Should We Focus on Reading Level?

My friend’s like to post a lot of links to their facebook pages. Just like the last blog entry I wrote on the idea of fake geeks and whether or not the idea actually held any merit (by the way, I felt that it didn’t), I found this link on the facebook page of one of my friends. This one made my head spin and I cringed reading through the article. “Adults Should Read Adult Books” by Joel Stein is even more elitist and painfully offensive than the one on fake geeks.

Joel Stein writes about how painful it is to see adults reading texts like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. Now, I have read the Harry Potter series. I have yet to read The Hunger Games but I do plan on doing so. In fact, I have the books sitting on my book shelf waiting to be read with all the other books that I have recently bought. Yes, I am one of those individuals with a massive book shelf and many of the books are ones I have yet to get to because I found another one that looked really good.

See, look at my crowded book shelfHowever, Joel Stein is actually not a fan of most of the books that I chose to read. In fact, I suspect that very few of the books on my shelf would be ones that he would want me to read, feeling that the rest of the texts are in fact below my reading level and intellectual level and only showing that I have no wish to obtain knowledge of any form. From my own mind, I feel that he would only be impressed by the one or two Shakespeare pieces that I have, the one collection of Chekhov plays (which I only have for theatre auditions by the way), my collection of Sherlock Holmes, my copy of Phantom of the Opera, and maybe my copies of The Three Musketeers and the two sequels that were written.

The rest of my collection (which is far far more than just this small list), includes college text books, roleplaying books, young adult fiction (The Inkheart Trilogy, The Inheritance Series, The Hunger Games Series, The Twilight Series, etc). I even have an entire shelf of kids books on the very top shelf, some I reread often because I like the book, though I will admit most are saved solely because I am looking for a job as an elementary school teacher and I wish to have good books for my students to be reading. But look at my book shelf in the picture. It is so full that I had to stack books in piles in front of books. I have since obtained far more books. When this picture was taken I had an entire shelf in my closet also overflowing with books. I still have that bookshelf that is overflowing in my closet. I have since gained a crate at the end of my bed that is also overflowing with books on roleplaying and knitting. What I’m saying here is, I am an avid reader and always will be.

However, to hear that this individual would classify my reading as proof that I was not trying to grow as an intellectual is insulting. There are plenty of texts that are not in the 3,000 years of adult texts that are intellectually stimulating (no matter what the targeted age group is). Not to mention, I will be dreadfully honest right now. Most books considered literary classics or considered as adult fiction (at least in Stein’s eyes) are books that I cannot stand. I don’t enjoy reading “The Illiad” or the “Oddessy”. I don’t enjoy reading “Everyman” or Emily Bronte. I hated reading “The Great Gatsby” and many of the other books that I read for class in both high school and college. I found them boring. I understand that books like “The Coquette” are books that show us an intellectual insight into the mindset of the time period. But I would be lying if I said that I did not want to chuck the book into a fire.

I read books because I enjoy them. I enjoy getting lost in the story. I enjoy deep characters who have personal motives that fight with their morals and their character history. I love round characters and complex plots and themes. You don’t need an adult novel to get all of this. I have found many books targeted for kids (not just adults) that provide with all the things I find fascinating and are intellectually stimulating, no matter what age group you are at.

We could start at the youngest age group and work our way older. Dr. Seuss is (reading level wise) targeted to some of the youngest kids around. With books like “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” and “I Can Read With My Eyes Shut,” it is hard to argue that Theodor Giesel was not writing texts to further the reading level of the students. However, many of his books can be just as intellectually stimulating to the adult community as they are to the youth when one remembers many of his texts are allegories for very adult, very political situations. “The Butter Battle Book” is a political allegory for the Cold War. The Sneetches were created to discuss racisism. Gertrude McFuzz was created to show the world his opinion on body modification (to the level of plastic surgery, not just ear piercings) solely for pleasure was incredibly vain and a bad idea. Many books by Dr. Seuss were written with a message for adults in mind. Why else would “Oh The Places You’ll Go” be read to graduating high school and college students. Why else would he have been working on the manuscript that became “Hooray for Diffendoofer Day” when he died? The messages were for the adults just as much as the kids. And if anyone doubts this, just show them “The Lorax” and remind them of the “Go Green” message that is being passed around everywhere.

