4 Ways High School Makes You Hate Reading

Hat tip to my beautiful and brilliant internet wife RVC Bard for tipping me to this excellent article. An article that brilliantly summed up everything I hated about reading during my high school and even college years.

And this is coming from a published author.

4 Ways High School Makes You Hate Reading

I can’t be the only one who feels like the schools pulled a sort of bait-and-switch job on us when it came to reading. When I was in elementary school, they went to a lot of trouble to make sure we thought reading was fun, with bookmobiles and read-a-thons and tons of fun books about mice and motorcycles and phantom tollbooths. I had confidence that I could go to the library and pull anything off the shelf except a Baby-Sitters Club book and I wouldn’t be disappointed.

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This is one of those books that you could judge by its cover.

That was the bait. In junior high and high school, they made the switch. I guess they heard about how drug dealers give you free doses of the good stuff until you are addicted, and then once you are hooked, they start cutting it with 50 percent baby powder or something. Actually, junkies notice when you do this. And kids notice when you swap their fun books for boring crap.

So one summer you are reading A Wrinkle in Time or Fantastic Mr. Fox or whatever, and then you show up for your first day of school and BAM, The Scarlet Letter. And get on that pronto, kid, because we are going to talk about metaphors and symbolism in Chapter 1 tomorrow. I opened these books thinking they would be great and rewarding, like the books I was used to, but it was like biting into a delicious-looking cake and finding a bear trap. After my face had been so destroyed by so many bear traps (to continue the metaphor) that the greatest reconstructive surgeon in the world could do nothing to save it, I stopped looking at books as wonderful presents I couldn’t wait to open and started looking at them with a sort of low-level PTSD.

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This is when the flashbacks start.

Let me be clear: I still love reading good books, but since experience has taught me that there’s about a 95 percent chance that a random (adult) book I pick up is going to be unenjoyable, I spend more time researching a book before I read it than I spent researching my house before I bought it. It’s crazy to have to be so scared and wary of something I used to look forward to so much.

I think this kind of experience is part of why only 50 percent of American adultshave read any novel, short story, poem or play in the past year, and only 54 percent have read any kind of book at all that wasn’t required. There was a bump up from 2002 to 2008, which they think was related to Oprah’s book club, or Harry Potter – you know, things reminiscent of the “Reading Is Fun” campaigns they targeted at kids, which I guess we need for adults now.

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I’m not sure if this is a farcical joke about a dumb reading campaign or a satire on the way they are actually marketing books to grown-ups these days.

And as a disclaimer, I know there’s going to be people out there who loved The Scarlet Letteror A Separate Peace or what have you and feel like they got a lot out of it, and teachers who manage to get kids really engaged in discussing literature, and that is cool, but I don’t think that’s the common experience. Here are the sorts of things I think are going on a lot more often:

#4. High School Required Reading Sucks

The Scarlet LetterWuthering HeightsGreat ExpectationsEthan FromeWaldenHeart of DarknessMadame BovaryThe Catcher in the Rye and The Sun Also Rises all suck. OK, that’s just my opinion, but the average high school student — hell, the average human being — will probably agree on a bunch of those at least.

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This cover is misleading because it is much more interesting than the book.

What really gets my goat is when people act like this is our problem. They say the reason we don’t like these books is because we don’t get it. Because we are stupid and like our stories spoon-fed to us with simple words. We hate to work our brains to think about deeper themes and ambiguity. We like our comfort zone, and we get confused and angry when asked to put ourselves in the shoes of people in different places and times.

They will say you are objectively wrong and the book is objectively good, and important. Maybe the piece of writing was a groundbreaker in covering a taboo subject, or maybe it introduced a new and important idea that influenced world events (Thoreau and civil disobedience), or is a great example of dramatic or situational irony or an unreliable narrator, or maybe it proves butt jokes are ancient and universal (Shakespeare).

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I remember he created a character named Bottom who had an “ass”‘ head. Not subtle.

A lot of these may be good reasons why you should read the book, but they shouldn’t be used to prove that the book is good. I’m not saying to strip all these books out of the curriculum or only make kids read things they enjoy. Life is hard and you have to do things you don’t like. When you grow up, you will have to read boring/wrong things and listen to boring/wrong people from time to time, and figure out how to pay attention and understand their point of view, and that is a skill you need to practice. But when just aboutevery single book on the reading list is something that makes the majority of your class go home and blog about how much they hate it, it starts to seem like aFahrenheit 451-style plot to destroy people’s interest in reading.

