Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Recovering Literature Snob

I am a recovering literature snob.

Growing up, I read a lot of classics. I’m old enough that there wasn’t really a thriving middle grade or young adult category. At least, not one that I was aware of. Yes, I read The Boxcar Children, Little House on the Prairie, Babysitter’s Club, and Sweet Valley High, but by the time I was in the fifth grade, I was reading Jane Eyre and Pearl S. Buck.

In high school, I fell in love with Russian literature, so I read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. I went to college an English major, so I read Dante, Homer, Spenser, Milton, and lots of Shakespeare. I couldn’t wait to start teaching English so that my students could fall in love with these works as I had.

My junior year of college, I was required to take a young-adult literature course as part of my education hours. I was livid. I would not teach crap in my classroom. I would not dumb-down the curriculum. I would teach the classics, and they were going to like it.

The very first day of class, someone handed me Harry Potter. And I was a goner.

I did not become a teacher because I hoped to be overworked and underpaid. I did not long to spend my days surrounded by sarcasm and research papers. I didn’t think teens were so adorable and God I can’t wait to spend eight hours a day in a tiny room with those sweet little faces. I became a teacher because I knew the power of literature and I wanted to pass on the love of reading. I wanted to create readers.

I have now been teaching for fifteen years, and I can honesty sat that I have never, not even once, created a reader by handing him Shakespeare or Dickens. I’m sorry, but I just haven’t. I’ve had students fall in love with these stories after I’ve taught them, but those students who came to me hating to read and who leave as readers do so because I handed them a young adult book that spoke to them.

I do love Dickens, and Twain, Austen and Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and on and on, but I fell in love with reading first before moving on to the harder stuff. Reading shouldn’t be a chore. It should challenge you and make you laugh and question and cry, but if you have to force yourself to read, then you aren’t doing it right, i.e., you aren’t reading the “right” book. And the “right” book is the one that sings to you. The one that you think about when you’re not reading, that slips into your dreams, that leaves a mark on your soul long after you’ve closed it.

Yes, I want my literature to be good—but what makes it good is different for me than it is for someone else. It’s also different now than it used to be. I am a fluid person, so my reading tastes will be as well.

If I had continued on the literature path I began, I would have read a lot of dead white guys, and many other stories that professors who are nothing like me deemed worthy, but I would have missed out on Harry Potter, and Jellicoe Road, and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, and yes, even Twilight.

If I had continued on that path, I would not be a very good teacher. I would have turned my nose up at books not in the “dead white guy” canon and I would never have experienced the joy of turning a student onto reading.

If I had continued on that path, I would have been able to brag, nose in the air, that I read literature, thank you very much, but my life would not have the passion that it does, because I would not be a writer. I would have known, as I did at a very young age, that I was not Shakespeare or Dickens or Austen, and I would have known that my writing was so far below that level that I would have been too ashamed to try.

Too ashamed to create stories of my own. Too ashamed to pursue my passion.

And what a pity that would have been.

It is sad to me that in 2015 we still let other people think for us. We let other people convince us that a certain book or author isn’t worthy.

So I have a suggestion. Why not, in this year two thousand and fifteen, instead of listening to closed-minded, misinformed, or ignorant people, we pick up a book and read it for ourselves.

Let the literature snobs sit on their homemade thrones and look down at “lesser” books. We’ll be prolific readers instead.

We’ll also be a hell of a lot happier for it.

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