Personally, We Blame Standardized Tests

October 6th, 2004 · 6 Comments
by Booksquare

Maud Newton takes a look at the (purported) death of fiction, and all of our favorite suspects are in the room. Was it Ms. Reviewer in the Book Section? Professor Editor with the style guide? Major Marketing and Admiral Acquisition working together? Is it possible that all of supposed best friends of books are quietly poisoning them with publishing arsenic?

Yeah, there’s a lot of evidence that novels are suffering at the hands of the professionals. Same for music and movies. Probably computer games, too, but we don’t follow that particular industry. Once art becomes a commercial enterprise, there tends to be only one major consideration. In a way, we are lucky that publishing has remained a “gentleman’s profession” for as long as it has.

Newton looks at the causes behind the supposed demise while noting reports of the novel’s death may be premature (she doesn’t discount the possibility of consumption, but sees a cure on the horizon). While others have noted the decline in subscribers/readers of the New York Times Book Review, literary bloggers and websites can boast growing readership. Maybe it’s part of the time-shifting thing we’re all facing; people are seeking information on their own terms (this is why we wonder about the online readership of the NYTBR — any relationship between the decline in subscribers and the number of online readers?). Clearly there’s a hunger for books, and for thoughtful commentary.

Yes, there are far too many books being published, more than can be properly noted, much less read. Mainstream publications cannot review everything, and, we have to be honest, there’s an economic benefit to focusing on hyped novels. Finding the balance can be hard, but that’s why there have always been alternative sources of information. Bloggers are, in a way, like college radio in the early 80’s — if not for college radio, bands like U2 or R.E.M. or even X (and we could go on for days) would have remained obscure footnotes. And even with the championing of great music in those days, how many people know about 28th Day?

This reminds us of the husband’s brilliant plan when he was a college music director: he would put together a current playlist, but would slip one or two albums that had been overlooked the first time around (this was not a democracy; the overlooked items were his choices entirely). The plan worked. You know what they say…if you’re big in Fresno, you’re big everywhere. For all the great books that rise to the top, there will be those that simply get lost in the mix. Devoted fans can make a difference.

It’s our opinion that declining reading levels have everything to do with education. Sure, there are people who will never read (we know them and love them, despite their obvious character flaws), but reading for pleasure used to be a standard in school. It sort of pulled the fence-sitters to the side of All That Is Good In The World. We once mentioned our fond memories of a program called, at the height of the Cold War (and we lived in a military town), U.S.S.R. Naturally, to our adult mind, this seemed like a fond fantasy, but the mother has confirmed we participated in an activity known as Uninterrupted Sustained Silent Reading.

It may have been our favorite part of elementary school. Unfortunately, all reports indicate this isn’t happening as much anymore. It’s all test, test, test, and no time to sit and read for the sheer pleasure of reading. Which is a real shame because developing the habit of reading, both casually and critically, is what leads to informed adults.

File Under: Square Pegs

6 responses so far ↓

  • Susan Gable // Oct 7, 2004 at 6:19 am

    When I taught elementary school SSR, or D.E.A.R. (Drop Everything And Read) used to be my favorite time of the day. We always had SSR right after recess. The kids had to place their books on their desks before they left for lunch, so when they came back after recess, they settled right into reading time. Not only did it help them transition from a noisy social actitivity back into the academics, it gave them a sense that reading was something everyone did and ENJOYED. To set a good example, I also read during this time. Like I said, one my favorite times of the day!

    The other favorite was when I read-aloud to my class. That was usually in the morning, again, a nice transition actitivity. They got to see the power of books when I’d get too choked by a story to read well. I got to see the power of books when they’d run out to get copies of an author’s other books, or get copies of the same book to read over again.

    Not teaching anymore, it’s sharing my passion for books with kids that I miss the most.

    I always thought that teaching them TO read was only half the battle. Teaching them to WANT to read was the other part.

  • Susan Gable // Oct 7, 2004 at 6:31 am

    The one article says:

    >>>Teens are far less likely to read literature than they were twenty years ago. Blame for disinterest in literary reading is often placed at Hollywood’s doorstep.

    What I want to know is how is this writer defining “literature?” And “literary reading?”

    Does reading Harry Potter count? Or is Harry too “Hollywood” to count as reading?

    I get really annoyed with this kind of attitude. Who cares WHAT they’re reading, as long as they’re reading? I don’t read much “literature” either. But I devour boatloads of books each year. I’m an avid reader. But would they count me as a reader in their survey?

    I want a variety of books published. But I get tired of people looking down their noses at commercial fiction.

