I’m not exactly exactly sure when I became such a book nerd. There was a time when I was really young that I loved reading followed by a time when I was a little older when I hated reading. A week into ninth grade English class Ms. Szuke assigned us the first few chapters in To Kill a Mockingbird or Lord of the Flies or The Catcher in the Rye––I can’t remember exactly which one but I know it was one of those “classics”. At the end of the week she hit us with a pop quiz. I was privy to this surprise assessment because when I was about to walk into class, Visanth was walking out saying, “R’asscloth skunt. Why she haffa test us first week ina class?” I met Visanth two years before in middle school and knew that his Guyanese accent only revved into high gear when he was upset.
“We have a test?” I asked him. “On the book?” He looked at me and nodded, “open book, she say,” while hastily opening his locker to retrieve his novel. I hadn’t read a single page. Without thinking, I went into my knapsack, grabbed my copy of the book, and ripped out the first three chapters. No way I could do a quiz if the book I received didn’t even include all the necessary pages, right? There was a time when I hated hated reading.
That time lasted at least four years, starting in ninth grade. I’m sure most of the books I was required to read during those four years hold their own within the canons of literary nobility. And it wasn’t even the narratives in these books that put me off. A group of boys stranded on a deserted island sounds like it would make for a dope story. So did a spooky house on a waspy southern street and an altruistic white lawyer who comes to the defence of an innocent Black man, I guess. It was more the whole process in which we had to engage with books in school that made me hate reading so much that I felt compelled to rip pages out of a classic.
The idea that someone’s subjectivity could be wrong without being further explored was dulling. So was the underlying notion that Ms. Szuke or Mr. Nobes or whichever English teacher had pre-determined the trajectory for how we would engage with the book; questions they gave us to answer, close readings they determined were significant, themes they told us that we had to also see and tease out. Cookie-cutter stuff. And all of these books that made me hate reading revolved around characters and places that looked, sounded, smelled, and seemed nothing like my neighborhood. Teachers didn’t need to hand out mirrors for us to read, but damn, not once did we get something that reflected a glimmer of us, not even just a little bit.
When I started this, the plan was to recommend five books that can help, whether or not you teach english. But it went somewhere else. I could have got in front of this text and steered it towards a direction that, hundreds of words later, aligned with the idea I had when I first opened my laptop to write. But that isn’t what makes people read along. People read along when they are allowed to steer, make meaning for themselves, and intersect with the text in ways that curate engagement. I maybe wouldn’t have hated reading if my teacher’s picked different books for us to read. But I definitely wouldn’t have hated reading if some of my teacher’s took to teaching about reading and books in more vulnerable, honest, and fluid ways.
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