How We Read and Why
Raquel: Welcome to Rite Gud. The only podcast that helps you write good. I’m Raquel s Benedict, the most dangerous woman in speculative fiction. This is a writing podcast, so we talk a lot about reading.
Most of the time we’ve been discussing what we read, but today we’re going to discuss how we read and why we read. What’s the point of reading when there are other ways of getting [00:01:00] information. Does reading make you a better person, and why are so many Americans so bad at it? Joining us today is Chris, just Chris book, critic and YouTuber.
Thanks for coming on.
Chris: thank you for having me. I’m really excited.
Raquel: Yeah. I’m glad to have you. So you have a YouTube channel about books.
Chris: I do, yes. I’ve had it for like five years now, and I’ve a, I’m a lapsed YouTuber. I haven’t posted a video in a while. I’m planning on restarting content to the new year, but I’m taking a little bit of time off.
Raquel: Yeah. That’s not a bad idea. What kind of books do you usually review?
Chris: I kind of run the gamut. I’ve been reviewing quite a few memoirs this year. A lot of fantasy, a lot of literary fiction. When I first started off the channel, actually, I read predominantly literary fiction. And I started reading More Fantasy as the channel went on. And so yeah, now I read a lot more fantasy than I do literary fiction.
Raquel: Nice. Very nice. All right, so why don’t we dive into it? We’re, we’re gonna start by talking [00:02:00] about how we read or how we don’t read. And this is a topic near and dear to my heart. I have a master’s degree in linguistics, so the science of language acquisition and the science of reading is a topic I care a lot about and, and I’ve studied a fair bit, although it’s been a long time and I’m terribly out of practice.
And I’m sure the field has moved on a lot since I went to school. But why don’t we start by talking about the scourge of whole language. So what is whole language? The reason I wanted to talk about this is because Emily Hanford on APM recently released a really, really, really good podcast series called Sold a Story in which she goes into something called whole language in immense detail, the rise of it, how it’s finally on the decline, thank God.
But I highly, highly, highly recommend listening to this series. It will make you feel completely crazy. It, it might make you very mad. It made me very mad [00:03:00] to listen to it. And if you’re a parent, if you’re an educator, if you’re just a person who cares about literacy, it’s a very important topic and you really, really should listen to it.
It’s just an eye opening series. It’s brilliant. So,
Chris: recommend having a stress ball handy while you’re listening to it, cuz it will make you furious.
Raquel: Oh yeah. Every person I’m talking to, every time they listen to another episode, they go, what? What, are you kidding me? How is this real? But let’s talk about what is whole language. Whole Language is an approach to teaching kids how to read that focuses on viewing each word as a whole unit.
Instead of breaking it down phonetically and sounding it out. The sounding it out method is called phonics, and that was the standard way to teach literacy in English since at least the 18 hundreds. You can find old timey primers from the 19th century that teach phonics. Phonics is about sounding it out, breaking a word down.
Whole Language is about looking at the word as a whole, and it’s a [00:04:00] descendant of a method called the Whole Word Method, which I don’t know if you’ve seen those awful Dick and Jane Primers. Like See Spot Run, run Spot, run. Those really shitty, stereotypical books from the olden times. Those are from Whole Word.
Whole Word focuses on repetition of whole words instead of decoding letter by letter and breaking it down and sounding it out. So what Whole Language does is it sort of took Whole Word and adds to that the three queuing method. And the three queuing method, that’s when you see a new word, instead of sounding it out, letter by letter, like you would, if you studied phonics, you try and figure it out based on cues.
Three cues. The first is a semantic or meaning based cue. So you ask yourself, what word makes sense in this context? The second cue is the syntactic structure. What part of speech should this be? And since, [00:05:00] I mean, keep in mind you’re explaining this to first graders, they don’t know exactly what a noun or a verb or an adverb is.
You say, does it sound right? Which. The fuck does that mean to a kid? Like how is that? And then the third is graph phonic visual cues. Does it look right? And here, here is when you finally are allowed to look at letters, but you kind of just start with the first and last letter and not the ones in the middle.
So it’s like, does it look right? Does it start and end with the right letters? So what’s the problem with this three queuing method? The problem with this is that this isn’t what reading is. This is actually a strategy that a person who’s bad at reading uses to sort of get by without reading. A huge part of instruction in whole language in elementary school actually is suggesting that when kids see a word they’re not familiar with, look at the picture to figure out what the word is. Which again, that’s not reading. And remember that this, this will get you through until like second grade. But [00:06:00] around second grade, you start getting books without many pictures in ’em, books with longer sentences and harder words. I mean, what the fuck are you gonna do when you’re 30 and you’re reading a book?
Look at the picture. Like there’s no picture in your book. You’re an adult now. It’s fucking, it’s madness. So if you wanna know what this looks like in practice, listen, I, I’m linking it at the bottom. There’s a clip that went kind of viral of a gambling streamer named Aiden Ross it’s this, this really fucking stupid guy living in, in a very large, expensive house trying to read a Wikipedia article on fascism.
Adin Ross: What does a fastest mean?
Um, it means you are a far right authorization on you. Un Ultra does it? Ultra. Ultra, oh my god. Ultra anal-atist. An analyst political ideology, movement characterized by dictator leader. Centralized auto Caity militarism for– forcible suppression. [00:07:00] Suppression of opposition. So I don’t know what that means, bro.
I swear to God. I don’t know what the fuck a fascism is. I don’t know what the fuck that is. Benito Mazuli and Jian Gen Gentile and Jason Stanley, like, who the fuck are these people, bro? Never heard of my fucking life. What is an example of a fastest. Yo. All right, bro. See what I’m saying, chat? Like, this is why I don’t fuck with y’all, bro.
Like, dude, like this is what the fuck. I don’t, bro, I don’t fuck with y’all, bro. I do not fuck with you guys, bro.
Raquel: And he cannot decode it. And you’ll notice he swaps, he does things like, he’ll see the word authoritarian, but say authorization because hey. That’s the same part of speech, right? It’s, it’s a noun. It, it starts and ends with the same letter. It looks right, and it kind of almost makes sense in that context.
Chris: it was actually sad to watch it. I mean like it was funny because he doesn’t seem like a particularly nice guy, but like
Raquel: deeply disturbing to see a man who can’t read a Wikipedia [00:08:00] article.
Chris: really disturbing and you saw all those Whole Language methods perfectly encapsulated in just like a 22 second clip of watching an adult human being trying to read something that should not be difficult for them to read.
Raquel: Yeah. There’s another one that was ultranationalist becomes ultra analysts because he cannot, he cannot decode it. He cannot sound it. So he ends up with this incomprehensible mess and you can see he’s kind of playing it off, but he is obviously getting frustrated cuz it’s fucking embarrassing. You know, when you, you’re a grown up adult who he’s making plenty of money being a gambling streamer, but being a grown adult who can’t read, that sucks.
That’s embarrassing, man. That’s really, that’s unhappy. So I, I don’t know if he himself was educated through the Whole Language method, but I’ve seen students, I’ve taught composition at a community college and found, I saw that a lot with this particular, a younger like millennial and [00:09:00] zoomer generations of students because a lot of people in those generations grew up on the whole language method.
It got really big in the seventies with this, like, I think US New Zealand woman Marie Clay’s Reading Recovery program. It was supposed to help kids who were struggling with literacy. Whole language isn’t quite as popular as it was. These days a lot more schools use what’s called a balanced approach, which combines Whole Language with phonics.
But in my opinion, there’s no point in combining something that’s based on science that actually works with something that’s stupid hippie bullshit that doesn’t work
Chris: Completely agree.
Raquel: complete bullshit. It, it’s like, oh, let’s teach evolution and creationism together in biology class. No, only one of those is real.
We only need the one that’s real.
Chris: The whole time I was listening to that podcast, I kept thinking, well, in the beginning when she described it, I kept thinking , what, what would a lesson for this even look like? Because I was taught using phonics,
Raquel: Yeah. I’m very grateful to my first grade teacher for being an old school phonics person. Just going letter by letter with us. Thank you. [00:10:00] Thank you, thank
Chris: yeah. Same.
