The Problem With Required Reading (Now That I No Longer Must Read It)

I used to think the best books are the ones that compel you to say the most about them. I was recently reminded that they can also render you nearly speechless. With that in mind, here comes the shortest book review I’ve written on Thwok! so far:

Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo

Wait... foreword by Susan Sontag?

Wait... foreword by Susan Sontag?

Holy. Shit. Juan Rulfo, I want to hug you.

I think illuminating the particulars of Pedro Paramo would tarnish the experience significantly for those who’ve yet to read it. I instead invite anyone to read the synopsis, and, if it strikes any cord of interest, hesitate not a day to read it.

Moving On

I discovered this book in the store on a “Required Reading” table for such-and-such high school. This novel seemed like such an odd work for the traditional high school canon; usually when someone wants to teach the topic of Mexican spirituality, they’re falling back on Bless Me Ultima. I am ever grateful to the mysterious teacher who assigned Pedro Paramo because I’d have never happen upon it otherwise.

But now I think back on the fact that the book was “Required Reading,” and I’m torn. While it’s an inspired choice on the part of the mysterious educator, I don’t think teaching Pedro Paramo to high school students is a good idea. This has nothing to do with its subject matter or quality but merely the way the book ought to be enjoyed.

There’s a Billy Collins poem that says this better than I can, but I’ll try anyway.

In some ways, I’ve had to re-educate myself on how to enjoy literature. For high school and college, where the grade is the thing, reading isn’t a stimulating pastime but a formulaic survival skill.

I had to bury my mandibles into a novel like a deer tick until I grew fat with its allusions and extended metaphors. Timelines and geneology charts for the characters were referred to. Sparknotes and pinkmonkey.com were consulted.

At the end of the process the novel became an obstacle, an adversary, and God forbid the thing was magical-realist, or surrealist, or absurdist — a work that, at times, I wasn’t supposed to fully understand. I hated Faulkner. I wanted to break a pool cue on him.

Reading literature outside of college/high school changes everything. The pressure’s off. You let the work affect you only as it may, you involve yourself in it only as you would, and your relationship with the author isn’t jeopardized by your need for him/her to be wholly understandable by Thursday’s exam.

How do you test a high school student on the objective details of a surrealistic work? A book that you’re supposed to be lost in sometimes in order to appreciate it? One that affects you in ways you likely lack the verbal gymnastics to describe? It’s like asking the kid to summarize the plot of a David Lynch film, and I don’t think that’s entirely fair. And it misses the point of the work.

Sure, you can have them discuss the book, and do so in essay form. Even then, you’re not eliminating the grade bugaboo that corrupts the blooming of appreciation.

Hold On.

Maybe the idea of teaching a surrealistic novel isn’t what bothers me. Can it be the idea that merely a book I love is being taught in classrooms? This is a thing of mixed feelings as it is. We all have a favorite novel that we’d impel everyone else to read, but at the same time we wouldn’t allow an English teacher within 500 feet of it, to risk the novel being ruined for others by a noxious cloud of pedantry.

I feel just this way about The Great Gatsby.

So perhaps that’s why I’m so bothered by Pedro Paramo’s being a “school text.” I want the tree frog to spring about in your backyard; I don’t recommend killing the thing in a classroom dissection.

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6 thoughts on “The Problem With Required Reading (Now That I No Longer Must Read It)

  1. Hey, did you see it’s being made into a film starring Gael Garcia Bernal? I didn’t even know it had already been made into film countless times before. Pretty cool.

  2. Yeah, I saw that (and I liked that actor from the Science of Sleep). I wonder how a 21st century touch is going to affect the story, and if they’ll try to bring it to an American audience.

  3. I am in total agreement with you on this one. As a undergraduate and now graduate student, I can not remember the last book I read just for fun. Over the summer I wanted to revisit Flannery O’Connnor and Dickens. Nope–the thesis has a stranglehold on me. http://talkingtrashandthensome.wordpress.com/

  4. Hey D, I started reading Pedro Paramo, I’m only on the first 30 pages and it is a very curious book and I’m very interested on finding out where its headed. Thanks for the recommendation.

  5. For the first time in several years, I’ve finally sat down and did some leisure reading. I forgot how much fun it is to go into another world. I have grown to hate reading so much because of school. Its actually ironic, school is supposed to make you enjoy reading but they overdo it to the point that all you want to do is watch tv. Funny thing is, everyone wants to blame television for why everyone hates reading.

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