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Reading for Fun

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In his State of the Union Address in February, President Clinton proposed a modern children's crusade. "Every 8-year-old," he declared, "must be able to read." Perhaps I can contribute to the effort by emphasizing that we should make reading fun, something that not everyone believes.

For five decades now as a teacher of English I've tried to get students to read for fun. My problem has not been with them so much as with those who believe that students are not supposed to enjoy serious reading. It baffles me when colleagues declare that literature is not supposed to delight.

Many parents fear, as I did, that their children will never start reading. I stopped pressing my children to read when I realized the more I pressed the more they resisted. My son tells me he began seriously reading books only after I established a track record of suggesting ones that he enjoyed. His sister, who was younger, got caught up in his fun.

It helped to remember my own introduction to books. When I was 8 years old or so, my father took me to the public library. Because we did not speak English at home, he asked the librarian for advice. The books she recommended enchanted me and I kept returning.

So I felt as a father that any reading Iris and Paul enjoyed would be better than none. Paul, now a newspaper editor, reminds me that I never told him any particular book or type of reading was good or bad for him--Tarzan, Huckleberry Finn, Gulliver's Travels, Tom Swift, Sherlock Holmes stories, assorted magazines. He thinks that if I had, I might have turned him off.

Parents and teachers keep forgetting that fun is exactly what reading is supposed to give. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, with their strong narratives and engaging characters, once provided the pleasures and, inevitably, the learning that film and television at their best do today.

Indeed, one way to find good reading sources is in the original texts behind good movie, TV, and stage adaptations: for example, Hamlet, Ivanhoe, Little Women, David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby, Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina, Hedda Gabler, The Importance of Being Earnest, A Farewell to Arms, The Maltese Falcon.

Too many believe that learning must always be solemn, formal, even uncomfortable, like medicine. No pain, no gain. I once proposed an anthology for college students containing James Thurber's charming spoof "The Macbeth Murder Mystery." "Students are not supposed to have fun with Shakespeare," huffed a consultant to the publisher. (Thurber's solution was that Lady Macbeth's father did it. It is worth rereading "Macbeth" just to get the full flavor of Thurber's joke.)

A U.S. Department of Education study found that about a quarter of 8th and 12th grade students rarely read for plain fun. It also reported that students who had the highest reading scores talked over the books they read instead of just answering workbook questions about them. Alert teachers know how animated classes can get when they allow free discussion of reading.

Parents and teachers keep forgetting that fun is exactly what reading is supposed to give.

Good reading, like any satisfying work, produces fun. We whistle when we like our work. Tom Sawyer realized this when he conned his buddies into white-washing Aunt Polly's picket fence, turning a chore into fun. Like any effort, reading a new text may at first be a labor but should also quickly change to pleasure. At least, this process is what has made the classics last over the ages and turned difficult new works into classics, like the fiction of Henry James, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and the plays of Samuel Beckett.

In any good reading, one regularly finds satisfaction in epiphanies, moments of insight that leave lessons for a lifetime. An important one for my son occurred when David Copperfield thinks about what he had lost when he was 8 years old through his stepfather's cruelty: "God help me," David says, "I might have been improved for my whole life, I might have been made another creature perhaps, for life, by a kind word at that season."

Learning comes with realizing and absorbing truth. Reading that challenges inevitably teaches; it doesn't bore since it involves the reader. It helps one deal with everything from delight to disappointment and pain. It sets experience in perspective; it prompts a person to weigh familiar things and see some he has overlooked. It teaches us how to tell the difference between high quality and low. It makes us aware of moral and ethical conflicts, helps us distinguish between right and wrong, even provides the excitement of defying convention.

Reading helps with practical daily living--talking seriously, saying precisely what you mean, sharpening a sense of humor, getting to the heart of matters. It can help develop sensitivity and tolerance. It deepens personal relationships.

Productive reading always gets the reader to commit himself to the text. Unfortunately, we often try to promote reading deceptively, by salesmanship, by offering irrelevant inducements. "Read at least six books this summer," urged a local library bulletin, "and you'll receive free books; discount coupons for CDs, tapes, and other merchandise."

We should commend the library and merchants for putting books alongside compact disks as sources of pleasure. But such projects may be self-defeating. Bernard Malamud has a short story about a high school dropout who became a neighborhood hero when he announced that he was going to read 100 books over the summer. He read not even one and felt bitter shame in the fall.

Reading for fun requires that we attend and respond to the words on the page. Finding pleasure in reading rarely comes from busywork or from skimming a text. High school teachers in summer seminars I've taught used Robert Frost's "Birches" to assign research on trees, canoes, the poet's biography, metrics, symbols, hidden meanings. They didn't read Frost for fun themselves or know how to teach their students to do so.

Everyone can have fun reading. Of course, we should not expect the same reward from everything we read. "Some books are to be tasted," wrote Francis Bacon, "others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested."

Some reading will surely disappoint us, just the way some movies and some gourmet meals will. But regular reading will repeatedly surprise and delight us, and that's always fun.

Here are some tips that should help students and adults alike get into the habit of reading for fun:

  • Start with short works that hold your interest. Don't feel you have to read every item in a collection of stories or poems. Sample. Enjoy.
  • Bring at least as much patience to a longer text as you might to a television series or a baseball or basketball playoff. Remember that many long books were the equivalent in their time of an ongoing television soap opera. They first appeared in installments.
  • Keep reading a work once you start. Don't stop to look up every word or name you don't know or can't remember, but only do so if the word keeps recurring and the meaning doesn't become clear. Don't let an author's style or the thickness of a book put you off.
  • Avoid summaries and outlines of famous works, "trots." Don't confuse reading with memorizing plots. If you do find summaries that intrigue you, by all means read the book itself.
  • Avoid introductions to books. They can be misleading. You can always go back to an introduction after you've read the book.
  • Don't worry about whether the book has a hard cover or a flexible one, is used or new. If you can, choose a copy that you can hold comfortably, with print that's easy to read. Try to get one with the original illustrations, like Sir John Tenniel's for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland or those drawn by Phiz (Hablot Knight Browne) for much of Dickens.
  • Don't worry too much about the translation of a work. Most translations of Leo Tolstoy, Feodor Dostoevsky, Henrik Ibsen, and Anton Chekhov are serviceable. If the idioms are too old-fashioned and stilted, as in some translations of Guy de Maupassant, look for other editions. The important point is to enjoy your reading.
  • Look for other books by authors you like or for books about them. Reading lots of works by one writer can be as much fun as reading works by lots of different writers. And remember, you may also enjoy books about writers whose works you've enjoyed. Richard Ellmann's biographies of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde, for example, can give pleasure the way the original works by these authors did.

Morris Freedman has taught at the City College of New York and the universities of New Mexico and Maryland and has written and edited textbooks for high school and college courses. He lives in Hyattsville, Md., and writes regularly on education.

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