Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, March 4, 2011

answers to important questions

The other day a homeschooling parent, whose child is in the ninth grade, wrote to me to ask what books I thought are essential for a young person to have read before coming to college. My reply:

For what it's worth, I don't think what a young person reads is nearly as important as how he or she reads. Young people who learn to read with patience and care and long-term concentration, with pencil in hand to make notes (including questions and disagreements), will be better prepared for college than students who read all the "right" books but read them carelessly or passively.


  • And this, sir, is why they call you wise.

  • I like that. But now that you've given her that answer, can you tell us which books young people should read before college? Let's assume the youngster is reading in the way you suggest. Now what should they be reading?

  • Russell, who calls me wise? I want to find those people, shake their hands, and give them some chocolate.

    John: My answer was serious. I don't think it matters that much. The key thing is to make children into readers, so that they have a whole lifetime to read the best books.

  • Thanks for calling our attention to the importance of the "how" Alan. But I don't think this is an either/or proposition. I regret reading only science fiction/fantasy and popular Christian apologetics as I grew up. I never learned to read carefully classic literature like Dickens to understand the human condition or Plato to engage the great ideas. The result is that I'm playing catch up, growing into thinking deeply in areas which are foreign territory. As I raise my own children, I endeavor for their experience to be richer and not miss the beauty and brilliance of all that is good.

  • Alan, I'm sure I've met people who call you wise. I can't remember their names right now, though. Why don't you send the chocolate to me and I'll make sure it gets distributed to the right people? And please, no Ghirardelli; surely the people who think you wise deserve better than that.

    John and Kevin, I'm going to take Alan's back here; I really do agree with him that if someone becomes a good reader, a thoughtful reader, a reader who thinks about words and asks questions about them, then it truly doesn't matter what books upon which she learned those skills. I suppose that the competitive meritocrats among us will have a point in claiming that certain standards and credentials are going to depend upon mastering certain sets to books, and so getting the kids set on them early is a good idea. Much as I'd like to reject that argument, I can't; I know that the folks who grade the AP English exams are going to be more sympathetic to the girl who writes intelligently about about Dickens than the girl who writes perceptively about Nancy Drew. But my thought is: so much for the AP English exams then!

  • Michael Straight said...

    I would go further and recommend that young readers avoid a lot of the best books until they've learned to read well enough to appreciate them.

    Better to teach a child to read Harry Potter critically and carefully, and wait until they've really developed those skills until they are introduced to more mature and complex books. Let their first introduction to Melville or Conrad or Bronte or Shelley or Garcia Marquez (to name a few authors I was forced to read before I was able to appreciate them) be one where they have a chance of understanding them.

  • Russell,
    If I eat junk food but do so properly, chewing all of it, consuming it more slowly and using good manners, I’m still eating something which isn’t good for me. In doing so, my palate is shaped accordingly. The content that we choose to read is the food of our soul. If I only read romance novels or popular fiction, I can only learn "how" to read within a very narrow and shallow type of literature.

    Secondly, I would argue that just like certain foods are better for me, certain texts are superior to other texts de facto. As a Christian, it is easy for me to call out the superiority of the Bible to any other text. Part of "how" to read is understanding this gradation of superiority - how is one text better than another? How is one way of looking at life superior to another? If my "how" to read develops only under the tutelage of Ann Brashares, Stephenie Meyer and J.K. Rowling and not under Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and J.R.R. Tolkien, I would submit my understanding and my life will be lacking as compared to someone who has. I will know some of how to read but my life is more likely to be the shape my body would take in consuming junk food all the time. If I feed my soul on transient literature, I may never learn to engage or value reading material which is in fact better for me....exchanging the ordinary for something extraordinary.

    C.S. Lewis’ advice concerning content has shaped my own answer to this question. He wrote, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between….Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”
    I do understand that there is a developmental progression to reading as well. Reading Homer to my eight year old will not be as valuable an experience now as when she reads it herself when she is fourteen. It will become even more valuable as she returns to it once she has continued to interact with other philosophical ideas and lived life. But if she never develops a taste for enduring literature, it could become problematic later as I stated in my answer to Russell.

    The original question posed to Alan was about a 9th grader in preparation for college. My worry is not only that we don't train our children how to read but that we set the bar too low for what young readers should read. I think the question asked of Alan is a valuable one and is similar to a person asking a nutrionist what is best for a ninth grader to learn to eat, anticipating the meals served at college. Once the habits are formed (which should begin much earlier than ninth grade), tastes are developed. If we have mentored the reading experience well, a reader will value and love what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy.

Post a Comment

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field.]