Raquel: teacher, I love you.
Chris: And what they did in this lesson that they played on that podcast is that they presented a word to the class, like a sentence, and they covered up the word with a post-it note and. They had to guess the word with the post-it note covering it up. That’s not reading. Like, like under no reasonable idea of reading would we classify that as reading.
And of course even applying all of the queuing methods, you could have reasonably come up with any word there that could have made sense in the context and you know, as part of the sentence structure and all that. And it was just so confusing and garbled and to try and listen to that confusing mess as an adult, I just couldn’t imagine being a child and trying to learn how to read that way.
Raquel: Yeah, it’s just, it’s guessing. It’s just guessing. And it actively makes kids worse at reading because at least when you, when you know you can’t read, then you know, you can’t read and you know you have deficiency. But when you teach [00:11:00] them that way, you’re teaching them that reading is just kind of guessing.
And they think maybe they can read, but they’re not, which means they don’t know they have a deficiency, which is worse. At a low level, at a level of children’s books where there’s pictures, you can probably guess what the word is. But as things get more complex, you shouldn’t just guess what the word is.
And filling, filling in what you think makes sense seems like a really good idea to maintain your previous ideas and your previous prejudices instead of opening you up to learning something you didn’t expect. It genuinely seems harmful to me, and it seems like a way to trap people in ignorance and, and to keep them from expanding their minds.
And it truly horrifies me that a generation of kids has been taught this way.
Chris: Yeah, completely agree. I had no idea how systemic that method of teaching was. You know, my sister is an elementary school teacher, and I had heard her complain about this in the past because her school district uses it. Now, fortunately, [00:12:00] she doesn’t actually teach reading, but she’s, got kids in her classrooms who have struggled.
But I just kind of assumed it was because she was at some country school. I had no idea until this really significant piece of reporting came out that this was so systemic across the United States.
Raquel: it’s really widespread in, rich schools because at, at the risk of being stereotypical and rich, kind of rich white neighborhoods, education is a lot more like vibes and like, no, no, no. Don’t, don’t upset them. Don’t, challenge them. Don’t hold them to a standard. They’re very fragile. You know, and this is very vibes based education, except that parents in those districts, when their kids can’t fucking read, hire a tutor who works on with the kids one on one.
Guess what method the tutor uses? Fucking phonics.
Raquel: So they learn how to do it. Kids in poorer school districts will also get this method, but they don’t have the private tutors. And a lot of the times, you know, maybe their parents aren’t super great at reading either,[00:13:00] so they just have this huge– end up with this deficiency.
The NAACP actually sued California over the use of Whole Language in the public school system. They said, this isn’t working. You need to implement a literacy education program based on science, not on good vibes. And all the science shows that phonics is what works for reading instruction. I, I mean, to have to sue because your children’s school district legitimately isn’t teaching them to read
Raquel: that’s horrifying.
Chris: And it’s not like the science has been in question or is new. I
Raquel: It has never been in question.
Chris: it’s very well established science about how children learn how to read and how they learn how to decode sentences and words and all that. It’s, it’s really shocking.
Raquel: Yeah. Yeah. It’s kind of, wild, that the, it turns out the old method works pretty well. U– usually in educational systems the old method [00:14:00] “wow. We shouldn’t have done it that way,” but it, it turns out that, yeah, phonics is how you fucking do it. We’ve been right for like 200 years about how to do this. We figured this out. But it, it is kind of interesting to ask, okay, why do people believe in this? Why do people believe in whole language? Cuz a lot of educators, a lot of teachers, a lot of, administrators, a lot– some academic publishers are still trying to push this. It, it’s really hard to get people to stop believing that.
And part of the reason I think that people believe in it comes from a misunderstanding of language acquisition versus reading. So, here’s my little linguistic spiel. We pick up language by osmosis, right? Being around when you are in a very young child, when you’re a baby, parents kind of try to teach their kids to speak, but kids just pick it up like a sponge.
They just pick up the language that they’re around. If you actually tried to teach your infant an entire language, you would fuck it up because there are so many grammatical rules that we just use [00:15:00] instinctively without even understanding what they are or why. If you wanna realize how complex your language is, it kind of helps to have an ESL speaker ask you a question of like, well, why do you say it that way?
And you’re like, I, I don’t know. Why is the plural of tooth teeth, like, I have no idea why. Why do you say it this way? I don’t know. There’s a ton of rules that we just learned subconsciously, because that’s how you pick up language. But, um, I think a lot of people have this mistaken idea that the written language is the true, pure form of the language and the spoken language is this corrupted, inferior version of it.
And the reality is, it’s kind of the opposite. The spoken language is the true living language and written language is more like a visual representation of that language. It’s not the true language. You pick up spoken language just by, by hanging around people when you’re, when you’re a baby. And that’s just natural.
[00:16:00] It’s like you learn to walk naturally, right? You just, you just sort of learn it eventually, but you don’t instinctively learn reading by vibes. You don’t pick it up by osmosis. Communication through speech is quite natural for most animals, most or at least many animals communicate by making weird sounds.
You can hear my cat communicating with me attention by meowing. Dolphins and whales will communicate by singing, frogs will will ribbit at each other. You know, birds will chirp at each other. This is natural. This is something animals have been doing for millions of years. Humans have only been reading and writing and communicating that way for about 5,000 years, we did not evolve to do this. This is not natural. So while we pick up speech naturally, picking up reading and writing is unnatural and needs to be taught the same way that learning to figure skate needs to be taught.
You’re not just gonna naturally figure out how to figure skate. You need somebody to teach you how to do [00:17:00] that shit, or it’ll break your ankles
Chris: Huh, I never thought about that before. But this is a really interesting point about the spoken language versus written.
Raquel: Right. Like you, you, you, you come up with this idea that like, written language is the real language and the way you talk is bad. It’s a fake version, and that’s really not true. It’s kinda like comparing yourself to a photo of you and usually the photo of you is cleaned up and nicer. you know, that’s what spoken language is
Chris: in those programs, they were kind of constantly talking about surrounding the kids with stories and books and all this different stuff, almost as like this way for them to develop the skill of reading. Which was a really interesting thing to listen to, how how many teachers were swept away just by
the visuals of, of children sitting with a big stack of books and looking like they’re
Raquel: Oh, it’s this romantic image.
Chris: Yes. Looking like they’re reading them, because they’re sitting silently, but they’re playing a [00:18:00] guessing game that isn’t reading
Raquel: Yeah, you could put me in an Egyptian pyramid with tons of hieroglyphics all over the walls, and I could look at ’em and stare at ’em for hours. I still wouldn’t be able to fucking read em how long I look at em. You know? You don’t just pick it up that way.
Chris: Exactly. And it’s a shame because I, I think, a lot of these whole language programs, they’re being sold this way. The kits that they were talking about in that podcast came with just hundreds and hundreds of books for these kids. And it’s, it creates this very romantic, view of, of children learning how to read.
But I mean, phonics could just be funded the same way. They could also just have tons and tons of books. there’s nothing intrinsic to the whole language method that results in that, you know, it’s a complete marketing thing.
Raquel: I’ve seen people defend whole language by saying, phonics drills are boring. They’re boring. It’s rote and, and repetitive cuz you do have to do these repetitive little phonics drills of under, okay, what sound does this letter make? What sound does that letter make? What sound does this combination make?
But there’s a way to make [00:19:00] drills fun. There’s a way to make call and responses and chanting fun and just cause it’s boring for me. Well, I’m an adult. Yeah, learning what sound the letter C makes is boring cuz I already learned that shit a long time ago. For, for kids it’s not as boring cuz they are learning new things
I was just gonna say, there was that clip of the, the really young girl in that podcast it was really sweet, you know, she got done she finally got pulled out of this horrible Whole Language program. Her dad started teaching her with these phonics books and she got done reading this little paragraph or whatever for the podcast, and she was asked to describe how it felt, like, how to read.
