Archive for ‘Thoughts on Reading’

July 12th, 2012

Then You Read

by Madeleine Rex

What follows is my English final for this year. It’s a bit long – perhaps too long to read straight through if you’re busy, but I tried to be thorough and research the topics I discussed. I’ve detected a theme among my argument and synthesis papers this year – they almost always tie into my belief in books and the written word. I’m not sure about the quality of this paper, but I am sure about what it says. So here goes…

Then You Read

Some of the most dramatic and heart-wrenching moments of my life, as well as some of the most sweet and simple, have occurred while I was deep in a fictional world, whether the world was that of Anne Shirley, Harry Potter, Elizabeth Bennett, or Scarlet O’Hara. Since my appreciation for fiction commenced with the reading of Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, I have become convinced that fiction is not merely a type of story, but a medium through which a person can form relationships, develop character, and learn how to thrive in reality.

In a comment on the article, “A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like” by Motoko Rich, a man said, “…if we aren’t going to consider the quality of what is being read, then a love of reading is no more or less beneficial than a love of television-watching, slot-car-racing, or pizza-eating. The student who loves reading Captain Underpants but who is never forced to move beyond that material has done nothing to prepare for a life of active, intelligent, inquisitive citizenship (which is something training in the humanities ought to prepare us for) and has been poorly served by her educators.” This theory is unsound primarily because of its association of reading with television-watching and “pizza-eating.” Reading fiction is naturally more productive than both activities, as it does not only serve as entertainment. Recently, studies have shown that reading has a profound effect on a person’s ability to empathize with other people, fictional or real, because the brain reacts in similar ways to the plights of fictional people and to those of real ones. Such were the findings explained in the New York Times Article, “Your Brain on Fiction,” which delves into the benefits of fiction reading, stating, “[Reading] is an exercise that hones our real-life social skills, another body of research suggests. Dr. Oatley and Dr. Mar, in collaboration with several other scientists, reported in two studies, published in 2006 and 2009, that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.”

However, there is no need to rely on statistics and experiments to prove the benefits of reading fiction. By reading books myself, I have encountered myriad situations, personality types, and nuances of human nature that I would otherwise never come across. These fictional dealings I have may involve characters on a page, but they often apply to those off the page as well. Motivations of characters, in particular, help me understand the motivations behind actions of people in my life. In “Your Brain on Fiction,” Annie Murphy Paul says, “Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica [of life]. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.” The richness of fiction, its intricate details and finely crafted characters, mirrors that of reality. It creates an alternate universe in which we can stumble and learn things before we must deal with them in our world.

Authors are aware of fiction’s power over a reader’s empathy and moral development, and they have been for years. Charles Dickens is a prime example of an author whose works are full of characters who inspire empathy and are easily associated with social groups from that time period. In “The paradox of fiction and the ethics of empathy: reconceiving Dickens’s realism” by Mary-Catharine Harrison, it reads, “If readers cried for fictional suffering, Dickens and many of his contemporaries believed, then they would try to ameliorate the actual suffering they encountered around them.” However, this is also the mindset of modern authors, such as Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace. According to Garth Risk Hallberg in his article, “Why Write Novels at All?”, “The idea that ‘the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness’ crops up all over the writing of the Conversazioni group: in [Jonathan Franzen]’s nonfiction, and in [David Foster Wallace]’s, and in [Zadie Smith]’s beautiful encomium to Wallace in her book of essays, ‘Changing my Mind.’ It also helps to explain these writers’ broad turn away from various postmodern formalisms and toward the problems of the human heart.”

Authors, therefore, can use fiction and characterization to induce in readers understanding and appreciation for social groups that might relate to the story. For instance, one’s pity for the poor orphan Oliver Twist might alter their behavior toward foster children and children from broken homes. Fiction holds the power to open our eyes to new ideas and eliminate old prejudices without our knowing it, while we foolishly believe we are just enjoying a good story.

One argument against the theory that fiction helps us empathize with others is called the Paradox of Fiction. The paradox, according to Jerrold Levinson, is composed of three main factors, “…(a) We often have emotions for fictional characters and situations known to be purely fictional; (b) Emotions for objects logically presuppose beliefs in the existence and features of those objects; (c) We do not harbor beliefs in the existence and features of objects known to be fictional.”

