Read This Post (If You Want To)

Engraving of a reading group from Le Livre, Paris, 1883

Engraving of a reading group from Le Livre, Paris, 1883

“You should read the book that you see someone on the train reading and trying to hide that they’re laughing.” – Janet Potter

Recently, The Millions published “28 Books You Should Read If You Want To,” an essay by Janet Potter that takes on the traditional format of “must read” lists published by everyone from Amazon to The Huffington Post. Instead of coming up with an arbitrary, subjective list of books that you must read before you die, or before you can consider yourself well-read, or because you’re a woman or a man, Potter has created a list of twenty-eight books you should read “if you want to.”

Here’s the brilliant thing about her list, though: there are no book titles on it.

Instead, the list’s items read like the quotation above: they’re suggestions for finding gems of books in unlikely places, based on what other people are reading or talking about or arguing over. Read the book “that your favorite band references in their lyrics,” she suggests. Or the one “that you hear two booksellers arguing about at the registers while you’re browsing in a bookstore.”

I was struck by this list, not just because it describes a splendid and serendipitous approach to choosing what you read for pleasure, but because of how this approach might inform the way we teach children in our increasingly standardized, cookie-cutter, test-based school systems, where students are forced to spend their time memorizing rudimentary facts, and where deep, or even (heaven forbid) slightly off-topic, investigation is squashed for lack of time and “importance.”

What if educational curricula looked more like this list? What if we created guidelines, frameworks, for various subjects, and within those frameworks, made students responsible for their own deep investigation of the subject matter? Yes, yes, we need to teach them the definition of “noun” and “molecule,” but what if the learning of those definitions took place as a natural part of the inquisitiveness and joy of exploring a new subject in a way that was relevant and creative and exciting?

Think of the college model of teaching English composition: you read an assigned text, but you are asked to explore it in a personal, non-scripted way through a “reader response”–by choosing a passage or a section that you find interesting or confusing, and then writing a few paragraphs identifying the section, giving your thoughts, asking your questions, and trying to make connections between the writing that intrigued or dismayed you and some other text or experience. Connections that might help you, and the rest of the class, make sense of the text.

You are being asked, in short, to think.

And to use writing as a way to assist your thinking, to lay out your ideas and confusions and try to work your way through them. Then you bring your response to class and share it, discuss it with the instructor and your classmates, who offer their own ideas and pose their own questions. The instructor is there to facilitate the discussion rather than to run it, and in this way, the class becomes more invested in the text. It becomes more relevant to them, as they ask and answer each other’s questions, relate the writing to their own lives, and even gain a new understanding of their own literary and academic tastes.

Why not routinely apply this approach in a pre-college setting? Why not apply it to all sorts of texts, in science and history, for example? Engage students in this type of self-guided exploration of the parts of the subject that interest them the most. Use that interest to keep their attention, to get them to learn more, to encourage them to spend more time learning. They will still learn those definitions and rudimentary facts, but organically, as part of their investigations. Those little pieces that presently make up the sum total of the learning experience will recede to take on their rightful role, as the important but small building blocks that allow students to think critically and write and speak intelligently about interesting subjects.

When you take piano lessons, you memorize all sorts of musical terms–in Italian, no less. You learn that fermata is a stop, that forte means loud, that legato means smoothly. No one needs to give you a list of those terms and insist that you memorize them; you naturally learn them because they apply to what you’re doing, to your ability to play better, to understand the music that moves you.  And you don’t forget them, because you’re using them. They are tools.

So here’s to using a collegiate approach to teach younger students. To using an approach that is far more engaging and meaningful than memorizing facts in a vacuum and regurgitating them onto a bubble sheet to be scored by a computer. An approach that is ruled by choice, deep investigation, and critical thinking.

Read Janet Potter’s article, “28 Books You Should Read if You Want To” here. It’s delightful.