Required Reading

If you’ve attended a public or private school anywhere in a country that does not experience a regular shortage of books or papers or pencils or buildings, then it’s quite likely that you’ve heard the phrase “required reading.”

What does it mean?

We know that reading is one of the three ‘R’s (which is a little sneaky, if you ask me, because I got a swat on the hand by a nun weilding a nine foot long wooden ruler if I so much as thought of calling it ‘rithmetic).  The other two are, of course, reading and riting.

In my day, which took place between Kennedy’s assassination and Nixon’s impeachment, we were provided an annual reading list.  For each title, we were to read the book and write a 250-500 word report on it.

Since achieving a degree from some alphabet soup of a university, I’ve never ever EVER had to write a book report.  Ever.  I’ve writtten reports on aging, on medicine, on what to do when your dog won’t stop throwing up in your shoes, but never have I ever been required to write a book report.

Oh, I suppose those of you gentle readers who feel you didn’t actually write enough reports in school can go to Amazon (the online mega giant, not the jungle) or Barnes & Noble and write cutesy little book reviews and pretend they’re well thought out, thesis-laden reports, but you’re only kidding yourself. Why? Because books you choose to read cannot also be considered as report material.  It’s the universal law of something or other.

Whose bright idea was it to tell kids — who will fake their own deaths just to get out of doing homework — that they would be assigned the most boring, soul-numbing, and brain-draining books ever written, and then have to write a report on it.  “It’s required reading.

Has any child since the beginning of time ever done as they were told?

Neoprotozoic Mother: Jeff, you are required to go fetch us some dinner.  And hurry it up, you know how your father likes his rock salad cold.”

Jeff: …

NM: Jeffrey, did you hear me?

Jeff: YES, mom, geez!

2 hours later…

NM: Where have you been? Your father’s out looking for you!

Jeff: I went to get dinner, like you said.

NM: Well? Where is it?

Jeff: What do you mean? I ate it.

NM: You what?

Jeff: You didn’t tell me to bring it back.  I ate it.

Jeff is grounded until the next Ice Age. 

It’s hardwired into our brains to balk at things we’re forced to do. When we know we have to, we rebel like every single living being before us. This demanding that our children must do this or that before they can move onto the next grade isn’t a successful plan. Though the act of reading is important, considering that every day we are faced with thousands of words delievered either through our vocal cords, our fingers (for the non-speakers), and through signs and manuals and what have you.  The iTunes agreement that maybe three people in all of humanity has ever read, contains nearly every word in human language.  And still we don’t read it.

A reading list from my school days might’ve looked something like this:


The Scarlet Letter

The Great Gatsby

To Kill A Mockingbird

Lord of the Flies

Animal Farm

The Catcher in the Rye

Of Mice and Men

I’ll admit it: I was a book nerd.  There was nothing I liked more than to sneak away from my chores at home, climb a tree and lose myself in the words and exciting imagery each auther penned just for me. I was forced to hide my nerdiness, but I was quite adept at it.

So here’s the thing…

Recently I found myself with a ten day hospital stay.  When you’re drugged and then forced to pee in a cup at the demand of a nurse you could swear was also your third grade teacher, Mrs. Eyetic, you find your tastes have changed.  On this particular stay, I found a much-read, dogeared copy of Walden by Henry David Thoreau left behind in the cafeteria.  I stuck it furtively beneath my hospital johnnie, hoping they didn’t have shoplifting alarms at the door. It was another staple of the unimaginative reading list from days of yore.  It was one book I detested.  Back then, I imagined that Thoreau’s name was just another euphemism for “thorough,” because he didn’t miss a trick.  Not once in 300-something pages did he say anyting that made a lick of sense. However, I had nothing but time on my hands and Thoreau was as good as anything at putting me to sleep.  So I stole it. And then….I read it.

It’s funny how nearly forty years later, a book you despised with every hormone of your young teenage life could suddenly speak directly to you in words that flowed like the water into the mythical pond.

Since I had pretty much liberated it from the hospital,  and it was in pretty bad shape, I began underlining passages that continued to speak to me in profound ways. And it got me to thinking.

When we’re forced (0r required) to perform some task that my be odious or boring to us, we tend to approach that task with a degree of distaste. Books are the same. When we’re allowed to come to the books in our own time and in our own way, we come to the task thinking we’ve exercised our free will, and are much more likely to not only enjoy the book, but find connections to the writer’s words. Not superficial words like one might find in a tawdry airport paperback. Words that mean something.  And then we might find that several days, or weeks, or months later, those very same words mean something completely different but equally profound. Yet, had we allowed ourselves to be forced to read it earlier than we were ready to, we would have missed those profoundities forever.

Is required reading healthy? It may seem so now that social media seems to have replaced classics like Dickens and Twain and Orwell. Much of our culture disappears minute by minute.

Several years ago I worked in the Colorado Governor’s office and my coworker sat several feet away. As near as I could tell, she was just about half my age, but was incredibly skilled in her job. One day we were talking about something as we worked, and I happened to mention Dean Martin. I think it was a music reference.

“Who’s Dean Martin?” she asked.  I stared at her for several uncomfortably long moments trying to determine if she was joking. However, she seemed sincere.

“You’ve never heard of Marting? Lewis and Martin?  You do know who Jerry Lewis is, right?”

She shook her head, her shiny if severe hair bob dancing under the flourescent lights.

“Sammy Davis Junior?”

Another shake of her head.

“You have to at least have heard of Frank Sinatra.” If she said no, I would determine she was pulling my leg.

Yet she shook her head now.  So I found myself explaining to her all about the Rat Pack and their influence on the entertainment world, up to and including the annual telethon for Muscular Dystrophy. That conversation, as one-sided as it was, was definitely a wake up call.

Like cursive writing, which has been discontinued in most, if not all, of the school systems in the U.S., required reading might very well be going to the same way: obsolescence.

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