Thursday, April 02, 2009

Eating Books

I read a book that annoyed me. This is always more fun to write about than books that pleased me, so take it for granted that I have read many books over the past few months that were perfectly enjoyable.

The annoying book looked promising. It was called Deconstructing Penguins and it chronicled a parent-child book club started to help children get more out of their reading. Now as far as I'm concerned, the pinnacle of life is sharing books with my children, so I expected to find it delightful.

What they did, in this book club, was tell the children (starting with second graders) that every book is a mystery in which a message is encoded, and that to discover the mystery you must analyze the book to determine the protagonist and the antagonist and the chief crisis of the plot so that you can pull out the message of the book, which we then can summarize and discuss.


Of course books have messages, like food has vitamins. But expecting children to benefit more from the message by learning to deconstruct the book and tease the message out into a one-sentence summary is like expecting them to get more nourishment from their food by taking it into the lab and determining the exact molecular content.

You get nourishment from food by eating it. You get nourishment from books by reading them and letting the story soak into you. If the Atwaters had really thought children would best learn to hold on to their dreams by being told point blank, "It's good to hold on to your dreams," they wouldn't have bothered to write a whole book about a painter who wants to be an Antarctic explorer.

Children certainly do sometimes gallop through books without stopping to be more than dimly aware of what's going on. There's a time and a place for that and a type of books that properly deserve it. And there is a time and a place (much later than second grade) for learning how a story goes together and debating what the author really means by it.

But the antidote for books that are worthy of greater attention is much simpler: just slow down. Read a chapter. Put it away for a few days. Teach everyone that reading ahead is a shameful and despicable act. Give the story time to digest.


Jane said...

The purpose of the annoying book could just as easily have been advice on how to train children to loathe books, as this is the result I'd expect with my own particular (now grown) children, had I followed the book's plan. Reading is NOT work and trying to make it so is wrongheaded. Reading is pleasure, or at least it should be.

As a lifelong devotee of books, all I ever did with our sons was let them see how much I enjoyed my own reading. We also read to each other a great deal, even as they got to adolescence. The result? Two grown men who read fiction for relaxation and enjoyment, and one who only reads nonfiction but is incredibly well-informed on many, many subjects as a result. They all get great satisfaction from their reading.

Our experience was that you don't have to train your children to love books. You just have to provide the raw materials (including letting them see what books mean to you) and then let them find their own love of reading. Three out of three of ours did.

the Joneses said...

Yes, that book club seems destined to quiz the life out of any book. Poor kids.

There are so many other ways to discuss a book besides analyzing and summarizing. Simply talking about it does a great deal of good. And you might actually be surprised at what message a child pulls out of a book, that isn't the same "encoded mystery" you thought you were reading.

For reluctant or non-readers, I'm thinking that having to identify plot crises and a one-sentence summary would finish them off completely.

-- SJ

Steve said...

Fie on deconstructors.

Christi said...

This is one of the stupidest ideas I have ever heard of. Let's just take all the magic and mystery and fun out of books.

Thanks for letting me know I don't need to read this.