And she was like, it’s the best thing ever. Phonics language can be fun because it’s opening up a whole world to these kids.
Raquel: Yeah, you, you get the joy of discovery and the joy of decoding something. You’re solving a little linguistic puzzle every time you read a new word. That’s pretty cool. That’s pretty cool. Yeah. The whole language and whole word method, a lot of it does rely on repetition and just rote memorization of shitloads of words.
[00:20:00] Like whole language relies way more on memorization. Cuz in order to read, you need to memorize tons and tons and tons of words instead of just learning the rules and then decoding words from the rules.
Chris: words that look like each other, words that will be used similarly in the sentence, all this different stuff. It’s completely insane. Expecting children to hold all of that in their heads is just, it’s just preposterous.
Raquel: And, and it’s deceptive because on the early levels on kindergarten through first and part of second grade, it looks like Whole Language is working really well, cuz you don’t have to memorize many words,
Raquel: It’s a small number of words and a lot of the most commonly used words that you learn have kind of weird irregular spelling.
So phonics can be a little tough for like a word, like “put,” it looks like “putt,” but pronounced put. That’s kind of an irregular pronunciation. But as you get beyond second grade, suddenly the Whole Language method, it’s effectiveness just plummets because you’re learning longer and longer words, bigger and bigger words.
In [00:21:00] order to memorize this, you’d have to memorize way, way, way more words. Whereas phonics like, okay, I got the rules. I know I got this. I can figure this shit out on my own. And remember the precursor to the whole, to the Whole Language method, the Whole Word method. It gave us those Dick and Jane books and those are horrible.
Like that’s not fun. They’re not fun to read. Have you ever looked at those, these books suck
Chris: See Spot run
Raquel: in the 1980s and nineties, it became this, I dunno if you’d call it a meme, to just make fun of those books and use them as an example of just awful soul crushing, boring culture. There were tons and tons of ironic parodies of it because it was like, look at these things, these fucking suck.
Chris: Yeah. But it was kind of amazing in that podcast listening to this method that just seemed on its face to be completely bunk, scientifically proven to be completely bunk and yet talked about by these academics and publishers and conferences and stuff with this almost religious fervor and dedicat.
Raquel: Oh yeah, they talked about Marie Clay [00:22:00] like she was like, she was a rockstar.
Chris: I know
Raquel: They loved her.
Chris: it was really, really bizarre. And there was that one, conference kind of given towards the end of the podcast that I thought was really eye opening because the person giving the conference was basically trying to respond to the, the, the claims that we’re making, you know, and the in which all these academics and stuff had put forward and said, look, look, you guys gotta tow this method back in because it’s not working.
And in it they, they kept saying, well, the science is trying to tell us that this is wrong, but we know it’s right. We see the evidence of how right it is in our own classrooms and all this different stuff, and it’s like these, this kind of level of de– self deception. I mean, you could almost hear it in her voice that she was trying to trick herself on that stage.
Raquel: Yeah, they did that interview with that super old Whole Language proponent and an actual quote from him is, “well, my science is different.”
Motherfucker. What? What do you mean? [00:23:00] That– there is– No, no. and and there was a really good point that the interviewer brought up, which was, Hey, what if these kids are reading a picture book?
And they said, and they say like, “here is my horse,” but the actual word is “pony.” Cuz you know, a picture of a horse and a picture of a pony, they look pretty much the same. And he is like, “well, it’s good enough.” No it isn’t.
Raquel: That’s not good enough. Those are different words my friend.
Chris: That’s how you get a gambling streamer saying “off the way, net list” or whatever. Who’s trying to say, instead of ultranationalist?
Raquel: Yeah. That’s a really, that’s a, that’s a real way to have people go around keeping their ignorance because they’ll just sort of shove their, their preconceived ideas onto the text instead of absorbing it. It’s truly disturbing to me.
Chris: Yeah. I think some of it too, especially with some of these people who had made a lot of money and published a lot of books, there’s this, there’s a certain sunk cost fallacy. You’ve put so much into the program, you’ve put your reputation on this program, all this different [00:24:00] stuff. And, and the more you continue to do that, the harder it becomes to admit that you are wrong.
Raquel: Yeah. And I’m having to wonder if they’re worried about lawsuits too, like
angry parents and teachers going, “you sold us shit that made our kids dumber.”
Chris: Yeah, they should be because it was horrendous.
Raquel: “You made our children dumber. What the fuck?” So there, there’s that, there’s this, there, there’s this money side to it. There’s also a political side to it.
There are a lot of things that really shouldn’t be partisan issues, but they end up being partisan issues. Virology, for example, over the past couple of years. This is one of those things, rare instances in which actually the conservatives ended up on the right side. It pains me to say this. I do not like saying this. But conservatives, George W. Bush in particular tend to be super pro phonics. I think in this case, it’s just a matter of, “well, this is how we did it when I was a kid, so that’s how we should keep doing it.” You’re right for the wrong reason, but you are right. Yeah. Phonics is what fucking works. [00:25:00] This is what works. So, I, I think a lot of liberals dug their heels in and said we’re not, you know, the, the phonics way, it’s like drills and rote memorization is authoritarianism, blah blah.
The Whole Language is loose and holistic and it feels good and there’s this kind of new agey vibe to it. But the trouble is it just doesn’t work.
Chris: Yeah. And I think, I think some of the trouble too, and I could be wrong, but from my understanding of what I listened to, it seemed that the phonics and the kind of stripping away of the whole language programs, proposed by the conservative side was kind of being rolled into the No Child Left Behind program, which was extremely unpopular with educators, um, across the country.
And so that was another reason I think it met with a lot of resistance from teachers who, who do tend to be Democrats.
Raquel: Yeah. They, they do. They do tend to be kind of Democrats and liberals. And to be fair, No Child Left Behind sucked. it was bad. So associating this thing as part of No Child Left Behind. It’s like, eh, it’s bad. Get it away from me. Like, stopped [00:26:00] clocks are right twice a day.
Raquel: Phonics is good. Phonics works.
That’s the good shit. Teach kids to read using phonics. Do not teach kids to read using Whole Language. Please, please, please don’t do it. It damages them. There were some interviews with children, or former students on that, on that series that were the most heartbreaking things you’d ever heard, because these are kids who are being taught to read and they can’t read because they’re not being taught right. And they’re doing everything the teacher says, and they’re just still not understanding it. They’re still not learning to read.
Raquel: They just blame themselves. They just think like, “oh, I guess I’m stupid or something, cuz I can’t read. And the teacher’s teaching me how to read, but I don’t know how to read. I guess I’m just dumb.”
Chris: just, and it’s not just that they’re telling themselves that a lot of them are being falsely diagnosed with learning disabilities.
Chris: Because they’re falling behind on reading and having to take remedial, learning courses for reading where they’re being given the same bunk [00:27:00] curriculum that isn’t helping them.
And so, you know, that ruins the child’s self-esteem. There’s certain skills that we feel like, you should be meeting to keep up with your peers. And, one of those is by second or third grade you should be reading,
Chris: It’s, it’s really, really heartbreaking.
Raquel: most basic thing.
Chris: yeah, and there was an interview in that podcast with a man who was, I believe in his fifties before he really learned how to read.
And he had. It was devastating. And he had been using these cueing methods kind of naturally himself to try and figure out words when he was in a situation where he needed to read and there was nobody around him that he could reasonably ask for help. And him describing how he would have to use these strategies, which is what a poor reader would use in order to figure out a word.
And that’s the strategies we’re teaching kids. It was just so frustrating. And, and he would have to end up, going to a payphone to call his wife during the workday to [00:28:00] say and spell out the word to her so she could help him. And I think if you do read easily, you take for granted how much you have to read during your day just to get by.
Raquel: right. Getting to the point where you have trouble reading a menu when you go to a fucking restaurant, oh my God.
Chris: It’s really, really, concerning. And a lot of times one of the emphasis in these whole language programs is that we can get kids to understand a story or understand a narrative, and of course that’s great, but they have to understand and decode the word. And if you can’t have that basic life skill, I mean, it’s just, it has devastating consequences down the line.
