Here’s another reading story: As many of you know, I teach reading to the students at GBCS. We use an online program that helps them with reading mechanics and comprehension and reinforces skills related to test taking, but there’s one thing it can’t really teach. How reading relates to morality. As part of their requirements for exiting my class, each student has to read a book on his own and write about it. One of the things I ask them to do is to tell me how the book relates to their lives. I get a lot of initial resistance from them regarding this requirement.
“How the hell am I supposed to know how this relates to me? I’m a guy. The main character is a woman!”
“Man, this shit never happened to me, so how am I supposed to relate this to my life.”
“This shit ain’t about me,” all are typical responses. But I just calmly tell the guys that 50% of your experience of a novel is what the novel brings to you and 50% is what you bring to the novel. Writers rely on shared experiences to make their books come alive. Otherwise you’d have no reference point, and the whole thing wouldn’t make any sense, so be patient and think about it.
Recently, I’ve been getting some pretty poignant responses to this requirement, and it got me to thinking about how much of my own moral base comes from what I’ve read. The Grapes of Wrath taught me about the dignity inherent to all people. The Old Man and the Sea taught me about perseverance even when the chips were down. Othello taught me about loyalties, love and lies. But what about “lesser” works of literature. Can we really learn something from Stephen King? From James Patterson? Apparently, yes.
Once again, I think the guys’ words speak for themselves, so here they are in all their uncensored glory. In response to Stephen King’s story “Big Driver” one student wrote, “The story that I just read is about a woman who got raped and instead of calling the cops she took care of herself. The way this story ties into mine is not because I’ve been raped but what did happen to me was that my father used to beat me up badly… and I never spoke up about it til I got older, and the way I got my revenge towards my dad was not by hurting him. It was by talking to someone about it and sharing the pain that was inside me. When I did that, I felt a relief, so when I read this story, I had something to relate to this woman.”
Or here’s one about King’s “1922.” “This story relates to me because I once had a family, house and career, and I lost it all because I was too selfish and stubborn. I made the wrong decisions like Wilfred in the story, and that ultimately cost me everything I loved.”
Finally, a student read James Patterson’s Midnight Club and had this to say, “I think this story relates to my past life, as in selling drugs, being homeless, losing my parents and many other fucked phases in my life. but at the end of the tunnel there is light, and I continue to march forward and give life my fullest.”
I’m not so naive as to think that reading has somehow “fixed” all these guys’ moral issues, but I do believe that reading has got them thinking about their lives in a way that perhaps they seldom have in the past. At least that’s my hope.
Oh, and incidentally, I had a guy come in today and tell me he read 300 pages of The Stand last night in 3 hours. He fell asleep with the book on his chest. Eat your heart out John Steinbeck, or Stephen King will send one of his minions to do it for him!