I am in West Virginia at a place that has been dear to my family for a long time. The present evokes the past with the familiar: the sound of rain on a tin roof; a rushing stream just outside the screen door; that summer mountain smell of fresh rain on slate and storm-drenched leaves in the woods. And books. Everywhere. Every summer I’ve had a bag of books to read on a porch or hammock or Adirondack chair. For as long as I can remember, I have loved summer reading. But I have not loved summer reading lists.
My summers have been populated with books that I have embraced and books I’ve resisted. I resisted the mandatory books on mandatory school summer reading lists. They got in the way of the reading I loved. I did, however, like the summer lists of suggested books. That’s how I met Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and visited Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street and happened upon Daphne Du Marier’s Manderley in Rebecca. Without fail, I devoured the books I chose and avoided the books that were mandated. I am now revisiting the books I once ducked– the books I said I read but didn’t. So now they have become books of choice. Readers love choice.
While moving through some pretty tough reading, I’ve had a summer epiphany. I’ve realized in a new and personal way that the struggle is an important part of what we teach when we teach reading.
After three eye surgeries in little over a year (the last one just a couple of months ago) I have had to reclaim my reading life and regain my reading stamina. As a result, I’ve had the opportunity to research the reading process in a very personal way. I am both subject and researcher as I work to better understand stamina, engagement, and responsiveness in reading. Authentic reading responsiveness, that artful synergy of thought and text, is at risk for our young readers. Too often reading is reduced to workbook-like assignments. Big ideas and grand conversations are freeze dried into structures that work with high stakes computerized tests. These tests have more to do with top down institutional accountability than with the education of the reader. Testing and textbooks are big business– one big business. If we are not careful, we can ruin reading with reading instruction. As I choose to struggle with text, I am very conscious of how I use what I teach readers in my own reading.
Amazon, both bookseller and virtual mind reader, seems to know I am thinking about these things and recommended Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters by Kylene Beers and Robert L. Probst. The authors say that we read best when we engage text with our head and our heart. Their Book, Head, Heart Framework (BHH) is a way of paying attention while we read. With head and heart engaged, we track how our thinking might be changed; or how are our empathy is enhanced; or how our observations of characters might be sharpened. This is key to staying awake to what we read, and to our thinking while we read.
At the recommendation of Beers and Probst, I am intentionally asking what Dostoevsky thinks I already know—and what he would want me to know–about the world of the Brothers Karamazov. I am asking what I see and what he would have me see. As I plow through Writings of Ruth Benedict: An Anthropologist at Work by Margaret Mead, I am incorporating what I read into what I’ve previously read and known and experienced. Sometimes a book falls open and we fall in. And sometimes we have to pry a book open with intention and determination.
The reading path of struggle is full of heavy vines and thorny brambles that block our way. It is the long way in to that most desired summer destination: Lost-in-a-Book. I am sticking to it. I intend to reemerge as a renewed guide to help readers negotiate unknown terrain and to help them get lost in the very way they may ultimately find themselves–with books.
I didn’t become a reader or English major or teacher because of mandated summer reading lists. I became a reader because I lived in a house where I saw people reading for pleasure. I became a reader because I had time to read. I became a reader because my father took me to the library and let me choose my very own books with my own library card. I became a reader because in the shadow of mountain hemlocks standing tall against the sky, in a thousand and one firefly summer nights, I let books choose me.