Tuesday, September 1, 2009
I’d like to comment on Susan Straight’s essay in this past Sunday’s The New York Times Book Review section. It made me realize what a reward-conscious society we are. We’re driven by metrics. And it starts in elementary school. I understand the importance of establishing percentiles for math and reading scores. Children need to acquire basic competency in order to move along in their nascent educational careers. Regent exams will gear them for advanced placement and the SATs, GREs, LSATs, MCATs will hopefully prep them for life. If only it was that easy.
I’ve heard of Accelerated Reader before, but didn’t really know its mechanics. They use a software program to rank books by complexity and page total and spit out a number. That number represents the point score kids will chase to outrank their peers. There are prizes to be won too. Kids obviously want to gobble up books with the highest points and I’m not blaming them. What troubles me is the attempt to quantify something which is supposed to be a visceral joy.
A quick peek into titles showed me that Harry Potter piled on the points. Reading “Goblet of Fire” earns 32 points, “Deathly Hallows” adds 34 points, and “Order of the Phoenix” rakes in 44 points. Now, “Prisoner of Azkaban” only garners 18 points, but s does “Huckleberry Finn”. Startling as this may seem, Stephen Meyer’s “Twilight” earns just as many points as Twain's magnum opus. Software that makes these computations needs to be revamped. If the goal is to get kids excited about literature they need to read classics. Especially, ones that are lively, voice-driven that have inspired generations of writers— and readers.
How can you quantify a book’s worth? It’s a task I wouldn’t leave to a number, a book report maybe and for the precocious young mind a thoughtful critique. Focusing solely on the number squeezes the ethereal joy from reading great works. It makes me think of Oscar Wilde’s apt quote describing cynics, “A man who knows price of everything and the value of nothing”. Is literature about quantification, page numbers, word count? How does one measure the poignancy of sentence or weigh the emotional resonance of an image? I think there might be a fear in today’s educational community that children will one day lose interest in reading with all of the distractions out there.
There’s a great Bernard Malamud short story called “A Summer’s Reading” about a teenage boy who wants to read his way through the library. His neighbor is impressed and says that one day he’d love to sit down with the boy to discuss the books. Well, the kid doesn’t read as he said he would, but feels terribly guilty every time he passes his neighbor. Late one night, while the kid is loping through the neighborhood he sees his neighbor who’s drunk. The man gives the kid some change to buy an ices. Not necessarily a transformative moment, but it is for the kid. The weight of his own worries and a grave need to take personal responsibility and better himself overcome him.
I identify with this story because I was never a big reader when I was a kid either, but when the day arrived that I was engrossed in books I couldn’t get enough. The words, the sentences, the emotions that erupted in me from reading challenged and changed me. In my mind, ratings would have made no difference for me. Maybe I'm being a cynic. I don’t know if this is the case for all kids, but I truly believe that reading for a literary experience should not be grounded in the metrics of scholastics, but should lean toward the sublime.