Raquel: So let’s shift more toward your, your area of– [00:29:00] we were talking about how we read. Let’s talk a little bit about why we you read, and right now you’re touching on the issue of this is an essential life skill.
Chris: Mm-hmm, absolutely. If you want to be able to get by in most jobs. You’re gonna have to know how to read. If you wanna perform a lot of the basic functions of life, grocery shopping, all that different stuff, you’re going to have to, to learn how to read. And, if you want to not be taken advantage of, if you want to be, you know, so many times if you cannot read, you are kind of putting your learning, you’re putting your access to information in the hands of other people.
Raquel: Right, right. Which is why the NAACP sued. A lot of Whole Language proponents talk about reading with this emphasis on pleasure.
Like “we want kids to enjoy it. We want it to be fun.” And the what the NAACP is saying, ” we don’t care if they have fun. [00:30:00] We just need ’em to be able to fucking do it.”
Raquel: So they can function
Chris: Absolutely. And of course this is something I see a lot of times is that, the point of these kind of courses is so that kids learn to be able to read for pleasure and that we create lifelong readers. This is something that you, you heard probably a lot in those, in those conferences.
And, of course reading for pleasure is a great enjoyment and it’s something that I’m sure, everybody, in my opinion would be in some ways enriched by doing. But it’s not the core skill of learning how to read. It’s not core reason why in a society you need to be able to, to read, information.
Raquel: Right. Learning, reading for pleasure is great, but that’s to me is secondary to just being able to be a functional human being. And I’m not, and I’m not trying to dis reading for pleasure. Obviously, I [00:31:00] am a writer of fiction. I read for pleasure. I want people to read for pleasure because I want them to read this stuff that I write. I, I want this very badly, but that’s not the pure, that’s not the number one reason for this. This is an essential life skill. It is necessary to your survival in a modern society if you don’t wanna get fucked over really bad by, by life.
Raquel: And, and I find that, I find that striking because I’ve heard, oh, we should emphasize reading for pleasure from Whole Language proponents.
I’ve also seen it a whole lot from bad literary discourse.
Chris: Oh yeah.
Raquel: YA novelists saying, “why do we have to make kids read shit like Moby dick? Why can’t we just let them read my YA novel, A Groan of Stone and Bone, which is fun and, and let ’em read that instead.” So Chris, I know you have thoughts about this, but what [00:32:00] is the purpose of making kids read shit that’s hard and slightly boring?
Chris: Well, there’s, a lot. One, and, and this is kind of where I lose my mind a little bit, is that literature and literature analysis is an academic discipline. People dedicate their whole lives to it, right? So you need to learn the fundamentals of that discipline. And there are certain texts which are frankly good at allowing you to learn the fundamentals of that discipline.
And there are certain texts which are just frankly not good at learning the fundamentals of that discipline. And there are a lot of conversations and a lot of stuff about, classics and canon and modern literature. And it is a really nuanced discussion, but the, I do find a lot of these arguments for allowing kids to kind of self select the YA novels that they, to read, to be really self-serving and just [00:33:00] absolutely bad for literature and English. One thing that I found really interesting was I was reading a blog post and I wish I had saved it. Now I’ll try and find it so I can send it to you to put in the show notes. But it was from a teacher, who had, their, their school had implemented a lot of these kind of self selection programs and he was, I believe the soccer coach as well as being a teacher.
And he noticed that all of his kids who were on the soccer team were just choosing to read YA books about soccer, staying within this like one very specific comfort zone. And he was like, “these kids know soccer . They need to be picking up, you know, something that’s getting them outside their comfort zones, getting them outside of their own narrow ranges of experience.”
Um, and I think that if you do allow kids to kind of go through the self selection process, oftentimes you’re going to end up with stuff like that.
Raquel: Yeah. And, and I can see that extending to, politically to things like [00:34:00] demographic. Like boys might read, might just select boy books. White kids might self-select white kid books. So they’re not gonna get this perspective of someone outside of, of their own narrow life experience. A sort of suburban white kid might not seek out a book about someone who’s different from him,
Raquel: and we want them to do that.
Chris: Yes. And there seems to be this notion, you know, I’ve gotten into a whole bunch of Twitter fights with people about, reading older books. And there seems to be this notion that like everything that came in the past is white, cisgendered, straight rich, all this different stuff. And they
Raquel: Tell me, you’ve never read Moby Dick without telling me you’ve never read Moby Dick
Chris: Um, and they, they really cling to this idea that the classics is, is all this one homogenous thing. And they really stick to this idea that, and I think it’s, it’s [00:35:00] easy to believe it’s something that feels right, even though it’s, it’s really just not true. People of color, gay people, women,
Raquel: Especially gay people, especially like nine– 90% of the 19th century authors that we had to read in school were gay or at least bi.
Chris: They have been writing celebrated works of fiction, for decades upon decades. And talking about the classics in a way that is so constraining and defining it in this way, really erases those people from the conversation. And I think it has the opposite then intended impact. Cause you know, I think these people who say these things, they’re obviously coming from it from a progressive lens, but I think that they end up in a place that feels very regressive.
So follow up question, what’s the value of learning the skill of literary analysis then? Who cares? Why is it important for kids to know this?
Chris: Well, if you go right now, if you were just somebody who thinks that the whole purpose of literature, [00:36:00] and, you know, going to school is become a lifelong reader. Say even if I buy that, which I, I really don’t buy that, that’s the reason we should do English analysis. If you go right now to your local Barnes and Noble, you are going to find nothing but displays about classic retellings and all this different stuff, right?
I mean, literature is in conversation with literature, okay? Intertextuality is one of the hallmarks of a lot of literary fiction. And if you want to be able to kind of trace literary lineage, there, you do have to read that lineage. And so I think that’s one important element for learning the classics to be able to, enrich yourself more when you do pick up these books, right?
You can read something critically, which isn’t just literature that you can read Critically. Literary analysis can help you to read news articles critically. It can help you to read nonfiction critically. It helps you to do all, you know. It is a critical thinking skill.
Raquel: Hmm. Yeah. [00:37:00] That is another side of reading. It’s not just an essential life skill, but it helps you be a better citizen.
Raquel: It helps you be a more informed person because we, we do have a lot of non-written forms of information, but most forms of, like, news that’s not written down is a lot more shallow. If you compare the amount of information on a, in a newspaper article versus on a, a news report on like cnn, there’s no competition.
The amount, there’s just much more dense information, much deeper information in the article. Your TV news segment is the equivalent of what, maybe 50 words.
It’s not, it’s, there’s not that much in there. It, it’s, it’s a lot of bells and whistles and it’s a lot of distraction. But to get a really deep understanding, you’ve gotta do a bit of reading.
And a lot of the time it’s gonna be kind of more complex. We know there’s a difference in the way a person [00:38:00] who reads thoughtful news, articles and theory and, and other forms of nonfiction sees the world versus the way a person who understands the world through Facebook memes understands the world.
And, and obviously one person has a much better grasp on what’s going on than the other person.
Chris: exactly. Exactly.
Chris: Yeah, no, exactly.
Raquel: There’s more words. And you can think about ’em in more depth than like, “well, these words are on a picture of Morgan Freeman. So it’s probably good. It’s probably okay.”
Chris: It’s an absolutely essential skill to be able to process information, come to your own conclusions and not be fooled.
Raquel: Yeah. Not to be a fucking stupid dip shit dumb ass. It’s, it’s, it’s super good. And a lot of the times that means doing stuff that’s hard, like trying to read critically or even reading stuff that’s not fun.
Chris: Yeah, that’s, that is kind of interesting. I mean, I’ve seen so [00:39:00] many people say that, when you teach kids these classics that they’ve, a lot of people feel these classics are stale. They’re not fun. That you’re going to, stifle their enjoyment of reading later on in life. Which I find this very odd because it’s so weird to me.