This paradox is dependent on the idea that because the object we have feelings for does not exist and the reader knows it, the reader will not act (as there is no obvious object upon which to act). However, as Harrison states, “…the inaction inherent to the paradox of fiction is mitigated by a character’s synecdochal relationship with a ‘class’ of people, in the more general sense of a group of people defined by a shared or similar characteristic.” The very existence of a person or group of people that can be associated with a character allows the reader to actually act upon his or her empathy and is a crucial benefit of fiction.

So why is fiction steadily being erased from school curriculums, if, as these articles argue, fiction develops character and promotes action? This elimination of fiction is evident in the increasingly popular “Common Core” curriculum. The curriculum calls for a decrease in the amount of fiction read as students get older. According to the standards, by twelfth grade, the ratio of fiction to nonfiction books assigned in the classroom will have decreased from 50/50 in fourth grade to 30/70. This ridiculous ratio reflects a mindset similar to that of Joel I. Klein, New York City Schools Chancellor, who is implementing a program “based on the belief that when students struggle with reading comprehension in elementary school, middle school and beyond, a large part of the problem is that they lack basic knowledge in subjects like history, science and literature.” This idea directly conflicts with a statement made by the U.S. Department of Education, saying, “Helping your child become a reader is the single most important thing that you can do to help the child to succeed in school—and in life. The importance of reading simply can’t be overstated. Reading helps children in all school subjects. More important, it is the key to lifelong learning.” The question we must answer is whether it is other subjects that aid reading, or reading that aids learning in other subjects?

I firmly believe that reading is the primary basis of learning. It instills in a child a sense of wonder and curiosity, and also develops their comprehension and ability to express their own ideas. As written in the article “Encouraging literacy for personal development,” “Previously, literacy was valued as part of the development of the whole self-character, mind, soul, etc. – as well as for its practical value. Now it seems that the reasons advanced for literacy education are generally limited to either job success or light entertainment. As important as fun and money are, however, something has been lost.”

I would add to the modern reasons for advanced literacy education the importance of high test scores. Since the No Child Left Behind Act, schools determine the success of both teachers and students by state test scores. The article “A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like” highlights a teacher in Jonesboro, Georgia who dared to offer her kids an alternative to the usual stale curriculum offered in school English classes. Ms. McNeill determined she would create a classroom that would promote a love of reading. She instituted a program in which kids choose their own books (though she must approve them), read independently, share ideas and findings, and essentially created a classroom book club. Many of her students found that reading had become less of a chore and more entertaining, but Ms. McNeill was still put on edge when two of her students failed a state writing assessment. Blessedly, the principal of the school allowed her to keep the program running, and eventually a majority of her students “exceeded expectations” on state tests. Ms. McNeill’s nervousness about the results of these tests despite the clearly positive results she saw in her classroom are evidence that state tests are breathing down the necks of today’s teachers and possibly holding them back from novel ideas and inspired programs.

By allowing students to choose their own novels, Ms. McNeill took the first step toward showing her kids the benefits of reading. One could argue, as a man did in the comment on “A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like,” that reading “just anything” does a child no good, but as Catherine E. Snow, a professor at Harvard University Graduate School of Education, says, “If what we’re trying to get to is, everybody has read “Ethan Frome” and Henry James and Shakespeare, then the challenge for the teacher is how do you make that stuff accessible and interesting enough that kids will stick with it. But if the goal is, how do you make kids lifelong readers, then it seems to me that there’s a lot to be said for the choice approach. As adults, as good readers, we don’t all read the same thing, and we revel in our idiosyncrasies as adult readers, so kids should have some of the same freedom.”

Becoming a lifelong reader is perhaps one of the easiest and most important things a child can do. Through fiction, a million doors open, stars are reached, galaxies become boundless. On a more down-to-earth level, through fiction we can develop empathy, morals, and an ability to understand the motivations and feelings of those around us. Just as importantly, reading brings love and friends into your life, fictional or not, who can uplift you and carry you through the lonely moments on the playground, the awkward brace-face stage, and the raging emotions of high school. Fiction arms a person with a battalion of stories, worlds, and people to escape to. As author David Foster Wallace says, “If a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own.” In one good book, one may find many friends who you feel understand you.

