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Friday, March 28, 2008

Why I Think Literary Elitism Harms Kids

This Newsweek article about Classics Illustrated makes me happy. (Found via Blog@Newsarama).

I recall reading a few of the Classics Illustrated books as a kid, borrowing them from the school library and really enjoying them. I'm really glad that they're making new versions, since really, while I don't particularly care if kids ever get introduced to "the Classics" but anything that gets kids reading more makes me happy. I'm always sad to see kids say that they don't like reading because it seems clear to me that said kids just haven't found the right subject matter.

One bit from the article pisses me off though:

You can't go wrong with any of these series. But the old question posed by strict teachers and worried parents still hangs in the air: shouldn't you be reading the originals and not wasting your time on what used to be called "funny books"?

Of course this isn't the writer's sentiment, and in fact, the article's writer clearly disagrees with it, but I have always hated the kind of elitism that this quoted bit represents. It shouldn't matter what kids are reading, as long as they're reading, and it's this sort of attitude that turns kids away from reading, period.

Of course, I'm somewhat biased. I have distinct memories of bringing Star Trek books to my school's Summer Day Care program and trying to happily read only to get glowered at by some adult or other (thankfully none of my own teachers) going "Should you be letting her read THAT?"

It didn't matter that the novels were at least a couple hundred pages long or that I was one of the more skilled readers of my grade level what with all the practice I got. These people were simply aghast that I was reading something that wasn't "worthwhile".

Fortunately, my teachers didn't particularly care what I read as long as I was kept quiet (I was rather rambunctious. :-P) and my parents have always been incredibly practical sorts, aside from being avid Romance novel and Sci-Fi/Western/Men's Adventure novel readers themselves, and were just happy that I was reading period.

But I knew boys who had to sneak comic books inside text books, because their parents Did Not Approve. Girls who had to pass around fantasy or romance novels amongst each other because their parents would never allow them to buy or borrow any from a library. It was positively ridiculous.

And more and more kids just stopped reading altogether. Why should they bother? TV gave as much of an adventure or soap opera thrill and since it came into the house unblocked, the kids just had to wait for a time when mom and dad weren't around/paying attention.

I never understood what these parents were thinking. Seriously? If a kid tries something like Dickens and doesn't like it, you're not going to force him to change his mind by taking away all the other less savory choices. Maybe he'll like it when he's older, maybe not. I know personally, I'm a total English Phillistine. Dickens bores the fuck out of me. The Great Gatsby was filled with characters that I absolutely despised. And don't get me started on Catcher and the Rye. I don't resent my high school for making me read them, of course, since I'm sure there are valuable life lessons to be learned from them. But honestly, I was never more happy than when I could put that damn wretched thing down and pick up something I actually liked.

You can deplore my taste if you want. :-) I don't mind.

School is supposed to, as I see it, make you read books you don't particularly want to read. But I think parents (and teachers to a lesser extent) have the responsibility to ensure that kids also have access to reading material that will actually keep them reading. Even if they don't personally approve.

Hell, it doesn't have to be comic books or novels or anything like that even. I mean, consider how much reading there is in the average Final Fantasy game. Take Final Fantasy X (I know, I'm out of date. But I've never played many MMORPGs, and I never got around to FFXII). That game can take upwards of 100 hours to play, easy. And while there's definitely voice acting, if you consider the amount of unvoiced text the game has in the form of menus, minigames, battles, and the like, there's no way Junior's reading skills are going to get rusty.

Honestly, the sort of elitism that the quoted sentiment represents makes me ill. I believe that it causes real and possibly irreversable harm to the kids who have to hear it all the time. It turns reading into a chore and an assignment and that's not what reading is about. It's really infuriating.


  • At March 28, 2008 8:43 AM, Blogger Rich said…

    Couldn't agree more.

    Although I still can't bring myself to read Star Trek novels in public...

  • At March 28, 2008 8:52 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    I'm a second generation geek, I've read a lot worse in public. :-)

  • At March 28, 2008 8:53 AM, Blogger SallyP said…

    Reading definitely should not be a chore, but a pleasure. And for the love of God, let your kids read anything they want! Kids are hungry for something, just look at the success of the Harry Potter books.

    A great many of the classics don't really translate to modern tastes very well. That's where the Illustrated Classics comes in. I read the Count of Monte Cristo in comic book form when I was eight, and liked it so much that I actually did go out and read the book. Same thing with the Three Musketeers.

    My worst fear is the thought of being stuck somewhere with nothing to read, which is why there is ALWAYS a book stuffed in my purse.

  • At March 28, 2008 9:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    As someone who majored in English Lit, I can't really afford food, but I can say things like this with some level of authority: with most people, but especially with little kids, it doesn't matter what they read, but simply that they read. Even "Stupid McStupid's God Damn Stupid Adventures" are going to help exercise the ol' reading comprehension and analytical thought levels.

    So, yeah. In total agreement with you here. Elitism in all its forms generally makes me want to start kicking people.