#3. You’re Not Allowed to Talk Smack About the Books

Even if you love literature and had a pretty good high school reading experience, you probably can agree that at least one book you were asked to read (in your opinion) sucked. There might be excessive exposition, laughable imagery, characters intended to be sympathetic who are grating or characters intended to be grating who are so grating that you can’t pay attention to the story (Holden Caulfield).

There are very few classrooms where you are encouraged to express this point of view, because I think a lot of teachers feel like if you admit to the book not being that great, then you open yourself up to the kids arguing that they shouldn’t have to read it. I don’t think it has to go there. I think teaching well-reasoned smack talk has a lot of value.

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And not just if you get into a kung fu fight at work.

The stated goal of teaching literature isn’t just to get kids familiar with famous books; it’s also supposed to teach kids how to discuss stories and write intelligently. You teach them how to find symbolism and metaphors and hero’s journeys and character arcs in an assigned book so that when they consume other media (other books, movies, long personal lies told by disturbed family members, etc.) in the future, they can point all those things out to explain why they’re good or bad.

And to be totally realistic, most of the practical application of this would go to movies, because more people watch and discuss movies (or TV shows) than read books these days. This seems bad at first, because there are a lot of terrible movies and TV shows out there today. But there’s a lot of very smart criticismand discussion of bad movies. I’ve mentioned Red Letter Media and their reviews before. You wouldn’t think there would be anything to learn from the vacuousStar Wars prequels, but apparently there’s a lot to point out about what specific elements of story and drama are missing, and a lot more intelligent observations to be pulled out of the movies than went into them, somehow.

So of course you don’t want to let the kids get away with writing an essay about an assigned book saying, “It sucks, it was boring, Heathcliff and Catherine were stupid and annoying,” even if you admit that Wuthering Heights is a piece of shit. But what if you let them write an essay that goes negative on the book as long as they make reasoned, intelligent points that show they understood the author’s intentions and the methods they used to achieve them, and then explain why they think the author failed at this?

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“I feel that Bronte was needlessly derivative in naming her main character after a cartoon cat.”

They can’t just say “The book was preachy” — they’ll have to say that a specific point was made “heavy-handedly,” cite a passage they find particularly ham-fisted and explain which words and phrases they feel butcher the idea of subtlety. They’ll have to explain why a certain chapter might have appealed to the author’s contemporary audience by showing an understanding of those readers and their situation, before explaining what’s changed in the intervening years to make that part of the story mawkish and cartoony. (Am I talking about Dickens? You decide.)

It’s a lot more motivating to write something you really believe. When you look for supporting points for your assigned essay on which character in The Great Gatsby best symbolizes the American Dream, you’ll probably be looking through your notes trying to figure out what your teacher wants you to say, and you’ll learn how to repeat things people want to hear. If you’re writing about why The Sun Also Rises sucks, your points will come from actual opinions you have and you’ll learn how to organize your own opinions and express them.

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Without using penis-shaped emoticons.

Even if the kids are wrong, like they say Shakespeare was a hack, being able to actually support that opinion with good points that show they really understand the material is pretty impressive. And the real world is full of murky issues (religion, politics, which character class is overpowered) where there’s no authoritative adult to come in and say which is the “right” opinion. They need to learn how to back their shit up themselves when nobody else is there to back them up and tell the class they got the right answer. People who don’t know how to articulate their reasoning just put down their stakes defensively and end up getting into a grown-up version of “Nuh-uh”/”Uh-huh.” And it’s not cute at that age.

#2. Anything Fun Is Too Shallow

Sometimes they let kids read one or two “fun” books (like the Hunger Gamesbooks or something) in a concession to try to keep them into reading. But they treat them like candy, a necessary evil that you should spend as little time on as possible. Maybe you give a book report, but otherwise they don’t want to waste time on that popular crap.

The argument is that fun and popular books are too shallow to get much out of. They’re not going to have as many themes, or new vocabulary words, or symbols, or unusual storytelling techniques as a classic novel. And that’s probably true in a lot of cases. The point they’re missing here is that most high school classes never even get close to digging out all the analyzable stuff from a book, because of time limits or limits of the students’ reading level. So imagine books as oil wells, full of tarry, black, flammable ideas to analyze. War and Peace has like a ton of light sweet crude going 5 miles deep and Jurassic Park is about, I don’t know, 10 feet deep.


Not to scale.

