I hadn’t read a single required book in my entire high school career until my senior year, and even now, I only read about half of them. The reasoning behind this is for none other than some combination of procrastination, laziness, and obstinacy. (I love reading books, but if you add the component that it’s required to do so, something psychological occurs in my mind where I just cannot physically sit still and process pages of words.)
This phenomonen isn’t uncommon of students anywhere, really. It’s fact, and no one is fazed by it anymore.
Over the years, I’ve had a number of teachers take measures to ensure that students read their books, that it would be clear-cut if someone has or hasn’t. The obvious tactics are comprehensive book tests and essays, which are made very doable thanks to organizations like Sparknotes and CliffNotes. Not to mention, when those websites fail with books of lesser literary merit, students still have Wikipedia and movie adaptations at their disposal. Some teachers require and check for book annotations; others even dedicate class time to reading.
Freshman year, we read upwards of eight books and wrote upwards of 20 essays. I spent the preceding summer slowly sifting through half of Great Expectations before finally giving up – it felt like trying to run in a swimming pool. It’s not that I didn’t want to read it (because trust me, GE is one of my favorite books of all time), it’s that something in me willed that I didn’t. The looming obligation of finishing it made it feel like a burden and responsibility, not the recreational activity it was meant to be. When we came back to school in the fall, I completely bombed the test on our summer reading. Thankfully I was in good company; even those who read scored below average. That was the point, I was told, of an Honors class – that you start with something extremely difficult to weed out the weaker students.
Desperate to succeed academically, I clung onto the class, studying and memorizing the vocabulary my grade hinged upon. I wrote book essays based on Sparknotes, and had equally intellectual conversations about those plots with my peers as if I had actually read. That year showed me the futility in manually reading assigned books. I excelled whether I did it or not, because Sparknotes was always by my side. You know what they say about not doing what you’re supposed to: the only one you’re cheating is yourself.
My favorite book of all time, for like, ever, was one I didn’t truly read: Hamlet. I was just a puny sophomore, and that novel is pretty daunting for any student. There’s infinite layers of confusion and references to itself and other things, ugh. My head hurts already. Anyway, my teacher had us read acts and scenes inside and outside of class. She had us watch several movie adaptations, including some plays and even a parody version. I annotated to what I thought was my maximum capacity, but I still didn’t really understand the plot until I studied it nightly, watched the movies in class, talked about it with my teacher, and then finally gave in to reading Sparknotes (and watching the video summary they offer.) I genuinely do feel as though I cheated myself, because I relied on so many external factors near the end of it rather than sitting down and reading the pages themselves.
That doesn’t mean I deserve any less to appreciate the plot or Shakespeare’s great mastery of language. That doesn’t mean, even though I didn’t single-handedly read it, I couldn’t add it to my repertoire of experiences. I carry the plot of Hamlet with me everywhere I go, and I too have learned the lessons it teaches, even if it was indirectly.
Junior year, my teacher said that he once had a student who told him upon graduating that he didn’t read a single book in high school. That student was beaming with pride; my teacher felt heartbroken with such a skewed vision of accomplishment. That’s when I picked up my first school-required book of the year, The Color Purple, and read cover to cover for the first time in high school. I enjoyed it so much, and for someone like me who struggles with both an attention span and a literary comprehension that complicates the task of reading, it provided me a sense of accomplishment – one much greater than having successfully tricked a trusting English teacher.
This year especially, my AP English Literature & Composition teacher has taken rather creative measures to test book knowledge. We have both written and oral quizzes on different chapters. Once, she assigned us to read Chapter 3 of The Great Gatsby, and the quiz that day in class was a copy of the Sparknotes synopsis of that chapter. We were supposed to make as many notes and comments as we could on top of that copy, writing where Sparknotes missed or skewed details. The obstacles we face for book test are often subject to her very whims on test day. She sometimes demands us to answer philosophical questions regarding life, love, and morality from the mind of our protagonist. She sometimes provides us with 26 boxes, one for each letter of the alphabet, and has us provide a plot element and explanation for each one. I still haven’t figured out all her tricks.
There’s no Free Get Out of Jail card for English classes, but the internet comes pretty close. And there are those books that you just don’t click with, that every time you crack open you find yourself later waking up with your face buried in it. I recognize that there will come a day when mindlessly Googling summaries and plot analyses will not solve all my problems.
But that day hasn’t come yet.