On reading tough books

My new project at work concerns drafting a mini-curriculum set for The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman as an independent reading project with either 1 or several upperclassmen because one of the 11th grade English teachers at a local high school is spending a significant portion of the class teaching cursive writing. This limits the amount of time the class reads which presents some difficulty in keeping the kids reading who dislike the activity. So I decided, along with one of the students, to create an extra program to keep him reading.

The project presents many challenges, not the least of which have to do with not overwhelming the students in the work load. So I went to the most helpful, general resource available for all daunting projects – Google. And what I discovered is that no one really uses Neil Gaiman’s series in a classroom setting.

But one post in particular caught my attention and spurred me to write some thoughts on reading. The post comes from The Graphic Classroom and is written by Kevin Hodgson, who does not recommend the series for K-12 and is hesitant about using it at the college level. I guessed at his recommendation from his introduction.

There are a handful of books that I purposely tuck away from the eyes of my children when I am done reading, for fear that the allure of a comic book will expose them to some unsettling things.

I’m not a parent, so what I took away from his opening sentence is that he is more restrictive on what his children are exposed to. But what I found worth discussing comes from his evaluation for the classroom and recommendation for that setting.

It’s possible that a college-level course might find a home for THE SANDMAN, but even then, the professor would have to make sure students were aware upfront of the content they were being exposed to.

[…] if you like graphic novels and comics, THE SANDMAN is a modern classic that is worth your time, even if you never share it with anyone else.

His recommendation of the series not being presented in school comes from the violence and sex that appear in the first volume. Preludes & Nocturnes does have sex and violence, but I don’t think it contains more than Watchmen, which gets a recommend with reservations from 3 writers on the site, including this reviewer.

But consistency aside, Preludes & Nocturnes has no more sex or violence than, say, Romeo and Juliet. In some instances, The Sandman depicts less violence than Night by Elie Wiesel or The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. (The last 2 books are frequently assigned to the students I work with from grades 9-12, and everyone has to read Shakespeare)

And the violence illustrated in the story is negligible compared to the violence they see in the neighborhood or watch in their favorite movies or inflict in the video games they play.

I wonder what makes the violence in any Shakespeare play worthy of classroom discussion. Or the sex in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Or the sexual violence in Beloved. Or everything in Brave New World. Or anything by Faulkner.

And I wonder when we began underestimating readers’ ability to discern what is good for them and what isn’t. That is what Hodgson implies when he recommends college instructors warn students about the content. I read some material I probably would never have picked up on my own in college, but I was never warned before hand. I was in college and considered an intelligent person who understood part of why we read. We learn what we can and can’t handle through experience. And we are frequently better prepared for real life encounters because we’ve read similar experiences in the stories we pick up. I don’t do well with depressing stories or ghost stories, so I try to avoid those. I prefer not to read accounts of tragedies, but I don’t put anything onto a DO NOT READ list. The stories that help me navigate the world do not necessarily help others. On the other side, the stories that are better for me to avoid are not necessarily the same for others.

My perspective comes from my own experience as a lifelong reader of anything and everything. I have always known when what I’m reading is no good for me as a person. This is why I didn’t read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when my dad handed it to me as a 6th grader. I knew I would end up hating it, so I set it aside and read The Hitchhiker’s Guide tot he Galaxy instead. I missed quite a bit of what I now see was probably dodgy for my age, but my parents and I discussed the book, and Douglas Adams’ 5 book trilogy remains one of my favorites.

And when it comes to the end, the best conclusion I’ve arrived at places the line between what “suitable” and “unsuitable” solidly in the fact that in all of the acceptable stories, the depictions come from the readers’ mind and are not drawn out on the page. (Shakespeare plays are in a different category and deserves their own rant some day). Preludes & Nocturnes draws more of the conclusions for the reader solely because of the form. You can’t really have a comic book without the pictures.

But even if that’s the concern – that the tough material will be more prominent – my question becomes, then why do we want students to read at all? Do I enjoy talking about the violence that happens in the story? Not really. There are issues contained in the volume I’m not looking forward to discussing. I trust that the students will see and discuss what’s of interest to them, and discard what isn’t. I’ve had enough conversations with most of them where they completely miss the (insert concern here) from the book they’re reading. But I think the students I’m having read this are capable of not only reading the material successfully, but also engaging in a thoughtful discussion. And what other goal could I have for them and reading?

The students will officially be adults in the next year or two; I want them to be better prepared to deal with an unfamiliar and often unforgiving world. And if that means reading tough books, or boring to me books, or books I evaluate as crap, and sometimes fantastic books with them so that we can have better discussions, I will read whatever they bring me.