From my experience, even the average honors class only ends up drilling down about 9 feet. Tolstoy sure has a lot more to offer, but you’re never going to get to it.

Maybe that’s a good experience to have — to know that there are books that are totally going to make you feel out of your league and take a lot of time to fully grasp. But you should also have the experience of thoroughly analyzing most of the facets of a book to get an idea of all the parts you should be looking at, and just to have the satisfaction of mastering something. You can get a Cliffs Notes overview of a big, complex book, and then just totally dismantle a more lightweight book like you are rebuilding a ’57 Chevy.

By Buck, via Wikimedia Commons
That’s one of those cars people rebuild, right? I don’t know cars.

And when you’re discussing universal themes like good and evil, redemption, belief, and farts, or common techniques like symbolism, irony, and first- vs. third-person narrative, I think it’s a mistake to only look at them in classic literature. It creates an artificial barrier between classics and modern-day popular media so that a lot of people who learn those concepts while reading Shakespeare don’t think about applying them to Inception.

I think it would be kind of neat to have an assignment dealing with a character’s turn from good to evil where you compare how it’s done in Paradise LostAnimal FarmBreaking Bad, the Star Wars prequels and Warcraft III. Where was it most believable and why? How much of it was character-driven and how much of it was driven by outside circumstances or magic? And you’ll probably get to use the term “deus ex machina” somewhere in there. Literary!

You’d read Paradise Lost or Dorian Gray or whatever in class, and it’s up to you to find other things to compare them to. You only get one video game. (And if it’sDeus Ex, you’re not allowed to use the term “deus ex machina.”)

Ill Gaming
I read in Reader’s Digest or something that some mom was shocked when her kid asked for this game because she thought he was saying “Day of Sex.” That is now the only thing I will call that game.

Instead of asking kids to accept the idea that some books are deep and some books are not because we say so, why not have them look at the “deep version” and the “shallow version” of the same plot? Hamlet and The Lion King or something. When they compare and contrast them, they’ll probably see for themselves what The Lion King is missing, even if they like it better. Of course they should also be allowed to say what they think Hamlet is missing, too (lions).

#1. Enjoy Reading? Preposterous!

There is a point in time where a lot of adults stop telling kids that reading is fun and start telling them that reading should be work. That if you’re not improving your mind and broadening your horizons, reading that book is just a waste of your time. And they have a lot of ideas about what kinds of books broaden kids’ minds.

By Anton Huttenlocher, via Wikimedia Commons
This is one of the few books that doesn’t make any lists.

One writer suggests that what kids really need is more contemporary foreign literature. The comments are full of different adults saying, “What kids really need to be reading is …” followed by their favorite book, or a list of books that teach about issues important to them (the adult). Like this guy feels the most important goal of reading should be to protect kids’ minds … from religion, I think? Or communism? The Skin book is kind of random.

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And this teacher feels like kids should not waste their summers reading The Hunger Games because they don’t gain much “verbal and world knowledge,” recommending The Red Badge of Courage and a bunch of nonfiction books about the horrors experienced by real people in other times and places, like Hiroshima, well-known as a great summer romp. These are really valuable books, and kids should have some idea about the world around them, but seriously, even in the summer, they can’t read a book just for fun?

She says: “Summer assignments should be about why we need to learn and why we need to talk about what we think.” Sure, that’s an important lesson that needs to be taught at some point, but when is there time for them to learn the other important lesson: Reading is something you can also do for fun, when you are taking a break from learning? You can’t just tell people that and hope they remember it when they graduate and finally have time for it. That’s something they need to learn by doing it and experiencing the fun.

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Like you shouldn’t play a video game about a day of sex; you should just go out and have one.

I was a really fast reader and had no life, so I probably had the time to read important, assigned books as well as fun things over the summer, but most of the other kids I knew didn’t read that fast and had a lot of activities, and, you know, friends or something. If you assigned them a book to read for the summer, that was probably going to be the only one they would have time to get to. They would see reading as a hateful devil that chases you relentlessly, even into your leisure months.

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Here is a painting of — I am not joking – the devil trying to get St. Augustine to read something.

I’m not saying people should stop teaching classics or make the entire curriculum out of Stephen King books, but at a certain point in a kid’s life, reading gets turned into all work and no play (which makes Jack uninteresting or something … I forget). You’ve got to really be pretty crazy about reading to come out on the other side still excited about the next book you’re about to open. (And you’ll probably lose that excitement after going through any literary fiction for adults these days, but that is another story.)