This is incredibly evident in an experiment done by Duke researchers, in which they studied teenage girls in an obesity program. 64 girls received books that dealt with the same or similar issues, while 17 went through the program without the book. According to Tara Parker-Pope in her article, “Healthful Messages, Wrapped in Fiction,” “After six months, the girls who got ‘Lake Rescue’ posted a decline in average body mass index scores of 0.71; those who didn’t read the book had an average increase of 0.05. That seemingly minor difference means the girls who read ‘Lake Rescue’ will achieve a healthy weight in a few years if they maintain their regular growth rate and do not gain any more weight.” This study proves the remarkable effect fiction can have on a reader’s physical well-being as well as emotional.

Ultimately, fiction weaves a web between people, real or unreal, their issues, lives, and feelings, forming an indelible understanding between human beings. Author James Baldwin put it this way, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

Works Cited:

Harrison, Mary-Catherine. “The paradox of fiction and the ethics of empathy: reconceiving Dickens’s realism.” Narrative 16.3 (2008): 256+. General OneFile. Web. 31 May 2012.

Koppe, Tilman. “Evolutionary Psychology and the Paradox of Fiction.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 42.2 (2009): 125+. General OneFile. Web. 31 May 2012.

Dobel, J. Patrick. “The moral realities of public life: some insights of fiction.” American Review of Public Administration June 1992: 127+. General OneFile. Web. 31 May 2012.

Boody. “Encouraging literacy for personal development.” Reading Improvement Fall 2003: 99+. General OneFile. Web. 31 May 2012.

Gootman, Elissa. “Literacy Experiment at 10 Schools.” City Room. The New York Times, 25 August 2008. Web. 4 June 2012.

Rich, Motoko. “Where Does a Love of Reading Come From?.” Arts Beat. The New York Times, 31 August 2009. Web. 4 June 2012.

Parini, Jay. “Feeling ‘Gamed’.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 19 December 2011. Web. 4 June 2012.

Santos, Fernanda. “A Trial Run for School Standards That Encourage Deeper Though.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 24 April 2011. Web. 4 June 2012.

Hallberg, Garth Risk. “Why Write Novels at All?.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 13 January 2012. Web. 4 June 2012.

Rich, Motoko. “A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 30 August 2009. Web. 4 June 2012.

Parker-Pope, Tara. “Healthful Messages, Wrapped in Fiction.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 October 2008. Web. 4 June 2012.

Paul, Annie Murphy. “Your Brain on Fiction.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 17 March 2012. Web. 23 March 2012

May 31st, 2012

High School Libraries: Educational Necessities

by Madeleine Rex

Here is an English paper I wrote this year focusing on the importance of libraries. I wrote this because I was inspired by the total lack of a decent library in my school. My teacher agreed that “our library is a place where books go to die.” I believe libraries are an indispensable asset to a high school, and this is why…

High School Libraries: Educational Necessities

Supplying high school libraries with a diverse collection of books and technology is essential to developing both the intellectual and creative skill sets of students. Books encourage creativity and understanding of the world around us, and they are more conducive to concentration than other mediums, such as reading digitally. However, it is equally important that libraries supply students and teachers with the technology necessary for thorough research.

Independent – or pleasure – reading is an indispensable asset. Reading can serve so many purposes. Robert M. Hutchins, an educational philosopher and the dean of Yale Law School, asserted that, “…books are the means of understanding our society and ourselves. They contain the great ideas that dominate us without our knowing it. There is no comparable repository in our tradition.” As Hutchins said, reading books gives people, in this case, students, a deeper understanding of the world around them. This learning often happens unconsciously through the reading of either nonfiction or fiction. By exposing a child to the world of a book, the characters of the book, and the ways they function, the child begins to understand our world and our people. In fact, the National Endowment of the Arts has published a statistic that tells us that 43% of literary readers perform volunteer and charity work, while only 17% of non-literary readers do. Readers are motivated to perform such work because they, through books, have nurtured a connection to the world and its people. A well-stocked library provides ample opportunities for the natural learning that breeds that attitude. It is essential that high school libraries provide a variety of books to ensure that there is something for everyone, as research has shown that reading as a pastime becomes more popular in the 11th and 12th grades. Francine Prose, in her article “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read,” said, “High school – even more than college – is where literary tastes and allegiances are formed; what we read in adolescence is imprinted on our brains as the dreamy notions of childhood crystallize into hard data.” The years a student spends in high school determine their reading habits for years to come.

