if we come to LOVE a book, we become responsible for the moral wisdom (and any moral failure!) found within it. The moral elements of a novel, just like all other elements, exist in conversation with the larger ethical tradition within which the book emerged, especially with the most prominent “classic” contributions to that tradition. There is, in fact, no real escape from tradition. We need not bow to, or even participate in, every tradition to which the books we read belong. But the more invested we become in a book, the more we choose to read it of our own will, and not out of external compulsion, the more we become morally involved in its world.

If we are to continue to see the teaching of English literature as an important act, then we must demand of English education not just the bare minimum of getting every teen to read a book or two, but of apprenticing each student in the study of what kind of things works of literature are. For they are crafted works of verbal art which revel in the intrinsic human search for beauty and wisdom, and exist in and are responsible to literary, philosophical, religious and cultural traditions.

To fail to so educate students is not just a failure to make informed readers, it is also a failure to make real writers. To become a writer is to be apprenticed in an exacting, traditional craft, and we do a disservice to both the present and the future to avoid such apprenticeship. I shudder to think what it would be like to live in an age where our literary practitioners are wholly uninformed about the formal traditions of their literary forbears. Some will say that we are already living in such an age. I say that that depends in part on our English teachers and school administrators. And to say that is to convict and challenge myself most of all.