As for me, I haven’t given up on reading. I’m still looking for good books to read, but I’ve been burned so much by recommendations that I’ve instituted a new procedure for the approval of any new reading material. I will require at least five notarized affidavits from me-certified book evaluators who give the book at least 4 out of 5 stars in three major evaluation categories (pacing, character development and amount of dinosaurs, for example) before I will read it. Certification is a fairly straightforward process involving an application in which you list your favorite books and other media and a brief essay describing what you think I am looking for in a book. If your application is satisfactory, it will be followed by two phone interviews. Certification can be revoked at any time if evidence surfaces of you reading Fifty Shades of Grey or other disqualifying material unless you can submit witness statements from two independent evaluators testifying that you were only reading it so you could write jokes about it. This might sound like a great deal of trouble to recommend a book, but think about what’s at stake, man. I could be bored for several hours! Who wants that on their hands?

17 thoughts on “4 Ways High School Makes You Hate Reading

  1. My school tried to make me hate reading with.. DICKENS. Oh I hate hate hate hate bloody DICKENS. So long winded and overwritten and terrible paced, the man needed an editor even more than Tolkein! The dreary, dull, truly awful “classics” (hereby defined as books lots of straight, white professors in ivory towers decide are suitably snobby enoiugh and then become popular because generations are forced to read the damn things and many more will read them out of some desperate, pretentious attempt to look erudite) were forced down my throat while gentle contempt and subtle derision poured on the words of the Fantasy, Urban Fantasy and Sci-fi writers who, with half the words and 3 times the clarity, could write stories that would burn trails across my mind and hold me prisoner all night ’til dawn

    A Tale of Two Cities has still left scars on my brain. And one very well emaning english teacher who, upon hearing that I was devouring 4 books a week, decided that I should be reading George Eliot and even freaking Chaucer. CHAUCER! I did actually quite like the Marlowe though, to be fair.

    Then, of course, having read this dreary dreary stuff, you are expected to analyse it but only in terms they wish to see – no negative criticism. And 100% agreed on the mistake of teaching kids to analyse literature but then turning round and presenting the idea that only certain kinds are worth analysis – never mind that popular works of cition are, perhaps, more in need of an aware, critical eye than dusty classics

    And don’t get em started on the damn poetry. To this day I hate poetry

    • You can’t stand poetry either? I’m glad I’m not the only one.

      However, I have a certain fondness for Anne Sexton’s fairy tale poems (published as “Transformations,” I believe) and for an audio recording of Sylvia Plath reading her poem where she compares her dad to Dracula. It ends with, “Daddy, you bastard.”

      Before then, I didn’t know poems could do that. I thought they had to be flowery and shit.

      • I don’t even remotely understand poetry. I have never yet read a poem that I’ve enjoyed. And it’s always so damn pretentious, like reading or enjoying poetry is the ultimate form of high art, And you can’t just READ a poem, there seems to be a duty to tortuoursly extract a hidden meaning from EVERY DAMN WORD. I’ve submitted essays on a single poem that must have been over a 1000 times as long as the damn poem itself
        .
        I had some respect for the war poets for their sheer starkness, but they were rammed down our throat over and over in a probably-very-European “THE WAR MUST NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN! WAR IS HELL! NO GLORY! NO VALOR! EVIL EVIL EVIL!” education that sickened

        Maybe I need to reapproach, but I’m burned

        • Nah, I understand where you came from. I RARELY enjoy poetry for the same reason. However, when I finally read some poems that are related to shit I was actually interested in (and wasn’t pretentious and obsessed with its own cleverness), I liked it.

          And speaking of novels: I honestly prefer short stories. Blasphemy, I know.

          I also think that drama should be taught as performance art, not literature. Being forced to read plays is probably what kept me from discovering my passion for writing them for so long.

          • That’s another issue – poetry seems so very up itself.

            Ah, there you lose me, I prefer EPIC SEASONS, of 6 books or more. I think a novella can work within a season, but stand alone novellas tend to leave me looking for the rest of the plot.

            Now that’s weird, in drama at school we didn’t study plays at all – which I kind of wanted to. But we didn’t act either. Nor was their any exam or any learning or… anything. It was one lesson a week of utter, bemusing pointlessness were we perfromed endless roleplays and exercises which seemed to come out of some corporation’s “team building exercises” guidebook. Also I hated my drama teacher and he hated me.