Reading also promotes learning in other academic areas. By focusing on the page and the story being told, the reader’s attention span expands, while also deepening comprehension. Reading books for pleasure broadens a student’s vocabulary and strengthens their ability to understand the workings of grammar, thereby aiding them in writing and in reading books assigned to them in school, such as textbooks. Hutchins has said something similar, “Great books teach people not only how to read them, but how to read other books as well.”

It may be argued that many of these things can be taught in the classroom, and that personal reading can easily happen outside of schools with the help of bookstores, the internet, and public libraries. However, efficiency is a highly valued quality in America. If schools would ensure that the library accessible to students, simple to use, and that its presence in the school is noticeable, students would be more likely to take advantage of its services.

It is true that libraries can function without librarians, and doing so might seem wise during times of economic stress. However, librarians are almost as important as the libraries themselves. They are teachers just like any other. In fact, a majority of them have responsibilities outside those we typically attribute to them. Liz Gray, a former English teacher and the current library director at Dana Hall School, a girls’ boarding and day school in Massachusetts, claimed that “One of [her] primary responsibilities as a librarian is to teach information literacy skills – defining research questions, selecting and evaluating sources, avoiding plagiarism, documenting sources – and in [her] experience this works best face to face with students.” This face to face time between librarian and student has the potential to strengthen the students’ ability to attain and organize research, a skill that will undoubtedly benefit them in the future. Librarians keep tabs on the needs of the students and teachers of the school. By giving librarians sufficient funds, schools are also giving them the means to buy the books and tools that complement the curriculum. In my experience, the librarian has been a friend. They listen to what students have to say about specific books or series, and they work to serve the students by stocking the library with the books they know the kids like to read.

As mentioned earlier, the role of the librarian has stretched to include technology. The purpose of the library as a whole has changed over the past decade. Research is mostly conducted online, as it is fast and often more up-to-date than books published years ago. It is essential that libraries have technology that is up-to-date and ready to meet the requirements of the curriculum. It cannot be argued that technology will not play a key role in the lives of today’s students. They must learn how to use it effectively in order to succeed in the many fields that are becoming more and more dependent on technology. Libraries are frequently the place chosen to house computer labs and other electronics, but they are often not able to be accessed by students. This is a major drawback. Computers are portals to information, and most students prefer to do research for school through the internet. If libraries had a more extensive collection of technologies and a greater number of computers, students would be drawn to them when working on assignments. What more could be asked for than a quiet, studious environment stocked with all the necessary tools?

Books, though not necessarily ideal for up-to-date or efficient research, are unarguably important. Sherman Alexie wrote in his article, “Superman and Me,” that, when talking as a guest teacher at schools, he tells the students simply, “’Books,’ I say to them. ‘Books.’” Books hold answers to questions about culture, life, science, love, religion, and the many other topics that dominate the world. They have been pored over repeatedly before being put on the market, and therefore, books are probably more accurate than some online sources. By reading books for their school classes, students learn how to read analytically and how to comprehend what they read. These skills are crucial to succeeding in a wide range of classes because of the reliance on textbooks, which a student must be able to read and understand.

It is necessary that high schools strike a balance between technology and books. William Powers, the author of Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, has said, “The idea that books are outdated is based on a common misconception: the belief that new technologies automatically render existing ones obsolete, as the automobile did with the buggy whip. However, this isn’t always the case. Old technologies often handily survive the introduction of new ones, and sometimes become useful in entirely new ways.” He also observed that “What are often considered the weaknesses of the old-fashioned book are in some ways its strengths.” The internet is full of distractions, while a book is focused on the topic at hand. So, while technology is a great tool for research, books promote concentration. A library that serves both of these needs is one that has the best interests of students at its heart.

