Welcome to the July Higher Learning column! In Higher Learning, College Guys talk about what they're reading, what they read in high school, and what books are important to them now. Since it's July, I held a cyber interview with Thomas, a second year student at Grinnell College, about books and reading.
Thomas is an English major at Grinnell and, because his father's a professor, has lived in many places--North Carolina, England, Grinnell, and, finally, Des Moines for his high school years.* Thanks for talking to Guys Lit Wire, Thomas!
Kelly Herold: What are you reading at this very moment?
Thomas: Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie.
Kelly: Is Midnight's Children typical of the books you like to read?
Thomas: Yes, it has the detail and allegory that are really appealing to me now as an English major as well as the excellent storytelling and elements of fantasy that have appealed to me since I was younger.
Kelly: Okay, let's go back to Middle School. What were you reading in, say, sixth or seventh grade?
Thomas: Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials (The Golden Compass, etc), Harry Potter, Anne McCaffrey's Dragons of Pern books, Sabriel by Garth Nix. A lot of fantasy lit, essentially.
Kelly: What was the first life-changing book you read? A book that made you think 'Wow' for the first time when reading?
Thomas: That's very hard for me to say. I've been a voracious reader for as long as I can remember and books have always had a huge impact on me. I would say that The Golden Compass probably marked my transition from fun, escapist books to really powerful books. The scope of Lyra's adventure was something else and the social commentary about religion was probably the first time that I really started to understand some of the subtext of a book and didn't just enjoy it for the storyline. It was also sobering for me because of all of the death and sadness. I think that it's a perfect book to transition from children's books to heavier adult literature.
Kelly: What about High School? What did you read for school and what did you think about required reading?
Thomas: My first year in High school I read so many wonderful books! I love One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Brave New World the most, probably. Later I really enjoyed The Catcher in the Rye, Great Expectations and The Awakening. I had a love hate relationship with required reading. Most of the time I enjoyed it, but sometimes I'd get into ruts where I didn't enjoy anything that I was reading. My Junior year I actually almost failed AP English because I felt like I wasn't getting anything out of the reading and just stopped doing the assignments. I think that Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome was the greatest object of my hatred. We spent about 4 weeks on it and I just couldn't stand it. Now of course, I realize that that wasn't productive. I'd encourage anyone to go and talk with their teacher and let them know if you're not enjoying the required reading. I finally had to go to mine and beg for forgiveness. She was a wonderful lady and wanted to know exactly why I wasn't doing the work and didn't feel like I was getting anything out of the class. We talked things over, she let me make up the work for half credit which eventually got me to a B- which wasn't failing, but was my lowest grade in High School. If you need extra help from your teacher to be engaged you definitely shouldn't hesitate to ask for it.
Kelly: Did you do much reading for fun when you were in high school? What did "reading for fun" mean to you?
Thomas: I actually tried to read a short story from The New Yorker every week in High School. I had a hard time reading novels in my free time because when I got busy with my academics I'd go weeks without doing pleasure reading. New Yorker short stories are relatively quick reads and expose you to many different kinds of writing. Sometimes I didn't get into them at all and sometimes they were mind boggling and wonderful. For me fun reading is reading that I would do purely for my own enjoyment and not out of any sense of obligation. I have to confess that I've grown to love a lot of the classics and academic reading though, so my perspective may be a little skewed.
Kelly: Now you're an English major--so that means lots of Shakespeare, Milton, and, you know, the classics. What do you read when you want to escape the "good stuff"?
Thomas: Going back to my answer to the last question I often read other books by authors who I really enjoyed in class. I read Midnight's Children for example, after I read Shame (also by Rushdie) for a class this spring. I also read the collection A Good Man is Hard to Find after reading a Flannery O'Connor short story in high school. Recently I've been reading On the Road, which is exhilarating and really an excellent read. I wanted something different and I certainly got that from Jack Kerouac. Don DeLillo and J.D. Salinger also have books that I think many people would really like outside of what's usually taught in the classroom. I also like to go back and reread books that I enjoyed in Middle and High school when I want lighter reading.
Kelly: Okay, last question: Young Adult literature--ever heard of it? What is Young Adult literature?
Thomas: I think that Young Adult Literature is a term created to make reading seem less scary to teenagers. I think that that's a really good goal, of course, but I'm not sure that all Young Adult literature is a good thing. I'm certainly an advocate of reading books outside of the classics and the canon but I'd say that it's also somewhat patronizing to assume that Young adults can't handle Adult literature. They're not going to understand it all of course, but then again I suspect that the same is true of lots of adults. When I read One flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest when I was 14 I certainly didn't understand all of it but it was powerful and working to understand it was one of the most satisfying projects I've ever undertaken, at least in terms of reading. I've looked at lots of things marketed as 'Young Adult Literature' in bookstores and while a lot of it's enjoyable I think that it wouldn't be fulfilling to read all of the time. Sinking your teeth into something that's challenging should be be both enjoyable and rewarding.
* Thomas is an English major for a number of good reasons. He explains, "I chose English because the most satisfying class discussion that I've experienced by and large have been in English class. Because language is the way of communicating about everything else in our lives I find that pretty much every topic imaginable comes up in English classes. If I could, I would major in being a well rounded liberal art student, but I find that the English department is the best place to achieve that. I'd really like to be a professor and I think that teaching English would be the best places to start really enjoyable, intense and productive conversations."
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