I guess that English and literature seems to be a course in which fun is a criteria that has to be met. I mean, we don’t think of like math as being something that has to be fun or science as being something that has to be fun. We kind of recognize that it’s an academic discipline with its own set of rigor, right?
Whereas we don’t seem to apply that to English where there seems to be a wide swath of people who don’t want to apply that to, to literature. Um, and I find that very odd
Raquel: Yeah. I’m trying to imagine an approach to math that would work like that. ” Well, if they, if they have to remember the quadratic equation, they might not like numbers as much.” Like we don’t care if they like numbers, we don’t [00:40:00] give a shit. Yeah.
Chris: not gonna be a lifelong lover of math. I mean, you know, this is just, it’s a very odd, burden that seems to be placed on literature, curriculum that doesn’t seem to be placed on anything else.
Raquel: “You don’t need to solve for X. Just like put in what makes
sense. It’s fine. Just, just vibes. I think, I think it’s a seven. Seven’s a nice number. Put a seven in. That’s close enough.”
Chris: and I find it odd that so many people just assume that these classics are boring. Something that was really interesting to me was, I was reading, I’m gonna try and find this blog post and send it to you as well so you can add it to the description. Um, there was a, another teacher who was talking about how he was really excited because in addition to teaching some of the classics in his course, he taught in a predominantly Latin X school.
He was a Latin X teacher himself, and he was really excited to teach them The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Can’t remember how to say that last name. I’ve never actually read the book myself. It was by Junot Diaz. And he was really excited cause he thought [00:41:00] all his kids were really going to relate to that one and enjoy it the most.
And what he found is that, when he surveyed his students at the end of the year and asked them what their favorite books were, it, it ranked almost last and the book that ranked and none of them said that they didn’t enjoy the book. All of them enjoyed the book, but the books that were making it to the top were The Metamorphosis by Fran Kafka and– Yeah.
Right. and um,
Raquel: Well, any kid going through puberty I think can identify with a little bit with that book. You wake up and you’re like, “oh fuck.”
Chris: As well as, the Great Gatsby was the other one that kids really, seem to love.
Raquel: I’ve a friend of mine who, she’s the daughter of, Chinese immigrants, she said she loved the great Gasby, cuz for her, it resonated with her as almost the Chinese immigrant story, like reinventing yourself, changing your name,
and like working so hard to reinvent yourself and to be accepted by a society that never 100% [00:42:00] is going to totally accept you because you’re, you are still different.
Raquel: her it really, really, really resonated with her, which is kind of cool knowing that, you can, you can find something that resonates with you about people who are so wildly unlike you.
Chris: Exactly. And so many times I’ve seen a lot of arguments, against teaching classic books or old literature. That, kids won’t relate to it. That we have a more diverse set of students now, um, with different standards and they’re not going to relate to these characters. And I really think that underestimates the empathy of these students as readers, as well as the power of some of these classical texts to be universal.
Raquel: Adults don’t know what teenagers are gonna really relate to anyway. It’s, it always feels pandering because I think in middle school we had to read YA a little bit. I never related to these characters cuz so most of the time too, they were very aspirational. I remember these teen girls who were always like really [00:43:00] beautiful and thin and they always had two hunks to choose from.
That did not reflect my experience as an adolescent, of being beautiful and thin and getting my pick of hunks. And they were often really, really affluent. I remember this one book we read, it was kind of like a suspense mystery and I can’t remember the title, but it was about like a hit and run accident trying to figure out who did it.
And like the main character owns a Jeep. She’s a teenage girl who owns
a Jeep. Which like, that’s really fucking expensive, you know, because that’s the luxury car in like the eighties and nineties. In California you own a Jeep. And the big clue is that the person who was driving the vehicle has a, wore a diamond tennis bracelet.
It’s like, yeah, that’s relatable. Yeah. All my friends wear diamond tennis bracelets. Sure. Yeah. I can relate to being covered in jewels at all times. Anyone can relate to that. What the fuck? So they were giving us this thing that we were supposed to relate to cuz “oh, these people are like you.”
I’m like, they’re nothing like me.[00:44:00]
I’m nothing like any of these people. Who the fuck are these people who run, who drive drunk draped in, in finery and jewels?
Chris: But because they meet like certain, “oh, they’re the same age as you, they come from, uh, maybe similar place as you” or something like that. But all those things do not necessarily make a text that a student is going to relate to. When I think about the works of fiction that most stuck with me when I was in high school, it was always stuff that was very different from my experience.
You know, I remember we had to read the Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan and that was a book that like stayed with me for years. Or the short story, “My Son, the Fundamentalist,” by Hanif Kureishi, which was about, have you read that?
Raquel: I haven’t read that one.
Chris: Oh, it’s really good. It’s about a guy who’s a, taxi driver, from I believe somewhere in the Middle East, but he’s now living in London and his son is becoming more and more withdrawn and he thinks that his son is getting addicted to drugs.
But it turns out that his son is actually falling down a rabbit hole of [00:45:00] religious fundamentalism. And it’s, it’s really good, right? But of course, that’s something that doesn’t relate to my experience at all as some white kid in rural Indiana. But you know, it has had the kind of emotional staying power that books and texts that had characters that supposedly looked like me or whatever did not necessarily have
Raquel: Yeah. And, and there is this crumb of like relatability sometimes that most of us have been in a situation where we’ve seen someone we love going down a, a dark path and you feel helpless and you don’t know how to fix it. And this is a very specific situation, obviously, that like you and I might not, you know, I don’t, I don’t think either of us have that specific situation, but there is a way to resonate across these boundaries that’s really special and really beautiful that you don’t get by the laser targeted “this person’s exactly like you” supposedly.
Chris: Yeah, exactly. So yeah, I find the issue of relatability. I mean, of course I think that we should question the literary classics, and I think that, that we should [00:46:00] be picking from diverse ranges of literary classics, but they exist. I mean, high school students read The Color Purple, they read Toni Morrison.
This is, it’s not like these people have been completely removed from the curriculum. I think we should always strengthen them. But I think these people who are calling for complete self-selection, um, re redrawing everything, it feels very self-serving, and it feels like it’s taking us to a place that I just don’t agree with
Raquel: Yeah. And, and even old fashioned stuff, okay, Hamlet, like, this is about a kid who hates his stepdad. How many children of divorce can, can fucking identify with that? “You’re not my real dad.” I think a lot of kids can identify with that a little bit.
Chris: Yeah, exactly.
Raquel: or “I’m in love with a girl and my parents don’t want us to go out” well, that is, that is, that’s such a common experience in adolescence.
Oh my God, “my parents do not approve of the person I’m in love with,” you know? “I want to die.” Yeah. Right. And it, and I do remember learning, [00:47:00] realizing like, oh, that the line, “my naked weapon is out,” was intentionally “ha ha ha. That’s funny. It’s like, it, it sounds like penis.” No, that’s intentional, stupid. Here are eight other more penis jokes in that line alone. “Oh. Oh, okay. This is literature. All right.”
Chris: Yeah. And something I’ve, something I have seen too is this argument that ” well, any book can be used to kind of teach these literary analysis skills. so why not use these ya books that kids are more comfortable with and actually are excited to read?” And I just fundamentally disagree that any book can be used to teach these
Raquel: some books are deeper than others. I’m sorry.
Chris: Yes. There seems to be this idea, this notion that we can’t really, we shouldn’t say that, we can’t establish, certain hierarchies in art or, or rank, you know, all these different things. But, I think that we as readers and people who care about literature, we recognize that there’s art that is better than others.
Raquel: Yeah. For [00:48:00] serious,
Chris: I mean, it doesn’t take too much thinking to see. And you know, sometimes, for example, if you’re wanting to teach specific literary analysis skills, something like symbolism,
Chris: not any old YA text is going to be able to provide you the discussions necessary or going to be rich enough in symbolism, like something such as Lord of the Flies or something, you know?
Raquel: Right, right. Or, or even you’re trying to mix up a little bit of history, in which case, The Scarlet Letter that, that’s partly a history lesson on top of being, a literary lesson that like, okay, this is, this is what Puritan, this is, this is Puritan brain. This is what that looks like.