    Ironically though, these same elitist complaints were leveled against Dickens (who's really funny if you give him a chance!) when he was first being published. So, hey! One of your favorite writers may be considered trashy now, but in a hundred years, who knows!

  • At March 28, 2008 9:37 AM, Blogger Ragtime said…

    Even "Stupid McStupid's God Damn Stupid Adventures" are going to help exercise the ol' reading comprehension and analytical thought levels.

    The Raggirls have the complete set of "Captain Underpants," so I actively support the reading of Stupid McStupid's Stupid Adventures.

    Also, it is absolutely the case that (a) I was an English major and never read Ivanhoe; (b) I'm pretty sure that no one at my entire Ivy League university had ever read Ivanhoe; (c) I don't know if the Classics Illustrated Ivanhoe is any good, but it definitely has the advantage of being a whole lot shorter, which saves the time of having to read the whole damned Ivanhoe.

  • At March 28, 2008 9:42 AM, Blogger G & A said…

    I'm a librarian, so I was totally nodding my head and punching my hand in the air (sometimes even shouting "Yes!") while reading your post. I see it everyday - parents who won't let their kids take out certain books, usually graphic novels or popular series, because they're not "good" enough. They try and foist the "classics" on them, and then get mad because the kid doesn't want to read it. Argh!

    The only thing I won't let my 8 year old daughter read are that glamorize violence or misogyny, and only because she's still not quite ready to critically examine and discuss those issues with me.

    And I learned to read in English with the help of Wonder Woman and Batman comics. Which I still read. :-)

  • At March 28, 2008 11:16 AM, Blogger The Random Avenger said…

    I was once told by an uncle that it was stupid for me to be reading the 1000 page sci-fi novel I had on my lap and that if I liked to read that much I should be reading the Bible.

    Thankfully, my parents resisted the family pressure to make me be a more "normal, christian, young man")

    And when I was an English Teacher, thanks to my recommendation our school library stocked a full collection of Ultimate Spider-man and Runaways. Which were almost always checked out.

    And I've read Ivanhoe. Read the wikipedia entry instead. It wasn't worth the effort. Strangely, I loved Ethan Frome.

  • At March 28, 2008 1:13 PM, Blogger Jeff said…

    I'm very shy over such things, but some of that is also due to anime, where the first thing I was told was "you will suffer severe humiliation if anyone finds out you like this stuff."

    (They assumed they'd be treated like otaku in Japan, having no other frame of reference- and their own American social experiences reinforced such) I take to secrecy easily, so it stuck very easily.

    My last gf's spontaneous displays of otakuness scared me.

  • At March 28, 2008 2:56 PM, Blogger Ami Angelwings said…

    Ttlly agree :)

    I loved reading as a kid :D I read tons and mostly stuff ppl "disapproved" of xD I always feel so bad when I talk to my friends who are these sorts of elitist and they look down on me for reading stuff like Diane Duane's Spider-Man novels (which are so great xD) and stuff :\

    But I think it's absolutely important that kids read, I mean forcing them to read things they dun want while pushing them away from things they WANT to read just convinces them that reading is an exercise in pain and why should they want to do it then when there's TV and video games and stuff? :\ Reading should be something they like doing, not something that school forces them to do, like math. xD

    Also I've never liked the idea that the only things worth reading were written hundreds in the past, and that it shouldn't be obviously entertaining.. or something :(

    It's almost like these elitists feel like if you're enjoying yourself too much in a book, it's bad for you >_>

  • At March 28, 2008 6:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I actually loved Great Gatsby and even today I have a copy of Catcher in the Rye in my car with me, just to have something to read incase of a break down. Right next to my copies of The Question and Amazing Spider-Man (the BND issues).

    I am...


  • At March 28, 2008 6:54 PM, Blogger LurkerWithout said…

    Er. Was Catcher And The Rye meant ironically? I just don't get all the hate I see heaped on Catcher in the Rye lately. Though I do agree Dickens is dull as hell. Or at least A Tale of Two Cities was so I haven't tried anything else...

    I swear many people are confused and frightened by books. I was trying to read between bands at a concert and people get bugging me...

  • At March 28, 2008 7:11 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Does it really matter if it's meant ironically or not? If I don't like it, I don't like it, ironic or no. :-)

  • At March 28, 2008 8:36 PM, Blogger Ami Angelwings said…

    I liked Catcher a lot. :] And also a lot of other books school forces on us xD I dun think it's bad to like those books or to like comic books or nething! But it's not helpful to be pushing this idea on kids that some reading is bad, and that they shouldn't read certain books, and only other books, it turns ppl away from reading period and seeing it only as an academic exercise instead of something that can be done for fun :)

  • At March 29, 2008 10:01 AM, Blogger SallyP said…

    Awww...I loved Ivanhoe! But don't get me started on The Sound and Fury, which drove me to near insanity. Or Moby Dick. I learned a lot more about whaling than I really wanted to know. And the whale doesn't even show up until chapter Ninety. NINETY! But the comics version just zips along!

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  • At June 01, 2012 1:36 PM, Anonymous sports handicapping services said…

    I love reading these books, I remember they used to but modern version


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