Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Teenage Reading Self

Do you still have all the books you bought as a teenager? Do you ever go back to read the books you read when you were a teenager? Do you remember what you read?

I remember my eleventh grade English teacher, a grandmotherly type. I sat on the front row, and I was always carrying a book with me, usually a book of which she would not approve. One day, she picked the bodice ripper romance novel I was reading off the stack of books on my desk and held it over her head. She said to the whole class, "Why do you waste your time with this garbage? Can't you see that books like these are just written to titillate you?"

I was shocked, shocked, SHOCKED by her use of the word "titillate." Those of you who teach or who live with adolescents know that young folks are easily shocked. I couldn't believe she would use that word in mixed company. Didn't she know there were BOYS in the room?

But her words sunk in. I put myself on a regime. For every 2 trashy books I read, I had to read one of the books on the list of books that every college bound high schoolers should have read by the time they packed the boxes for college.

Where did I get that list? What's become of it? I do not know.

I was a voracious reader in high school. High school bored me, and I learned early on that most teachers would leave me alone to read if I got my work done quickly and efficiently. So, with my rigorous reading plan, I read a lot of the classics, mainly British and American. I didn't get as much out of them as I would when I read them again in graduate school and had a class in which to discuss them and the author and the world which produced them. But it was a valuable discipline.

I'm prompted in these thoughts by this delightful essay on the website of The New York Times. The writer talks about his different selves as a reader, and about how teenagers imagine that there's all the time in the world for reading. Our older selves know better.

I'm also thinking of my teenage self because last night I started reading Anna Karenina. Yes, I have a Ph.D., but I have yet to read one of the Russians. It's a gaping hole in my knowledge, one of many gaping holes. My school reading group has taken this on. So far, one member has fallen rapturously in love with the book again, and one member has given up. The in love reader has read the book again, and the member who gave up made it through War and Peace, but isn't going to make it through Anna Karenina.

My current life as reader and writer reminds me that time is short, getting shorter, and that the choices of things to read keep exploding. Do I want to fill the gaping holes in my knowledge or just enjoy reading pleasure? I'm not headed off to college, not that I can foresee right now--do I really need to put myself on a self-improvement-by-reading campaign?

I will certainly not be as disciplined as my teenage reading self was. But every so often, yes, I need to return to classic literature. Even if it takes me many more weeks to read a classic than it would have taken my teenage self.

No comments: