Monday, January 2, 2012

December Reading

Here's what I read in December.

1. Readicide, Kelly Gallagher

I have often heard teachers--teachers!--tell their students "I have never been much of a reader."  I've heard them argue against the need for textbooks in schools.  They really do!  Then they use me as an example of someone who likes to read a lot, as if I am some sort of freak or exception to the rules.  And they do this in front of their students.  (These are teachers!  Have I mentioned that yet?)

So, I read Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It, by Kelly Gallagher, and this book reassured me that no, I am not a freak or an exception.  Remember what Ringo told us in Hard Day's Night?  "Books are good," he said; and he was telling the truth.

 I like to think of myself as a good teacher, one who values and loves books and tries to show that to my students every school day, but this book really chastised me for being part of the problem.

There are some problems in our schools that I already understand, namely:
  • Reading is undervalued in our schools today
  • There are not enough books in my school
  • The pressure to prepare students for standardized testing is far too strong
  • Leading a class in silent, sustained reading is perceived as lazy teaching, when it should not be.
But here are some things I had not considered:
  • Teachers cause students to hate reading by giving them difficult texts, then expecting them to understand them on their own.
  • Teachers should not scoff at students for reading pulpy, trashy, or "less-than-literary" texts.  Students have to find reading enjoyable when they are a teenager, or else they will not become life-long readers.
  • It's okay to teach a novel without a hundred pages of analysis, quizzes, notes, reflections, and essay questions.  Students need to lose themselves in a text, which cannot happen if a teacher interrupts them every few minutes to assess their learning.
  • Schools expect less reading from poorer students, students who probably read below their grade level.  Therefore, their reading level stays low.
  • Schools expect more reading from wealthier students, who probably read at or above their grade level.  Therefore, their reading level gets higher.
  • My job as a teacher is to give them something interesting to read, a place to read, and a time to read.
These are just a few of the revelations that Readicide offered.  Since I finished it, my students and I have done a lot of reading at our desks.

2. The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood

When we were in seventh or eighth grade, my buddy Hayden came across a copy of Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret.  The girls in our class were scandalized that there was a boy in their class reading this book, and I think they actually petitioned the teacher to get him to stop reading it.  Being a dude, Hayden didn't see what the big deal was, and found the whole hubub to be amusing.

(An aside: here's Hayden and me, around seventh grade, photographed with Atlanta Brave great Dale Murphy.)

Reading The Handmaiden's Tale, I felt a little self-conscious, like I was in seventh grade again, reading a book that was not meant for guys like me.  It's a frightening look at what happens once women's reproductive rights are politicized, commodified, and exploited by a patriarchal right-wing society run amuck.  If you think I felt a little bit uncomfortable reading this one, you are right.

But The Handmaiden's Tale is a fantastic book, and the story of Offred's captivity is resonant and nightmarish.  It is entirely relevant these days, when most Catholic hospitals refuse to give emergency contraception, we have a referendum in Mississippi claiming life begins at conception, and when Barbara Bachmann speaks out against HPV vaccines for young girls.  It takes a vicious imagination like Atwood's to show us just how dangerous these ideas can be.

So, ahem, yeah.  I tend not to speak out on issues such as these.  I just turn up my Bikini Kill records and let someone else do the arguing.  There's always someone louder than me anyway.

3.  The Postmortal by Drew Magary

I love Drew Magary.  You may know him from his hilarious entries on Deadspin or Kissing Suzy Kolber, or maybe you follow him on twitter either on his Drew Magary account or his Drew Magary ALL CAPS rant account, WHICH HE TYPES IN ALL CAPS.  There isn't a day that goes by that I don't read something that he has written, and his thoughts often become my thoughts.  In fact, it's rare that a day goes by that I don't ask somebody, "Did you see what Drew said?"  (Usually, the person I am speaking to has already seen it.)  

So, it would give me no pleasure to disparage The Postmortal, his first novel, which is quite bad.  It's earnest and imaginative, but it's still just bad.  But if there's one good thing that you can say about Drew Magary as a novelist, it's that he sure is a hilarious blogger.

Keep up the good work, Big Daddy Drew.


  1. I just finished Hellhound on his Trail about the Martin Luther King assassination (I highly recommend it) and am about to start The Postmortal. I'm a huge fan of Big Daddy Drew on Deadspin and KSK, but now I'm a little worried about the book.

  2. My wife read Hellhound on His Trail and really enjoyed it. Perhaps one day I will get around to reading it myself. Don't let my reaction to The Postmortal cloud your judgement of it; after all, there is no accounting for taste.

    Happy reading. Let me know how it goes.

  3. I've read Handmaid a couple of times. It's probably the book she'll be remembered for. I also like Alias Grace and loved The Bind Assassin.

    Fortunately, I don't have quite the level of reading issues with the teachers at my school. The problem I usually face with them is their outspoken contempt for young adult literature. In my heart, I just don't think you should be teaching middle school English if you openly hate young adult literature. It's like teaching second grade and hating picture books. What is the point of that?