Why I Can’t Afford to be a Book Snob

I can be a snob.

In fact, I guarantee you that I will exude snobbery in the following situations:

  • If you try to be a bigger PInk Floyd fan than me. Not gonna happen, my friend. Let it go.
  • That being said, if you try to be a bigger Pearl Jam fan than me I might disown you. Depending. Maybe.
  • If you try to argue the point of the Oxford comma. I like it, move on.
  • If you presume that I am not a qualified geek because I didn’t read Marvel growing up. Snikt! You got a problem with that, Bub?

But there is one situation in which I will never be a snob, and that is when it comes to books.

I will never be a book snob.

Recently I was engaged in a discussion with a number of avid readers about the merits, or lack thereof, of teaching contemporary novels in high school classrooms. I was shocked to discover that many of my bookish peers were against the inclusion of new material to secondary English syllabi, preferring instead to travel only the well worn paths of canon. After all, they learned the classics and they came out splendidly intelligent. Why change something that has worked for so long?

Because it’s not working. Not really.

I cannot be a book snob because I am a teacher. An English teacher, in fact.

I have been tremendously lucky to teach advanced, academic, and communications English to my secondary students over the last number of years. Together we have plotted with Oberon, travelled to Mordor,  stood on the gallows of Salem, branded ourselves with a scarlet letter, had great expectations, fought an uprising of pigs, partied with Gatsby, deduced with Sherlock, and laid in a tomb with star-crossed lovers. We did the standard syllabus. I threw in some Chaucer, Thoreau, Whitman, and Frost for good measure. And I adore every minute I spend with these characters, authors, and my students. I love teaching these books largely because I have read them and I enjoy reading them again and again. That is, after all, what a lover of books and a lover of the classics does. But those of us who can withstand the bombardment of iambic pentameter and archaic language are few and far between. The truth is that many students today are not resonating or engaging with these texts. The themes, yes. The texts not so much. It is a somber truth.

The trick, as I have learned, is to cater to my students, not to the expectation of what they should be reading because of what I read when I was their age (reading I did largely out of pleasure, not for academia). The majority of them will be reluctant readers. This is a challenge in of itself without trying to shove Shakespeare or Dickens down their throats. But the silver lining is in the word “reluctant”. Reluctant. Not unwilling. Finding the right book for a student, regardless of age or grade, can create a life long learner, an enthusiastic reader, a lover of books.

Many of the books I include in my syllabus, along with the classics, are contemporary. Some are fantasy  novels like Tuck Everlasting and A Wrinkle in Time. Stories that address the concepts of love, change and impermanence. Themes students themselves are struggling to understand in their everyday lives.

We talk about Sartre and the notions of existentialism and then debate whether Dumbledore and the Mirror of Erised are not existential themselves.

We flip heads and tails with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to make more sense of Hamlet when we get to it.

We read comics. Maus, Persepolis, Superman Red Son, An American Born Chinese, because these stories teach us history in a meaningful and visually stunning way that today’s kids get. Man, do they ever GET IT.

We have seen two roads diverge in a wood in Riverdale with Archie Andrews.

We come of age with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

We struggle to make sense of art with The Soloist.

We have mourned the treatment of indigenous peoples with April Raintree. We have read secrets in the The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian.

We have followed Elie Wisel into the very darkest Night.

And the students engage. They connect, they feel, and they ask for more books to read.

That’s why we can’t stick to the classics alone. With them only some students will ask for more. The goal is to encourage them all to ask for more. Why close my mind to a book because it is new? Why create a negative reading experience for my students because their preference is contemporary?

I may be a snob sometimes, but I will never be a book snob. I am a teacher, I need to read, to learn, and to relate.

That and I love to read. I love to read everything.

By Leigha Chiasson-Locke  @ldchiasson17

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