My friend Mandy reads lots of books. Well, most of my friends like to read but Mandy reads more than most. And she worries about accidentally embarrassing someone who reads less than she does when she admits how much she reads. She has a good heart that way. But having audited more than my share of competitions about “who reads the most”, I’ve learned to shy away from those conversations. Like Mandy, I think a person’s literacy level can’t be determined by the number of books they’ve read, but I also think that level is based on more than pages and the reading difficulty are involved. For that, I still turn to Mr K’s A-B-Cs of reading.
Mr K was one of my high-school English teachers and one of the more popular instructors in school. Funny, intelligent and a bit daring, he escorted herds of reluctant adolescents through the thickets of 20th Century American Literature and he gave very reasonable tests. As a matter of fact, the students in his classes got to choose which of his tests they’d take.
It was a pretty simple concept. For every assigned book, Mr K had three essay options, designated “A”, “B” and “C” and each student wrote a response based on one of those options. The grade might meet but never exceed the letter assigned to the response and the options went something like this:
A – Describe the literary significance of this book, based on its techniques, the lessons it teaches and its continuing impact on contemporary, everyday life.
B – Describe, by listing the symbols and themes in the work, the points the author was trying to make.
C – Tell the story of the book.
Mr K said his questions were designed to show how much we took away from each book. A “C” answer would show that we’d read the story but a “B” answer revealed we’d thought about what we read. An “A” grade was only possible if we’d read the story, thought about it and then applied the story’s lessons to our own lives. Earning an”A” under that standard does a book justice but it can’t happen by simply auditing the words.
That’s one reason I re-read certain books. In the seventh grade, I read “Jane Eyre” thoroughly enough to repeat the plot but I couldn’t identify its themes, motifs and symbols. It took time and several more re-reads (plus a passel of literature classes) before I realised the nature of Jane’s quest for acceptance and a balance between her earthly and spiritual values. It took me even longer to figure out the way she resolved some questions helped me face similar issues myself. (I’m just grateful Providence spared me from having a mad woman in my own attic. Too much is too much.)
The thing is, I don’t think many people read books according to Mr K’s formula although I believe, they should. An author who takes the time and trouble to create thoughtful literature deserves thoughtful readers. The Close, Deep reading Mr K recommended creates a far richer experience, one I know my friend Mandy enjoys. But those who measure their sense of self-worth by the number of books they’ve perused are more interested in finishing a book than understanding what they’ve read. It’s kind of sad in a way; they speed through the mechanics of reading and miss the best parts of the story.
So, if you have books to read over this holiday season, I hope you enjoy every page. Take your time and savour them, like a well-prepared meal or a work of art. See which of the A-B-C standards you meet and if re-reading the book will raise your grade. Reading is a journey to be enjoyed, not a race to be run. That’s the gospel according to me and Mr K.