    I was on a panel last year with an English professor who was delighted, absolutely DELIGHTED that he made his students “suffer” through reading some stuff pretty much guaranteed to bore them out of their minds. Yeah, that’s really going to give them an appreciation for literature and reading. I’m not saying kids shouldn’t read “the classics” and poetry, and all that. I am saying that how it’s presented (Fun, enthusiastic, positive attitude vs. “I’m going to show you how stupid you are and you’re going to just HATE this stuff I’m going to make you read because it’s going to be really hard”) makes a big difference in the students’ attitudes.

    The other thing is that even I, an extremely avid reader, didn’t read much for pleasure while in college. For one thing, college libraries don’t have very strong fiction collections. For another, I was too darn busy reading my texts and writing papers and such. Then I was too busy starting a career and doing many other things.

    Point being, late teens/young adulthood is a time when people are really busy doing a lot of other things. There’s less time availible for reading.

    Wow, I’m long-winded and opinionated today. LOL.

  • booksquare // Oct 7, 2004 at 8:39 am

    Yes, but I like long-winded and opinionated people! Thanks for mentioning DEAR. I knew there was another acronym out there, but couldn’t find it in my mind (and the mother is an early to bed, early to rise type — I clearly didn’t raise her right!). Those were my favorite times of the day. Now, math, sigh. Really got in the way of reading…

    I can’t say how others are defining literary fiction, but mine is pretty broad. I think it’s great that the NYTBR is reviewing genre fiction — I think the decision not to review it has contributed to the lack of respect for genre fiction (mysteries are slowly crawling back into the acceptable range — more papers are devoting column inches to mystery reviews…this is a good thing). Genre fiction, like romance, was quicker to take advantage of online review sources, in my opinion, and that has really helped. While I’m sure I’m wrong (I know I’m wrong in some instances), I don’t think non-genre fiction had the same robust online communities until a few years ago.

    My, I’m feeling tortured in my descriptions today. Probably because when it comes to this subject, it’s all about fiction reading. We gravitate toward different themes, stories, book lengths, emotions all the time. A steady diet of Proust would make a person want to hide in a dark room for a few years .

  • booksquare // Oct 7, 2004 at 8:43 am

    One last comment (ha!) on the guaranteed to bore thing. Just because a book has been taught for a hundred years doesn’t mean it’s worthy of being taught for another. There are many great classic novels out there, but continual emphasis on the old stuff creates a subliminal impression that there’s nothing new worth reading.

    Plus some of it really doesn’t stand the test of time. The other day I said that literature is social commentary — but sometimes the social issues don’t have the same relevance or interest today. I’m not saying throw out all the classics, but maybe rethink what’s being taught.

  • Laura // Oct 9, 2004 at 11:07 am

    You got that right. It is the education system and the state and federal mandated testing that is killing the educators ability to make time for those moments to engage children in the joys of reading, and unfortunately the desire to be creative is being stomped out as school budgets are more focused on competitive sports rather than the arts. Sadly, also the parents have a share in the responsibility in this. I am proud to say that my husband and I have managed to raise our son to be “like us”, a reader and a writer. The bright and shiny temptations of the lives of other children around him often teased with their quick gratification…one child was once quoted to say “You are stupid if you can read.” …this comment coming from a wholesome “white-bread” small town elementary school, not “the hood” which Bill Cosby has been cranking about lately (which he has every right to raise the issue). Part of parenting is teaching not just moral values, but the value of learning, not just how to survive, but the finer things in life like reading, writing, and the arts. Our parenting skills weren’t based on being complete tyrants in regard to television and video games, I’m always an advocate for everything in moderation, too much of a good thing is bad news…human nature tends to get-off on being addicted to something that makes us “feel good”. So, we raised him in an atmosphere that wasn’t dependent on being constantly entertained by the “shock and awe eye-candy” of our American society. Now he’s 18, attending college, and will be voting for the first time in this presidential election. I’m willing to bet, he’s more informed than most 18 year olds, and he gives a damn about the big picture, not just his small point in time in the here and now.

    I�ve enjoyed your blog, very thought provoking.

  • booksquare // Oct 9, 2004 at 11:15 am

    Parental responsibility in education is one of my hot buttons. I read somewhere that kids who are read to from a very early age (like, oh, birth) tend to grow up more curious, more likely to do well in school, and more likely to be readers. Yes, the beauty of being lazy and not looking up facts is that I can make up stuff — I’m sure I’m fitting the study’s conclusions to my own facts.

    The mother read to us every night, and two and a half kids became readers. Two and a half didn’t. The half in each case is a sister who reads, but only from a very limited range. Interestingly, this is the sister who is proficient in math, music, and language. Never did figure out why the brothers don’t read.

    I have a friend who’s not a reader, either. He’s a books-on-tape kind of guy, though. His kids are readers, though.