First, I’m going to need all of the English/Literature teachers to sit down and hear me out.
Okay, so we all remember being forced to read some book that didn’t sound at all interesting to us. But on top of that, we were expected to figure out what the author was trying to tell us. Personally, I always hated that. Now that I think back on it, I probably would have enjoyed some of those books a little more if I wasn’t being forced to psychoanalyze the author through a story they wrote. While that may be a fair way to figure something out about the author, 12 year old, middle school me was not educated in psychology, or at all interested in dissecting anyone’s brain.
Anyway, now that I’m a few years out of being forced to read things, and can read for my own enjoyment, I’ve discovered something. Critical reading can not really be taught in the same way that math or history can be. It’s something that the reader has to want. Anyone can read a book and understand the plot. But there has to be a desire to go deeper, and let me tell you, when you’re forced to write a report on what the author is trying to say, students will just Google it, and that requires only a desire to get a good grade. Being able to look passed the words on the page and find that subtle symbolism comes from the reader, not the teacher.
I am certainly not saying that we should stop teaching these critical reading skills, but maybe we need to teach them differently. This is where I get back to the purpose of this post. I hate author’s message. It’s completely unimportant to the story, or the the reader’s ability to understand it. I’m not saying that we should abandon the idea that there is a message within the books that we read. Not at all. But I am saying that there are many messages, and some are more important than others.
So which ones are important, and which ones are not? Well, as you might have guessed, the author’s message didn’t make the cut. This is where things get a little blurry. Truth is, there are infinite messages is books; it all depends on who reads it. Okay, let me explain. When the author wrote the book, they had some idea of what they wanted to get across to the reader; the author’s message. But as soon as the book is picked up by a reader, the interpretation becomes completely the reader’s. In other words, the same book can mean something different to every one who holds it, and what the author was trying to say is irrelevant to what the reader learns from it.
Basically, it doesn’t matter what the author was trying to say, just that the reader got something out of reading the book.
My suggestion? Stop asking students what message the author was trying to convey, and ask them what they learned from the book. With this, you are still asking the reader to take away a lesson from the book, but now it is their own, not the author’s.
On a side note, I want to talk a little bit about symbolism. If you aren’t trying to find symbolism for your own reasons, a couch is just a couch and a name is just a name. But if you are personally interested in finding deeper symbolism, a couch is the characters connection to family, and a name can be a symbol of health (both of these are examples from books and television that I enjoy, try to figure out which ones if you want). If you are being forced to find symbolism, a couch is just a couch because a couch is more comfortable, and a name is just a name that the author liked. What I’m saying is, if you don’t want to look for the symbolism, you aren’t going to find it. So, forcing someone to find symbolism in an object will never work. For teaching, the most you can do is encourage the students to want to look for it, and that has to come from your own passion for critical reading.
In conclusion, critical reading can not be taught. Critical reading skills can be taught. The author’s message isn’t important. What the reader learned is important. Forcing someone to look for something they have no interest in finding isn’t going to do anything but make them avoid finding it. I like to stress these things because reading can be incredibly fun and enjoyable if you do it for yourself.