Certainly, books, computers, and other electronics are expensive, and that the money used to buy them could be invested in other things. However, books and technologies have benefits that are worth the cost. They provide students with the means to thoroughly research topics for school and investigate questions of their own. Schools could lessen the impact on their budgets by creating a system of circulation between the libraries, as public libraries do. There is also a possibility that donations could help fund a library. There are many means by which libraries could receive the funding they are in need of, if someone would be willing to take on the job.

A common concern I’ve come across is that students will not use the library, even if it is well-stocked and has the technologies they need. There are ways to make a library appealing, and school libraries simply need to put them into action. Comfortable seating, a sense of casualness, and a modern environment would help to abolish the idea that libraries are “uncool” or only for “nerds.” Libraries could also provide devices for listening to music for students who are studying or reading quietly. To draw students to the library after school, they could give out after school snacks, have study sessions for certain classes, or even host author events, which many authors are willing to participate in. Author events would serve as an incentive for students to come to the library for reasons beyond the academic.

High school libraries in particular, as the academics in high school are more demanding than those in elementary and middle schools, have the potential to be one of the most valuable assets of the school. In order to reach this potential, they must be nurtured and cared for until they can provide students with the environment, tools, and help they need. By hiring adept librarians, purchasing a sufficient number of computers, and stocking the library with the books needed to satisfy the curriculum as well as the pleasure reading of the students, libraries can serve both the teachers and the students in ways that no other part of the school can. There are certainly issues to be dealt with, such as budgetary ones, but they can be overcome if there is a librarian who is willing to do their job well, such as Liz Gray. Libraries promote comprehension, studiousness, and the pleasure reading that can aid students with their classes as well as entertain them. Hutchins suggested that, “To put an end to the spirit of inquiry that has characterized the West it is not necessary to burn the books. All we have to do is leave them unread for a few generations.”

Let us provide libraries with the librarians to nurture them, as well as the budgets necessary to support them, and we can encourage that “spirit of inquiry” and train students for the challenges of college and their careers. Books are, as Hutchins said, “the means of understanding our society and ourselves.”

Works Cited

Alexie, Sherman. “Superman and Me.” The Language of Composition. Ed. Renee H. Shea. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 110-12. Print.

Bradshaw, Tom and Bonnie Nichols. “Participation in Cultural and Social Activities.” The Language of Composition. Ed. Renee H. Shea. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 147-48. Print.

Gray, Liz. “21st Century Librarians.” NYTimes.com. The New York Times, 10 Feb. 2010. Web. 19 Nov. 2011.

Jamie. “10 Ways Reading the Great Books Can Improve Your Life.” The Self Made Scholar. N.p. 4 Mar. 2009. Web. 19 Nov. 2011.

Powers, William. “A Place to Learn.” NYTimes.com. The New York Times, 10 Feb. 2010. Web. 19 Nov. 2011.

Prose, Francine. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read.” The Language of Composition. Ed. Renee H. Shea. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 89-99. Print.

January 6th, 2012

And we have a winner!

by Madeleine Rex

I’m very pleased to announce the winners of my Catching Jordan giveaway!

1. Susan Dennard

2. Erica Chapman

3. Alyssa

Congratulations, you guys! Email me via the “Contact Me” button to the left and leave me your address, and I’ll get things to you as soon as I can (Miranda has to sign them first)!

I hope you all enjoy Catching Jordan when you get a chance to read it. It’s a very sweet, very fun book that is sure to make you smile.

And one of the things crucial to making you smile is Sam Henry. I’m extending (yet again) my “Ask Henry” feature. I’m surprised that there are so few questions. Everyone: Go read the book! And then, ask away!

Have a great weekend!

P.S. Check out the cover of Miranda’s next book (which I am in the process of reading), Stealing Parker!

Simply because it is bound to be awesome, I made this so enormous you couldn’t miss it if you tried.