Chris: Exactly. Exactly.
Raquel: Throw that ball. Okay. Go get it. Go. Yeah. Down he goes . Yeah. The, the, “why should we talk about classics? Why can’t you teach an easy book. Specifically, the book that I am selling that is in my pinned tweet”
Raquel: discussion makes me crazy. I, I feel like the, [00:49:00] the most perfect encapsulation of it was the Sarah Dessan saga.
This, I, I’ve brought this up multiple times. I’m sure our, our listeners know what it is, but there was an, there’s this really rich y very, very, you know, bestseller YA novelist called Sarah Desen, who just had a public meltdown because she read an article. I don’t know how she came across this article, but
Chris: Name searching.
Raquel: I guess name search. Yeah, cuz it was in like a college newspaper. Which, who the fuck’s gonna read that if you’re not currently at that college? I, I would not do that. In which, um, a student was quoted as saying she wanted to get on this committee cuz her, her college every year would have this, would pick a book that they wanted everyone to read, or that they would recommend to all the students.
And she, this one student was quoted as saying she got on there because she wanted the students to read something serious, like Just Mercy and not something silly like a Sarah Dessan novel. And like [00:50:00] Sarah Dessan took umbridge at that and made it about this whole act of misogyny and cruelty and, “oh, why do you hate women?”
The, the student quoted was, was a girl, the student quoted was a girl. And like, “why don’t you punch up instead of punching down at me, a mere millionaire New York Times best selling author?” What was weird is that missing from this discussion was that this student, the book she wanted was called Just Mercy. And it’s this, it’s this fucking brilliant book. It’s a nonfiction book. It is by a, it’s by like a black law professor, and I believe it’s his memoirs and it’s about his life trying to help black people who’ve been terribly abused and mistreated by the cri, our racist criminal justice system. Well, this sounds like a really fucking good book.
This sounds like a, a book that young people should read. It sounds like a book that could, you know, expand their minds and, and broaden their horizons and educate them. [00:51:00] Whereas if the college assigned them a Sarah Dessen book, which are kind of fluffy, escapist, romance novels, which is fine. What, what’s, what are they gonna learn from that?
How’s that gonna like grow them or challenge them?
Chris: Exactly. Exactly. The response to that was vitriolic, um,
Raquel: so nasty.
Chris: It was so nasty, you know? And it was really funny. I mean, it was really funny. How dare she implied that your books are not serious literature? Well, they’re not.
Raquel: Yeah, they’re
Chris: know, I’ll, I’ll.
Raquel: I’m very comfortable saying that Just Mercy is a more serious and thoughtful and enlightening book than a Sarah Dessen
Raquel: I’m perfectly fine with that.
Chris: it’s kind of crazy to me that there seems to be this attitude that you can’t say that out loud, that people– that, I don’t understand why, you know, and I’m somebody that likes low brow stuff. I love reading a trashy novel.
Raquel: they’re, terrifically
Chris: terrific and I think that everybody should enjoy the pleasure [00:52:00] of reading the occasional trashy novel.
But I don’t demand that my fast food be treated like a five star Michelin restaurant.
Raquel: Right. Yeah. Get, I mean, it’s kind of similar to the idea of okay, cafeteria food needs to have vegetables in it. “But, but they want french fries.” Like, okay, but they need vegetables. You, you, you have to feed them something reasonably nutritious. Please, you please don’t just give them french fries every day.
They, they need, like, they need actual food with protein and, and nutrients. ” but they want french fries.” I know they want french fries. I know but you’re supposed to nurture their developing bodies. God,
Chris: and it’s, you know, and I think that there’s this, I I, there’s like the kind of this discomfort around talking about the fact that not all reading is the same, you know? And there was an essay that was written a long time ago, I say a long time ago. It was like 2014, which was called Against YA.
Do you remember when this kind of happened? [00:53:00] Um, by Ruth Graham, and she wrote it in Slate Magazine. And it was, it was kind of a, it was definitely a tonally, maybe more mean-spirited article, maybe that’s
why It like, got under so many people’s skin.
Raquel: Yeah, that, that is very much a provocative title.
Chris: It was, right? And the subtitle of course was like, read whatever you want, but you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children. So you can like imagine, you know, how well this went over in the YA community, but you know, she makes some really important points in it. And I, I’m trying to find, the one bit that has stuck out to me, this is what she says, . She says, “fellow grownups. At the risk of sounding snobbish and joyless and old, we are better than this. I know Live and let read far be it for me to disrupt the, everyone should read, watch, listen to whatever they like. Ethos of our era. There’s room for pleasure, escape, escapism, juicy plots and satisfying endings on the shelves of the serious reader.
And if people are reading Eleanor and Park instead of [00:54:00] watching Nashville or reading detective novels, so be it, I suppose. But if they’re substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature, then they’re missing something.” Which. I
Raquel: I mean,
Chris: agree with exactly. She’s not wrong, you know, and maybe the tone of this article was definitely written to be provocative and it stirred the conversation that she was obviously trying to stir.
But, you know, I don’t think that there’s something wrong with saying that there is some literature which just is more serious than escapist puff.
Raquel: Yeah. Yeah. There’s this idea that reading in itself, we need people to be long time lifelong readers for pleasure because the act of reading is in and of itself inherently virtuous. The act of reading, regardless of what you’re reading, makes you better and smarter and just more moral, and you will go to heaven. And I really, really, really reject that idea. I, I– one of our Discord members made this joke. I’m [00:55:00] not going to name exactly who it was because I, I don’t know, I don’t want them to get yelled at– joked that, you can see from the weird middle aged people who’ve only read YA, they would probably be just as well off, if not better off if they’d just watched the Jersey Shore instead. Cuz this did not make them better. This did not make them more moral or, or wise people. It, and I mean, that’s fine. You know, it’s, it’s okay to have some literary junk food, but we’ve got this idea that this junk food is good for me. I’m like, nah, it’s not, you’re eating french fries, you’re just, you’re just eating french fries.
Chris: that’s, that’s exactly kinda where I come down on it as well. I was talking to somebody about this after my most recent bout of tweeting about this, in my dms. And you know, I said maybe this sounds like really pretentious and elitist and cruel.
But basically if we are creating, you know, if they say, oh, we want to create a society where we’re encouraging our [00:56:00] children to be lifelong readers, but they’re just lifelong readers of the same trashy YA romance, I don’t
think that that’s
Raquel: Ye I mean, there’s
Chris: Yes, exactly, exactly.
But if they are just saying the same stilted thing, I don’t actually think that’s a win for literature.
Just because they’re reading
Raquel: Yeah. It, it makes me think of, uh, people talked about Harry, the Harry Potter book saying, well, it’s great they’re getting kids to read. But what happened is that it got kids to read Harry Potter
and then nothing else.
Chris: And the knockoffs.
Raquel: And yeah, I don’t consider that a win. You, you got kids to read exactly one book series and then they stopped.
Raquel: what, what did, what did that accomplish? They read one book series written by a lady who turned out to be a total asshole. All right,
Chris: Accomplished a lot of sales for one particular sector of the publishing industry. Maybe
Yeah. I feel like other YA might, might get kids to branch out. I don’t know. I [00:57:00] wonder if maybe the Hunger Games might get kids to branch out? Cuz there’s a ton of allusions to like classical Roman society. I could kind of, I, I feel like that is what an example of a YA book. Well like, yeah.
It’s not Shakespeare, but there’s, there’s con– It is, it’s pretty sharp and it’s definitely pushing kids toward a sense of history and a wider social consciousness.
Chris: And it’s social commentary might be on the nose, but like for a young reader, it’s– exactly, exactly. And it’s also basically a giant riff on the lottery by Shirley Jackson. So hopefully, hopefully it gets kids to go read that
Raquel: Yeah. Like you, that you, you read that book and you get a sense that it’s a book where the writer really does want young people to develop more of a sense of curiosity and expand their minds and think about history and, and things like that. It’s not just read this book and then stop.
