On My Bookshelf

On Literacy in America

So, I’ve been reading THE HUNGER GAMES. And it’s a good story. I’m not sure that it’s good writing, but it’s a good story. (I said a similar – but more strongly worded – thing about HARRY POTTER, so Ms. Collins is in good company.)

But the whole thing about good writing vs. good storytelling got me thinking. I often said about Rowling’s works that I didn’t care if the books weren’t the best technically, because they were getting kids reading. And then with TWILIGHT I said that (even if the premise still makes me shudder, and I can’t really comment beyond that because I’ve never read that series) at least people were reading.

And now there’s THE HUNGER GAMES. At least it’s a fun story and people are reading it. People of all ages, just like with Potter. It counts for something, right?

Well, that’s true enough. But is it enough?

Yes, I’m all for anything that gets our TV-saturated masses off the boob-tube and into a book. I’m all for better literacy and people who go to the library because they want to read and not because they want to borrow a computer and Internet connection. I want people to read. Lots.

But I also want the stuff they read to be quality, at least some of the time. I want them to know the difference between well-crafted prose and a story that gets by on sheer force of character or novelty. I want the way we as a people WRITE to be good, even just things like emails and text messages and comments on someone’s Facebook post.

And I think we can all agree that the quality of what we read has some influence on the quality of what we write.

One sad, sad state of affairs is that I read an article which says the average American high school student has the reading level of a fifth grader. Now I don’t know about you, but this freaks me out. It also seems backwards, as I believe in the fifth grade my own reading level was that of a high school student.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want the whole country to be made up of lit snobs. I don’t want people to ignore a great story because the technical aspect of the writing is mediocre. But I want the vast majority of people to know the difference. And I’m worried that they don’t. I’m worried that those of us who do know the difference will ignore this because, “well, at least they’re reading.” I’ve read essays and short fiction written by some of today’s high school and college kids. And – while granted, I’m not a teacher so I don’t know how widespread this is – I would have NEVER turned in anything of that quality. I look at these essays and shake my head in disgust. And then I read the books that many of these kids are holding up as examples, and I can’t help but wonder if there’s a connection.

Yes, by all means, read HARRY POTTER. Read THE HUNGER GAMES. Even read TWILIGHT if it’s your cup of tea to have sparkly pretty-boy vampires instead of the actually dangerous Dracula I read in school.
But also read Dickens. Read Shakespeare. Read Tolkien and Hawthorn and Austen. Learn the difference between good WRITING and good STORYTELLING. Sometimes they exist in the same story. Sometimes they do not. This is fine. Some people will like good writing; others don’t care how well it’s written as long as it’s a good story. This is also fine.

Just please, people, for the sake of the future, PLEASE figure out the difference.

(Side note: this is not meant to be a cut against HARRY POTTER or THE HUNGER GAMES in any way. And as I said, I haven’t read TWILIGHT and don’t intend to. What this is meant to be is a commentary on the state of literature and literacy in our supposedly enlightened nation.)

(Another side note: I started this post while I was in the middle of reading THE HUNGER GAMES. I have since finished it. My review on the actual book will come later.)


6 thoughts on “On Literacy in America

  1. Well, beyond reading fiction (your points on that were excellent!), high school students reading at a 5th grade level is worrying because I’d guess it limits their ability to learn complex subjects in the sciences, etc. And I’m not sure I want to think about their ability to think critically and analytically. 😦

  2. Amen! I am highly bothered to hear that high school students are reading at the 5th grade level…I know I was like you and doing the reverse. Great thoughts Nikki!

  3. I agree with this whole heartedly. I don’t know how to encourage kids (or adults) to read more classics, but I think that at least for me part of it was making it voluntary. I read a ton of stuff in HS and even in college, but the stuff I finished was by and large the stuff I got to pick out myself even if it was from a curated list.

    Another thing that is more recent is I find that books like Pride & Prejudice & Zombies makes me more likely to read the original, because I want to see how they differ. I wonder if this is something that teachers and librarians can capitalize on in order to bring more of the classics off the shelves and into the hands of their students and patrons.

  4. But there is a school of thought that if reading isn’t fun or engaging to begin with, you don’t become a reader. Not in the fullest sense of the word. Maybe a vegetable eater of the literary crowd. No dip, no sauce, no butter.

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