This may come as a surprise to many of you, but once upon a time I used to like reading. It’s true. Seriously. I’m not kidding. It was as recently as the eighth grade. For one particular assignment, my English teacher required us to read any 200+ page book of our choosing that was set during World War II. I got to the library 10 minutes before closing time and had to settle for the first book I could find with a swastika on the cover.
My teacher was shocked when I presented it to her for approval.
Teacher: Are you sure you want to read this?
Baka-Raptor: Is there a problem?
Teacher: It’s 656 pages long!
Baka-Raptor: Indeed, it meets the requirement of 200 pages.
Teacher: Wouldn’t you rather read something shorter?
Baka-Raptor: But then I’d have to go all the way back to the library and find something new.
Teacher: What the hell is wrong with you?
Baka-Raptor: It’s just a book, I’ll be fine.
I read the book like it was nothing. I even recall enjoying it. It’s a feeling I haven’t experienced in the 11 years since.
High school began a few months later. This is when I was first exposed to depth, and it ruined reading for me. My English teachers would yell at me whenever I plowed straight through an assigned reading. They wanted me to pause at every background object described in the book and pretend it was a symbol for life/change/growth/sex/whatever else a high school student could be expected to pull out of his ass. They wanted to me to read with a paranoia that some cryptic message capable of unlocking the secrets of the universe was hidden within every seemingly innocent turn of phrase. It was absolutely idiotic. Forgive me for having a bullshit detector, but contrary to what most English teachers will tell you, there is such a thing as a wrong answer. Most of the crap I was hearing in class discussions couldn’t possibly be right, and even if by some odd coincidence somebody nailed the exact meaning the author intended to give a phrase, who gives a shit?
I don’t care if some flower in the third paragraph of page 113 is a symbol of hope. I certainly don’t want to adopt a deliberate, tedious reading style to make those kinds of unverifiable theories seem slightly less nonsensical. Instead of pausing after every punctuation mark to overanalyze the phrase I just read, I WANT TO MOVE ON WITH THE STORY. Is that asking too much? If you cockblock my plot, how am I supposed to have fun reading?
I could write for days about how depth is a sham, how it’s a perverse, elitist game gone too far, how it siphons creativity and effort away from more important dimensions of a story, etc., but that’s for another post.* Depth in and of itself isn’t the reason I hate reading. I still hate reading stuff that isn’t all that deep, and it’s easy enough to ignore depth in other forms of media. My problem with depth is that teachers corrupted my reading style by forcing me to look for it.
My 10th grade teacher was the worst. My brother insisted that I transfer into his class because he was supposedly brilliant. He was actually a smug asshole whose sole pleasure in life was showboating his mastery of the curriculum he’d been teaching for 30 years. Next time I see my brother, I’m going to punch him in the back of the head.
This guy wanted to see handwritten notes in the margins of whatever you were reading. If your margins weren’t filled with “copious and utile” notes, that being his exact pretentious catch phrase, you were a failure. If you didn’t meet with him outside of class for “voluntary” review sessions, you were a failure. I met with him only twice, and I walked out on him the second time. He especially looked down on you if you never volunteered in class discussions. About half the students caught onto his bullshit and quit raising their hands by the third quarter, but I was the only one in the class who never raised his hand once during the entire year. I rule. He called on me three times. I gave him the laziest answers ever. He refused to recommend me for AP English. I whined my way through school administration, got into the class, and got a 5 on the test. I wish I could call that a happy ending. Unfortunately, this was the class that officially made me hate reading. Great Expectations was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I couldn’t tolerate the stop & chop reading style any more. If reading was going to suck this much, I was just going to stop reading. My best friend for the rest of high school was SparkNotes.
tl;dr: Less than two years after voluntarily going 456 pages over the limit, I quit reading altogether.
I still haven’t been able to untrain myself from the stop & chop reading style. Until I do, reading will continue to suck. Luckily, stop & chop only affects the sorts of readings I was assigned in English classes: novels, short stories, poems, and plays. I’ve attempted to rehab with a few novels and light novels since high school, but I’ve had to push myself pretty hard to get through each one:
- The Count of Monte Cristo (Barnes & Noble abridged edition)
- The Catcher in the Rye
- Strawberry Panic (vols. 1-2)
- The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (vol. 1)
- Spice and Wolf (vol. 1)*
- How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life
The only true success I’ve had with anything novel-like since high school was the Fate/Stay Night visual novel.* I guess the presentation was so different from a typical novel that I was able to read at my natural pace.
I mainly wrote this post because the rant was getting too long to include in my post about the value of plot.* However, I’d also like to dedicate this post to those of you who are English teachers or aspire to be English teachers. Don’t make your students hate reading.