            • Don’t get me started on that. TBH, I think a lot of what passes for theater education is a fraud. But don’t tell my theatre buddies that.

        • Try some comedy poems, or contemporary children’s poets (NOT victorian ones. Those guys had IDEAS about Improving the Minds and Souls of Little Ones; that never goes anywhere good.) You can’t be up yourself when trying to make your audience laugh.

          I love me some Don Marquis, personally. He wrote a weekly syndicated newspaper column during the depression in the form of autobiographical poems written by a cockroach. Seriously, what’s not to love about that? And I grew up on Shel Silverstein and Judith Viorst and Jack Prelutsky and Jean Little.

    • I tried to read A Tale of 2 Cities as well, and it bored the ever loving HELL out of me! I could barely make it to the second chapter.

      Hell, I remember an episode of Cheers where Kramer tries to read it to the guys in the pub, but finds he has to make some… changes to make it funny, like how one of the main characters comes charging back in an Apache Helicopter.

  2. This post is pretty much spot-on. This year at uni, I have Dickens, Shakespeare, Wordsworth & Coleridge, and Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. All “heavyweights” that we’re supposed to enjoy…
    As for poetry, I have to say my parents had me reading really cool experimental poetry early on, so when I found out poetry was “supposed to” rhyme and talk about moonlight and have flowery descriptions, I was quite puzzled… Seriously though, it’s one of the only genres I’m still reading now aside from the forced reading from the curriculum.

    • Mine too, along with John Steinbeck. Although I did learn something from one of his books “Of Mice and Men.” I found out that the old cartoons from the 1940′s featured characters that were based on Steinbeck’s characters Lennie and George, particularly Lennie. In those cartoons there is always a character or impersonation of Lennie. He would act slow, is large in statue, sometimes he’s destructive, he has a love for pets, and would refer to small toons as “George.”

      That’s the only thing I learned from all my reading classes in high school. It’s a shame.

  3. I know you’re speaking from an American perspective, so I’m bringing my Canadian perspective into this, and evn then it could change depending on the town and whatnot, but I remember realy having to fight my way through Shakespear’s plays to read, like Hamlet, MacBeath, Romeo and Juliet, and a few others. I also read Of Mine & Men, and poetry just… I could not ‘get’ it.

    One interesting thing I do remember my English teacher doing in grade 11 English was that she had us watch, listen, and talk about the lyrics of popular bands on Much Music, our version of MTV, and how we can have different opinions on not just books, but movies as well, and when I talked about Godzilla, when the class laughed at me, she defended me.

    Strangely enough, all the boring books didn’t make me hate reading, it pushed me to find books I loved. I went on huge tears reading novels based on popular franchises such as Marvel Comics, Star Wars, Star Trek, and other things. Heck, I still have some of the Marvel Comic novels from the mid to late 90s, and they’re still better than 90% of the comics released.

    And yeah, there has to be some fun stuff too. Thanks to you and everyone else on this site, I’ve branched out a lot in my readings regarding race and gender equality that talks about history and such, but I also have to interspace it with some fictional books too, and I include comic books in that regards too. Why, thanks to Neo, I now own a TPB about Midnighter where he kicks Hitler in the balls, and good lord, that is some fun stuff!

    • My Canadian perspective was that the Shakespeare was perfectly fine in my high school, but the Can Lit SUUUUUUUUUUUUCKED. I mean, good god, nothing wrong with getting some Canadian content on the curriculum, But freaking MARGARET LAURENCE?! And bloody freaking thrice-by-all-gods-be-cursed The Stone Angel?! Whyyyyyyy.

      Every single one of us hated that book. I was the book nerd, I read books that were on OTHER classes’ syllabus, for FUN, I liked Kafka’s Metamorphosis, but -I- hated The bloody Stone bloody Angel. It was dull and plodding and the plot… it’s the reminiscences of a vulgar and vicious ninety year old woman who doesn’t want to be put in a home even though her mind and body are falling apart (in excruciating detail. I did not need to know that much about her bowel movements.). Even if it was as brilliant as my English teacher seemed to think… why the hell would you put that in front of teenagers? What were we supposed to connect with, there? How were we supposed to relate to a book with a deliberately unlikeable protagonist who was having problems that were completely and utterly unconnected to anything we were experiencing?

      Possibly it had the unintended side effect of making the Shakespeare more palateable by comparison?

  4. This discussion has prompted me to ask the question: What books that you have enjoyed reading, would make it into a reading syllabus for English in High School/Secondary education?

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