Chris: No, exactly. And this is not to denigrate all YA a like there were points made in that against YA article that I did not agree with. Um, because I do think there is substantive good ye out there, but
Raquel: some [00:58:00] wonderful YA,
Chris: yes. Um,
Raquel: Tamora Pierce. She might be more middle grade, but I, I loved her. She was wonderful.
Chris: yeah, Philip Pullman, I still think
Raquel: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Chris: Like there, but, but there is also, it is also a commercial genre with lower barriers of entry and a lot of trashy stuff that’s just fun and probably isn’t deep serious literature. And that’s fine.
Chris: And, but I do wonder about people if they only read YA.
I do feel like that’s cutting yourself off from,
Chris: from really cool, interesting, serious books.
Raquel: yeah. You get a sense there’s good YA when you’re reading really good YA. You get the sense that this author has a real curiosity about culture and history or science or, or philosophy beyond it. Bad YA feels like. . ” Okay. I, I watched a lot of TV
and then I wrote this, and I want you to read this, but I don’t want care if you read anything else.” You get the [00:59:00] sense that like Philip Pullman wants people to read other books.
You get the sense that Tamora Pierce really wants people to read other books,
Chris: Yes. Absolutely. And there are some way books out there that have, spotted themselves into to classic status. You know, I think The House on Mango Street would be a good example of, so, Is written in a way that’s very accessible. It’s a coming of age story that feels for YA, but transcends it.
Raquel: Yeah. Yeah. cat that’s right. Well, what books do you like Harley? What’s your favorite YA, buddy? Well,
Chris: so cute.
Raquel: he’s just the best. I just love this guy. I, I remember during the Great YA debate, the New Yorker I believe also released this really wonderful essay called Henry James and the Great YA Debate.
And they used the example of Henry James as one of those difficult authors that people kind of can complain that he’s boring. But once you really look into his work, there’s, [01:00:00] it’s so beautifully written that it’s a reward
to be able to sort of read it and to get it. And this one really great point that the, that the writer makes in this essay is that we talk about grownup books
like “I don’t wanna grow up cuz being a grownup sucks. Being a grownup means being like bored and miserable all the time. And that’s why grownup books are boring and miserable all the time cuz it’s a burden and a, and a frustration to be challenged and to be grownups.” But there’s the other side of adulthood, which isn’t just the responsibility, but there are certain pleasures of adulthood that aren’t available to the sort of easy, bland palate of a child.
They’re acquired taste like coffee and olives and whiskey and all those grown up foods that kids don’t really like cuz they’re kind of gross or you’re not allowed to, you’re not allowed to do ’em as a kid, but as an adult, you go like, “wow, this is this fucking [01:01:00] rocks. You know, I, I love this.
I, I I love weirdly smelly cheese,” you know,
You learn to love it and it’s got this sort of richness and complexity that the fruit Gushers don’t really offer you. That Dunkaroos don’t really give you. And there’s that side to grown up hard, boring literature when, when you acquire the taste, you find it’s a lot more satisfying and mature and complex and, and there’s a real special pleasure to it that you might not get from, from the sort of fluff.
Chris: Yeah, I completely agree. And, uh, recently there was like a tweet going around, um, that was saying, uh, “what’s your sight and sound list for books ?” And uh, I decided to try and come up with my, my list of like top 10. And what I found is that the books that I was putting on, there were books that I struggled with when I first started to read them or found bits that were challenging but [01:02:00] have stayed with me over the years.
Things like The Bone People by Keri Hulme, which is as experimental as it gets and weird and bizarre and, you know, it has these opening section that you just cannot comprehend what in the hell it’s trying to tell you. But yet have stayed with me longer than things that were immediately fun in the moment.
Raquel: Right. Yeah. I remember opening up Beloved for the first time and going like, “the fuck is going on?”
Raquel: And there’s this, that one chapter that’s just almost incomprehensible,
Chris: I’ve not read Beloved
Raquel: the chapter that’s– oh my God,
Chris: I know, I know. It’s a huge blind spot. I have it on my shelves, so I just need to read it.
Raquel: Yeah, it’s really good.
Yeah. There’s one chapter that I, I, I’m not gonna, I don’t think I should spoil it to you, but it’s from the perspective of a character with very fragmented consciousness, and it’s very strange and very difficult to read and very abstract, and I [01:03:00] still don’t fully understand it, and I’ve read the book twice, but it’s, there’s so much of that book that just stays with you and, and it’s so satisfying to try to chip at it.
Chris: And you know, why can’t we just use any old book to teach these analysis skills or discussions in our literature courses? The majority of YA books are not going to have these types of things in them because it will try the patience of its target audience too much.
Raquel: When you’re doing strength training, you can’t just use one pound weights, you gotta use heavier weights sometimes. Otherwise, you’re not gonna, you’re not gonna do anything. You’re not gonna make progress.
Chris: exactly. Exactly.
Raquel: These are the books that are heavier weights. I guess. These are the books that are gonna make you swole.
Raquel: So, so that being said, if inundating young people and young readers with easily accessible fluff isn’t the way we should develop [01:04:00] lifelong readers, then how should we build lifelong readers? How do we cultivate a love of reading and, and a reading habit in young people?
Chris: Well, I think that when I was in school, I, I was very lucky that I had really good English teachers who did teach these classics. I’m sure some people would think were boring, but they found ways to make them very exciting and really kind of forced us to have interesting conversations. And any good teacher can do that.
It is possible to have these discussions in ways that are relatable and exciting for young people and to present this, stuff to them that is, fresh and, and interesting and opens their eyes. And I think that most young people, even if they have to read something, that is hard, I think that if they stick with it, Will find it rewarding in the end
Raquel: Yeah. Yeah.
Chris: is my personal [01:05:00] experience.
Raquel: yeah, I mean, there are ways to make things interesting and I think the idea that something’s a challenge makes people not wanna use it, or, or the idea that you need to get good at something or else you won’t enjoy it. I don’t think that’s elitist. I enjoy something more when I’m good at it.
So for, for me, being a good reader. Through learning how to decode words is essential to developing a love of reading. I, if I was raised on whole language and barely knew how to read, I wouldn’t fucking enjoy reading cuz I’d suck at it. If I suck at something, I don’t wanna do it. If I’m good at it
then I wanna do it
Chris: it’s, and it’s one of those things that when you’re not a good reader, it’s, it’s difficult to reach out for help. If you’ve been taught something like the Whole Language method, cuz it feels embarrassing, so it just stays with you and it just makes reading a terrible thing.
Raquel: Yeah. And God, and it’s hard, it’s hard for someone who’s raised on phonics to even understand that another reader, especially like an adult, literally doesn’t know how to sound out words.[01:06:00]
Chris: Exactly. It’s, it’s completely foreign.
Raquel: yeah, I’ve, I’ve told people about this Whole Language thing and said, oh, you– wait– “they, they don’t teach people to sound out words?
What the fuck?” The idea that you wouldn’t do that and you wouldn’t teach someone to do that is just mind boggling. Of course, of course, you sound out the words, how the fuck else will you do it? That’s the only way you do it. What do you mean you can’t do that?
Chris: it’s complete insanity. And this discussion of like, learning to love reading. Is connected to just learning how to decode words. I don’t think you’re ever going to have somebody who’s a lifelong reader that reads for pleasure or reads for enrichment or all that if they find reading an impossible chore where they’re having to use clues like the three queuing method every time they come across a word that seems unfamiliar on the page.
Raquel: yeah. I mean, you, you start at the basic level of learning to decode words that makes you [01:07:00] enjoy reading more, and then learning to decode, literary meaning as, as I guess the next level. That makes it much more pleasurable to read a text when you start realizing oh, that’s what this book is about.
That feels so good when you’re, I mean, surface level reading isn’t so bad, but when you’re thinking about a book or talking about a book and you realize oh shit, that’s what the author’s doing.
Raquel: That feels really cool.
