This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.
Although many students who enroll in AP® English already enjoy reading, not every student we encounter sees a practical purpose to reading, thinking about, and writing about literature. Edublogger Clay Burell shares with us a letter from a former student, the gist of which,as he says, seems to be “What’s the point of studying literature in the twenty-first century? What’s the point, ever?”
This is a question I had my non-AP® grade 12 students explore for an independent reading and research project a couple of years ago. Well, actually, I had them explore what the point of simply reading literature in the twenty-first century was. Part of their task was to survey their peers about their reading habits, to ask them what they thought was the point of reading literature or what literature contributed to their lives or what made literature relevant to them. The culminating task was to select a summer reading list for the incoming grade 12 students based, in part, on what they had learned. For me, the most interesting point they made was that the most attractive books not only told good stories, but taught them something: about relationships, about history, about the world. Across the board, one book from their reading list that consistently struck just such a chord with them was Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes (in the United States its title is Someone Knows My Name). They loved that it not only taught them about relationships, history, and the world, but did so in a narrative that the students found intensely compelling and “immersive.”
To hear that students do enjoy learning something from their reading was gratifying. Conversely, we know that students are more likely to learn and be interested in information if a story is attached to it, a concept supported by the anecdotes in this Wired.com blog series by Frank Rose, the author of the book The Art of Immersion.
The book, which sounds fascinating, looks at the experience of immersion in stories—why people tell stories, how they tell them, and how the art of telling them is changing with the advent of story-based computer games, the Internet, and similar participatory modes of digitally supported storytelling.
The intersection of Burell’s and Rose’s blog posts intrigued me. I wondered whether people have come to believe that that level of immersion is possible only with the help of increasingly sophisticated technology. If that’s the case, what implication does this have for our ability as teachers of literature to “sell” the immersive experience of a book?
Why do people read literature, and what will that reading experience look like in the digital age? I've argued before that digital reading tools like e-readers may very well contribute to a reading renaissance that reinforces the importance of the book to our storytelling souls; others have argued that the e-reader signals the demise of the true book experience.
But what is the “true book experience”? I decided to replicate part of my own grade 12 assignment and survey some of my friends and acquaintances, including several former students, about their reading habits, with a particular focus on what keeps them reading novels—stories, really, in any form—in essence, what, for them, is the “true book experience”? What is yours?
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