Crash Course in Literacy

Jan van Eyck 059

My last post, Read a Book You Idiot, got some great responses so thank you all for reading.  As promised I came up with a five book list for my young friend.  It was actually a little easier than I expected since I had a specific person in mind and a specific goal for the books.  I jotted down eight off the top of my head and picked the five I thought best suited to the purpose.  First the list and I’ll talk about each in turn.  And keep the comments coming especially your own book lists.  I’m always interested in what others feel are must-reads and why.  Besides, Santa just got me a Kindle and it’s a good way to get new book suggestions.

My List:

  • Fahrenheit 451
  • Call of the Wild
  • Watership Down
  • Lord of the Flies
  • No Country for Old Men

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

I went back and forth between this one and Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Both are  typically cast as Sci-Fi and both are dystopian futures.  Both were cautionary tales that turned out to be eerily prophetic but I went with Bradbury for a few reasons.

It’s a tad more accessible for one.  1984 is a good book but it’s dense.  451 has a tight pace with a lot more of an ‘action movie’ flair complete with killer robot chase scenes.  Montag is also more of an active protagonist than Winston Smith and easier to get behind and really root for.

The big reason though is that Fahrenheit 451 has an great element of discovery for a new reader.  Most people who haven’t read the book have at least heard of it and think it’s about censorship in the early stages of the Cold War.  That’s pretty much what I thought until I read it.  By the time I did read it most of the things that Bradbury was making up were in full swing.  Constant and mind numbing entertainment, overmedication, obsession with television shows and participating in them, personal communication that kept people ‘plugged in’ to the network while they ignored the person right next to them.  It’s pretty recognizable as our society right now.

The big idea and discovery though is that it’s not really about censorship which is simply some government or authority trying to control what you read (and think).  The Firemen are acting for the government of course but it’s the society’s and the individual’s willing complicity that’s the point.  These people have chosen to be mindless consumers simply because it’s easier than thinking.  A bit on the nose perhaps if you’re trying to get a young fella to read a book instead of texting his idiot friends.  Still, it’s a good book and a quick read and a decidedly more hopeful ending than 1984.

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Read a Book You Idiot

Banned Books #4
Image by ellen.w via Flickr

I work with a kid who just turned twenty-one and he’s an idiot. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a sweet kid, just an idiot.  I’m a long way out from twenty-one and I understand that old guys are always going to think young guys are stupid. This is the way of things.  But this kid claims he’s never read anything by Shakespeare. I’m not a literary snob who thinks you should only read the classics, but how can you get to twenty-one without reading anything by Shakespeare? I thought everybody who had a high school diploma would have to at least read Romeo and Juliet.

I made a joke about Doublespeak and he had no idea what I was talking about. Not only had he not been taught any Shakespeare but he hadn’t been taught 1984. Had never even heard of it or George Orwell for that matter. Again, I don’t think everything you read has to be ‘important’, but in my opinion 1984 is a top contender for most important novel of the twentieth century. Plus it’s just a good book.

If this kid is to be believed, he hasn’t been taught any books of any kind in school. That’s hard to buy, but even if true it’s not the real issue for me. That’s a failure of the public school system but it’s not a failure you have to live with. Just read a damn book.  I don’t get how people can’t grasp the concept of reading on your own and this kid is not the only person I’ve met with this problem. I won’t take any excuses on the matter. I don’t care if you weren’t taught any books in school. I don’t care if you had a teacher who hated you or who was criminally boring or who made you read a book you hated. Now’s the time to read what you want.

You should definitely be reading for pleasure, maybe even guilty pleasure. You should also be reading books that move you and deal with important issues. You should occassionally read books that are challenging or above your head. Just because someone is smarter than you doesn’t make you stupid. Stupider than the author maybe but drop your ego and you might learn something. Reading books that fulfill more than one of these functions is one of life’s true joys.

I talked about this with a friend of mine who teaches English (and contributes to this blog)  and he said he started giving students booklists. But which books?  What books would you put on a list for a person who claims he’s never read anything? They would have to be books that have some of the big ideas going on. Literature in other words but it would also have to be an engaging read. It would need to be a good story that you can’t put down and may feel the need to read more than once. It would help if the book was infectious. One of those books you make excuses to quote or talk about and feel like you have to pass along.

And how long a list? My friends are all readers and I’m sure each of us could come up with a list of fifty ‘must reads’ without trying hard. That number may be too daunting for a novice reader though. In fact I think a top ten list is too many. I think five is a good number and I think I’m gonna make a five book reading list. I’ll ponder it for a bit and make that my next post. I am of course open to suggestions in the comments.

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