School Books

When you read a book at school, they always try to convince you that this is one of the most amazing books you’ll ever read.  Kind of like book clubs.  And for some people, it’s true.  But not always, or even usually.  Frankly, most of the books I read for school were mediocre and unmemorable at best.  Some of them I actively despised.

But there were a few that I am genuinely pleased to have been introduced to.  Some of those still adorn my shelves today.  However, most of the books I retained are not the ones we read during the year.  These tend to come from the summer reading lists.  See, in order to motivate kids to actually read over the summer (and not just with a grade on an essay when they return), the school puts together a long list of books, and any of them will count, instead of “you are going to read this book and like it, damnit!”  By providing more choices in the matter, a discerning student can find a book that is more interesting to them than the rest.  A book they actually want to read, instead of something they’ll endure.

I started reading Orson Scott Card because of one of those lists.  Ender’s Shadow was on it.  Of course, Siddhartha by Herman Hesse was on that same list, and I could not stand that book in the least.  As you may have noticed, I am not overly fond of so-called classics.  I’m sure the authors were very talented and that their stories were very popular in the bygone era when they were released.  But I am not from that era.  I have a hard time getting through prose of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries.  I had to fight just to get through The Lord of the Rings.

That doesn’t mean I won’t read anything older than a certain age.  I’ve read and enjoyed several works that are significantly earlier than the majority of my collection, including the unabridged Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, as well as Ann Veronica and The History of Mr. Polly by H.G. Wells.  But I looked on Huckleberry Finn with disdain and managed to avoid taking the English Literature class in highschool.  (Shakespeare is a different issue entirely and I’m not including him today.)  Frankly, schools just don’t pick great books for students to read as part of class.

Part of the problem is that very few books have mass appeal.  Most of the time, only a small portion of a group is going to enjoy a particular book.  Only another small portion will actively dislike the book, but the rest will simply not care very much one way or the other.  So making a curriculum where the class (as a class!) must read a certain number of books a year means that no matter what you pick, not everyone will enjoy it.

Then there’s the fact that once a book is added to some special List of Classics, it’s assumed to have worth and therefore must be read by children of whatever age is deemed most appropriate.  And it’ll stay there as the book grows older and more remote from the students reading it.  Until the teachers are making an entire unit around it, to explain to the students how different everyday life was when the book was written from today.  But, of course, even the teachers weren’t around when the book was being written, so they can’t actually have a firsthand experience and the material is even further divorced from today’s reality.

Some people are absolutedly fascinated with the worlds and time periods of these books.  That’s wonderful.  It still reads as a “dry British novel” to me and I’m going to put it down before I fall asleep.  And I’m more likely to be interested than most of the class because I do read a lot and for fun.  I’m certainly less likely to resort to SparkNotes or whatever today’s equivalent is.  But if the teacher is reading the SparkNotes in order to make the daily quiz answers something that you can only find in the book, don’t you think that maybe this isn’t the right book to be reading as a class?

Sure, there’s a load of other factors.  Kids have shorter attention spans, we’re told, thanks to things like TV, the Internet, and all the crap they’re being diagnosed with.  I won’t tell you that mental issues aren’t real or worth diagnosing because they are and they are, but I think people are very quick to diagnose their kids today, instead of just…raising them.  When I was a kid, the only pills I took relatively often were vitamins shaped like cartoon characters.  The only kid I knew who had to take medicine daily was my cousin with Type 1 diabetes and needed insulin shots.

My point is that there are very few books I read in twelve years of public school that I have any interest in rereading.  Hell, there are very few books that I remember reading!  If you started listing standard books for students to read, yeah, sure, I’ll start to remember.  But the ones I can list off the top of my head are many fewer.  Then we can narrow them down by the ones I actually liked.  I’ll also point out that I was in an early readers class (big surprise there) so we tended to not read the same books as the rest of the school.

So on my shelves are things like Animal Farm (and 1984, but we didn’t read that one in class), Sara CreweSnow TreasureA Lesson Before Dying, And Then There Were NoneJoyful Noise, and The Things They Carried.  I also recall enjoying stories like “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and Flowers for Algernon.  (These latter ones I do not own.  Currently.  Check back later.)  These are the books I remembered and retained.  I actually have very few schoolbooks today (when compared to the number that I’ve read), even leaving aside my design and art history textbooks which I keep for reference and to look at all the pretty pictures.

(When I was in college I took a seminar about His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman: The Golden CompassThe Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass.  It was a wonderful class, but I have since given away my copies of the books, which predated that class by several years.  I started reading the series in the late nineties, picking up The Amber Spyglass in hardcover when it was first released.  The books are good, but I was always left feeling vaguely unsatisfied and the seminar exacerbated the feeling.  I knew I wasn’t going to read them again any time soon, and if I really wanted to, I was sure my local library would have copies.)

Today’s book is one of the summer reading books that I selected in high school.  Why I picked it, I cannot remember, as it is quite outside my realm of normality.  It isn’t even a novel; rather it’s a selection of newspaper columns by a single author with some background for each decade of work to better understand the environment that produced these writings.  This is One More Time: The Best of Mike Royko.

I had never heard of the man before I picked up the book.  Newspapers have never been of great interest to me, though you’ll see me visiting a news website every now and then.  But Royko didn’t really write news, he wrote a column.  He touched on current events, but through a personal lens.  Starting with local interest, over the course of some thirty-four years he gained a national following while still remaining a simple, humble man.  A true Chicagoan in so many ways.  Not to say that he was corrupt, but that he did understand how politics worked in this city for many decades. That he didn’t back down from what he believed in.  That he loved this city, its people, its teams, even when they were at their worst.

The last column he ever wrote was about the Cubs.  Saying that the goat curse isn’t real, that what brought the team down was racism.  (And yes, the goat curse is a real thing.  They haven’t brought it up nearly as much this year as they did in 2008, but you can search it on Wikipedia.)  It makes me wonder what Mike Royko would say, if he’d lived twenty more years, to see his beloved team in the World Series.  I think he would’ve been pleased, but would refuse to bet on them winning.  I believe he would’ve been happy just to see them there.

This was probably the best book I could have grabbed off my shelf to read during the World Series, and I’m glad I hung onto it.  I’m even happier that someone thought enough to put it on the summer reading list in the first place.

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