Chris: And, you know, some of those things that maybe like now it feels a little, stale or something. The first time you learn it feels like, oh, revelatory. Like, I remember when I read The Grapes of Wrath, I can’t remember what the character was, but there was a character in there that had the initials jc our teacher was like, this is a Jesus Christ figure.
And you can tell one of the clues is the JC thing. And I was like, oh my gosh. Like my mind was blown. And then I started seeing it everywhere. Like
Raquel: Yeah. There’s so many jcs, video games, movies, JC Denton in the in the, oh God, in [01:08:00] Deus Ex, everybody. Yeah.
Chris: but the first time I learned that, you know, that felt like revelatory and exciting. It was like, oh, I felt like I was in on the thing, you know? Um, so like those things are, you know, exciting and fun, but also, and maybe this is. I think that there are some people who are probably just never going to become lifelong readers for pleasure and that’s fine.
Chris: I think that maybe that’s a difficult, like truth sometimes to accept if you’re somebody that loves reading and gets a lot of enjoyment out of it. But I have an uncle for example, who just does not enjoy reading and has maybe read a few and he’s a great reader. He could read fine. And I don’t know, I don’t think that that’s necessarily the worst thing in the world.
Chris: I don’t think that’s, that should be like considered a failure.
Chris: I don’t like math. I didn’t end up becoming a lifelong lover of math. And I’m sure that there’s some people who find the way math works to be beautiful and it’s expression and all this different stuff and [01:09:00] I will never see it.
Raquel: Yeah. Yeah, . Yeah. Not everybody has to read novels or I, I mean, as a writer of fiction, I would prefer it if they did. I, I sure would love it if everybody was a voracious reader of fiction. It would be good for me, it would make, it would put more money in my pocket, but I can accept that that’s not gonna be the case.
And that’s okay.
Chris: absolutely. And I do think that, I think that kids, if they are surrounded by good books, if they have access to, a good library and stuff like that, that’s also going to make them more likely to be good readers. So the people, as far as the Whole Language is concerned when it comes to, having those little kits with like lots and lots of enjoyable books, I don’t think they’re totally wrong about that.
They’re just marrying it to a program of reading that just doesn’t work.
Raquel: yeah. And, and to that, the laser targeted for your age group books. We’ve been talking about this on the Discord, but what a [01:10:00] rite of passage it was for most of us to read a book that was too old for us, that we were not supposed to read
Raquel: to pull a random book off the shelf and realize like, “oh, man, this is really fucked up and dirty.”
Raquel: “I should not, I am too young for this. I’m gonna keep reading.”
Chris: Yeah. Yeah. Like
Raquel: the value in doing that
Chris: Absolutely. Absolutely. That’s how I felt like the first time I started reading like those teeny slasher books, I was like, even though those are kind of trashy, but like I read them and I was like way too young for them. But it felt exciting, you know?
Raquel: Yeah. Like, I’m not supposed to be getting away with
Chris: Yeah, exactly.
Raquel: This is dirty and, and kind of gross. This is cool.
Chris: Yeah, exactly. And I think that being uncomfortable by something you read is. I think that’s also a rite of passage. So there should be things that you read that do make you uncomfortable, make you
Raquel: Oh yeah.
Chris: you know? And I think that people who argue against that are just falling into the same trap as those like annoying right wingers that are protesting at schools right now.
Raquel: Oh yeah, [01:11:00] yeah, yeah. Feeling uncomfortable. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable when you engage with art sometimes. That’s the point.
Raquel: That’s okay.
Raquel: You know, sit with that feeling. Learn how to manage it. It is words on a page. It’s not gonna hurt you. It might make you feel bad for a little while, but the book isn’t gonna beat the shit outta you. Just sit with it. Sometimes. A book that like punches, that punches you in the gut. The best, like a real gut punching ending that just makes you want to die. Like sometimes those end up being your favorite books
Chris: Yes, absolutely.
Raquel: I had so many students when I taught a composition at a, at a community college, their favorite book was of Mice and Men.
Chris: Oh really?
Raquel: that book has, I mean, it’s, it’s very readable, but it has a brutal ending. It’s such a fucking gut punch. It’s heartbreaking.
Chris: Yeah. Like when I read Flowers for Algernon in middle
Raquel: Oh man.
Chris: the one that like I
needed to be like needed to like lock myself [01:12:00] in my room for a week.
Raquel: It’s devastating that one. It’s so good. Oh my God. When, when the author originally tried to publish it, the first publisher, he said, I will accept it if you change the ending and make it happy.
Raquel: And he withdrew. He said, I, “I refuse to run it that way. I’m not gonna do it.” Thank fucking God. I think it was, I think he resent it to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction who ran it with the, with the proper ending.
Chris: I didn’t even realize that it was originally published in a magazine. That’s really interesting.
Raquel: Yeah, I, I think there were a couple versions. There was like a short story or maybe a novelette version of it that got really big, and I think the author might have expanded it for a novel length.
Chris: Yeah, what I read was novel length. It was a short novel. Like I read it in middle school, but it was, it
was a book.
Raquel: And FSF does occasionally run novellas that are pretty, that are basically like novella length, sort of very short book length. They’ll occasionally run one of those, like a really big beefy story. So it might have been that, but, but I do believe it was FSF that ran at [01:13:00] first. Cuz I mean, it, it, it’s funny, it’s kind of mainstream literature, but it is a science fiction story.
Chris: Yeah. I think, I think being traumatized by that book and the Monkeys Paw, it’s like a, it’s, those two are like the rights of Passage for everyone should have to go through that.
Raquel: Monkeys Paw rocks and just having to sit with it and having to sit with that discomfort and getting over it.
cuz, cuz, cuz you’re a grownup now. It’s okay.
Raquel: It’s not real. Mouse isn’t real. Mouse would’ve died of old age regardless cuz the story’s really old. Get over it.
Chris: Oh my goodness.
Raquel: All right, so we have been talking for a little over an hour, so let us wind down. Before we go, how can our listeners find and support your work?
Chris: I have, I’m on Twitter at @ bookishcauldron. I tweet way too much.
Chris: So just be prepared. Um, I’m
also uh, my YouTube channel [01:14:00] is Chris Bookish Caldron. I’m also on Instagram at, @ bookishcaldron, but I’m a very infrequent, infrequent poster, and I’m on the podcast, the Book Cast Club, where me and a few friends talk about books.
It’s very informal and chatty.
Raquel: Oh, cool. What books have you talked about recently on there?
Chris: Oh, we just recently did an episode. We were reading, some of our, one of the host’s favorite books, and we talked about, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by
Raquel: Hell yeah.
just did a bonus episode.
Chris: Yeah, I was listening to it. I I didn’t listen to it before I did mine cuz I didn’t want like the, the, you know,
stuff to influence my opinions.
Yeah. Um, I really enjoyed that one. And then we read a book that was a series of self-help essays, which I was prepared to like, I didn’t know how to, how to feel about it. Um, but it’s called, Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed who wrote The Memoir Wild, which became I think a film with Reese Witherspoon.
But she was actually a, kind of a Ask Abby or Dear Abby, um, a self-help columnist [01:15:00] for the literary website. I’ve already forgotten the name of it. It used to be back in the day. I don’t think they really operate anymore. But anyway, she wrote these essays and they’re, they are like, Dear Abby advice columns, but they’re incredibly literary and quite interesting and like lots of chewy stuff to dissect in every single one.
And there are some, they’re like kind of funny and there’s some that are like just completely devastating and the whole book is like really brilliant. So we talked
Raquel: Ooh, that sounds pretty good.
Chris: Yeah, it’s really good.
Raquel: Well, thank you very much for coming on and agreeing and, and ranting with me about
Raquel: about whole language, because yeah, if you ever wanna, if you ever wanna see a linguist start having just a meltdown in public, ask them about Whole Language that all– every linguist will just scream at you for an hour about like, this fucking garbage.
It’s wrong. It’s wrong.
Raquel: Okay. And thank you all for listening. That’s all we have for this episode. [01:16:00] If you like what you heard, head to patreon.com/right. Good. And subscribe. Until next time, keep writing. Good.
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