Monday, November 26, 2012

The Talk of the Town: Malcolm Gladwell, non-fiction, thrillers, and the delusions of realism

(A piece online in the NYTimes has been getting a lot of attention in the past few days.  Here's a quick response.)

Perhaps our students do need to read a bit more non-fiction
The Common Core calls for having kids read more non-fiction.  A recent post on the NY Times website says that reading non-fiction is a good idea because it will help students write non-fiction.  This is the best argument I've seen for reading non-fiction, and it echoes something I've said for years: that it is absurd to ask students to write analytical essays when they never read them.  Nevertheless, the most important thing is that kids read a lot. If you read a lot, it’s easier to learn to write.  And if you can write, you can write anything, more or less.  You just have to look at some examples first.

When I taught Leafstrewn's Senior creative writing course (those were the days!), I structured the whole course around literary apprenticeships.  As a class, we read, studied, and then emulated a number of authors; in the culminating project, students read, studied, and emulated an author of their own choosing.  The course was easily the most satisfying and coherent teaching I've ever done.

For most kids, creative writing comes more easily than analytical writing.  This is probably partly because most kids have read a fair amount of creative writing but very, very little analytical writing.  If, therefore, we want our kids to get better at writing analytical essays, we should have them read some analytical essays—but not necessarily thousands of pages of them.

Any reading that’s not pleasure reading should have a clear short-term purpose
The Times post starts off with a very compelling story about Malcolm Gladwell reading a hundred Talk of the Town pieces before writing one of his own.  But the post draws the bizarre conclusion that this anecdote supports the Common Core's drastic (and, like the rest of the Common Core, totally non-data-driven) call for fully half of students' reading to be of "informational texts."

This conclusion is silly.  First of all, the argument suffers from one of the great weaknesses of educational discourse, the tendency to overly short-term thinking.  Reading 100 Talk of the Town pieces probably took Malcolm Gladwell about two hours.  Those two hours were no doubt excellent short-term preparation for the immediate task before him, but surely no one would argue that those two hours were what made Gladwell a successful New Yorker writer.  Gladwell's writerly skill was probably the result of decades of reading, and if we want our students to be able to write more like Malcolm Gladwell, the question we should be asking is not, What did Malcolm Gladwell read for the two hours before he wrote his first Talk of the Town piece, but what did he read for the decades before that?

Fortunately, my amazing research skills were able to provide some insight into Gladwell's reading habits.  The first sentence of the first search result of the first thing I typed (typoed, actually) into the google box on my browser ("lamcolm gladwell childhood reading") provided this testimony from the man himself:

"I am, first and foremost, a fan of thrillers and airport literature, which means the number of books that I read this year that reach the literary level of the typical New Yorker reader is small."

Now, I love Jack Reacher just as much as the next guy, but I would not use Gladwell’s reading list to argue that the best preparation for writing for the New Yorker is to read a lot of Lee Child novels.  Instead, our students should, over the long term, be reading a lot of whatever interests them, and then, in the short term, be reading more targeted texts for specific purposes.

Pleasure Reading
The Gladwell anecdote highlights not only the distinction between short-term and long-term thinking, but another important distinction as well: the difference between pleasure reading and purposeful reading.

As I've said before, I think of pleasure reading not as skimming, but as a deep immersion of the kind that can remove you from yourself and your surroundings.  Gladwell, like many travelers, likes thrillers for precisely this escapist reason (it's less clear why people would want to bring them to the beach!).  For me, as I get older, non-fiction increasingly provides this deep immersion, but in any case the purpose is largely the pleasure, the immersion--and the benefits of this immersion are comfort and facility with language.  These benefits accrue only over the long term.  A course of pleasure reading will not show many practical results in a time frame of less than a year or so (though I have learned a thing or two from Jack Reacher about guns and Ford Crown Victorias). Pleasure reading also strikes me as different from "informational text," which is the Common Core term for non-fiction.  The NYTimes post used The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as an example of the non-fiction that students should be reading. That book would serve well--but for pleasure reading, not for a specific purpose.

Purposeful Reading
Purposeful reading is pretty different from pleasure reading.  This activity is almost always of short-term benefit. For students, there are two main purposes: (1) to get information; (2) to learn how to write a particular kind of text.  The first purpose is more important for Social Studies, Science, and other "content area" courses, and the second is more important for English class.  Since I think reading is a very effective way to learn, I think the main place for purposeful reading of informational text is in the content areas, and the main purpose should be to get information.  Ideally, these informational texts should also be pleasurable--I never learned much history in school, and most of what I know about history comes from adult pleasure reading, mostly of the popular kind—but in a social studies course the purpose is primary, and it is, again, short-term.  Deep knowledge and understanding will no doubt accrue over the long-term, but the short-term purpose is informational.
The second kind of purposeful reading—that aimed at craft, at learning how to write a particular kind of text—is the main reason for English class ever to privilege non-fiction.  The excellent journalism program at Leafstrewn has students read regularly, but the reading is always purposeful, aimed at the immediate goal of improving the students own writing—learning how to write a news lead, learning how to handle quotes in a profile, learning how to frame the nut graf in a feature article, that kind of thing.  This kind of purposeful reading is extremely effective, and we need to learn how to incorporate it better into our regular English classes as well.

The Common Core’s emphasis on reading non-fiction should be in the “Writing” section, not the “Reading” section
What we don’t need is non-fiction just for the sake of non-fiction.  Unless kids are supposed to learn, immediately, about Mumbai slums or how to do amazing reportage, there’s no particular reason to have them read Behind the Beautiful Forevers instead of, say, Midnight’s Children.  I happen to prefer the Boo book to the Rushdie book, but a very gifted former student just wrote her college essay about how the Rushdie book changed her life.  That kid can write anything; all she has to do is spend a few hours immersing herself in some models (last year I suggested Pale Fire and a few weeks later she produced an astonishing Nabokovian story in the form of a scholar’s notes on a haiku).  For a particular writing assignment, she should read texts that can serve as models, but in general she should read whatever interests her.  There is good reason for her to read what interests her--or what interests her teacher--but there is no good reason for her to read what interests David Coleman, or an imaginary marketing executive.  The Common Core, like most curricula, is not founded on evidence or data.  In the matter of “Informational Text” as in many other matters, the Common Core is confusing the appearance of usefulness with the reality of usefulness, confusing what might be useful in the short term with what is necessary in the long term, and, above all, I suspect, showing a disdain for anything that is not ostentatiously practical. As so often, it seems to me that the people who see themselves as hard-minded realists are actually the ones who are deluded about reality, while those the realists deride as idealistic dreamers are actually a lot more realistic.

Over this, as I.B. Singer told my father-in-law about another tempest in a teapot, no children will die; but then, some children might suffer unnecessarily.  Why not just let kids read what they want to read?  The first thing is to provide time, space, and books, and the second thing is to create a culture in which books are discussed in a meaningful way.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent points. I like your distinction between pleasure reading and purposeful reading.
    And your claim that the Common Core "is not founded on any evidence or data" is one that should be a mandatory phrase in every journalist's Common Core reporting.