For a slightly older age group you have “The Phantom Tollbooth” which is a fascinating book by Norton Juster. I first read the book in 5th grade and have since reread the book almost yearly. The book is an incredible play on language as we know it. You visit the market where words are bought and created after they grew on trees. You find the characters, quite literally, eating their words. Even just opening the book to the first few pages can get an adult laughing at the clever use of language as well as getting them to think about the words they use and why they use them. For example, here is one of my favorite descriptions in the entire book:

Who could possibly have left such an enormous package and such a strange one? For, while it was not quite square, it was definitely not round, and for its size it was larger than almost any other big package of smaller dimension that he’d ever seen.

Right there is an incredible play on words. The description lets you know just how unique this package is, but just like the rest of the books, leaves so much up to the imagination. To me, I picture a package that must be bursting because it is so tightly packed (why else would it be not quite square but definitely not round). As for the size? I figure that it must be a medium size package, maybe like the one that housed the tv I have on my dresser. Far bigger than one that came in the mail, but still smaller than something that needed to be delivered from the store. All that in a description that plays on words. How can you not tell me that this description does not challenge an adult’s intellectual mind to think?

However, there are other reasons that I could argue against what Stein wrote? Let’s say that maybe he really did see an adult reading a young adult novel that is not good fiction. I will not argue that some books just aren’t good. I do not say this in terms of “I just don’t like them.” I mean in terms of, they are poorly written, have bad grammar, etc. Sometimes it exists. It is however, possible that there are still valid reasons why the individual is reading the text.

I may not be a parent yet, but when I am, I plan on reading every text that my kids read. I may not be a teacher with a job right now, but I am a teacher and I did student teach and I did read every text that we read in class as well as many of the texts that my students were reading for fun. I want to know what my kids are reading. I want to be able to discuss these books with them. I want to be able to see if the books are appropriate for my kids maturity level. These are things I want to think about in relationship to kids. I want kids reading, but there are some things that they just are not ready for. There may be some things that they need help to understand. I am not going to know how to help my kids or my students if I do not read the books that they chose.

There are so many reasons to read books and there are so many books to chose from. As for Stein being ashamed to see individuals reading, I honestly must say, if they are reading, I am happy. Too often individuals (adults included) are just enthralled with only video games, computer, internet, etc… Pick up a book and read. For those who are at lower reading levels, just the act of picking up the book to read will challenge their reading ability.

Just remember, Mr. Stein, the reasons why people might be reading it. Just because I’m not reading a copy of Time Magezine or a copy of a Chekhov play (because, even though I have them, I rarely read them) does not mean that I am not getting anything out of the book intellectually. Get off your high horse and read a book that might be beneath you. Who knows what you might learn.

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3 thoughts on “Should We Focus on Reading Level?

  1. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of being victimized throughout my early adult life because of people who share this man’s opinion on choice of genre.

    However, Stein’s opinion is moot. It became moot when Harry Potter evolved into a genre that allures child and adult alike. That series kicked off an era where the general public now understand what it is that Forever YAs have known… forever… and why we will remain Forever YAs. It’s what you’ve pointed out here: the 3k+ books considered literary classics are brilliant, for their time. If they hold enough interest for me, I’ll gladly read them (e.g. Lord of the Rings). But why should I waste my time reading Charles Dickens when I can’t stand his style of writing? I’m familiar with the stories via other sources/media. That should be enough.

    The idea that children’s/YA literature is not as intellectually stimulating is blatant ignorance. In fact, the core reason I *prefer* these genres is because I find them *more* intellectually stimulating than adult fiction. I have to have a solid recommendation for adult fiction to even go near a book in that section. With children’s/YA, I rarely find myself disappointed.

    What I’m curious to know is why, at least with modern literature, adult fiction fails to captivate imagination and societal understanding in the same way children’s/YA succeeds. Why is it that adult fiction has lost the purpose of literary entertainment, and (at least for me) gives the impression that adults outgrow imagination and open-mindedness, with their minds devolving into robotic ennui.

  2. Zae, it wouldn’t surprise me because I hear far too often from adults that “I just don’t have time to read.” Where as we (even adults) are still encouraging the young adults and the youth to read. There is an audience for YA fiction right now. I don’t see that audience in Adult fiction and if there is no audience to write for, then why write? (Saying that in the monetary point of view… not my actual one)

  3. It’s somewhat sad that adults can’t manage to squeeze in 20minutes a day/1hr a week or so for reading and enlightening their minds. It would give their brains a varied activity to partake in different from the norm. Especially with the rise in Nooks/Kindles/etc.!

    I often feel I have little time to read, but I try to make habit of carrying my current read with me and getting in 15/20 minutes during my lunch break. It beats getting my brain sucked away reading Reddit for lack of better material.

    Just my 2cents,
    ~zae

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