In Defense of Assigned Reading


Freshmen in Scott Brady-Smith’s English class are reading “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway.

Lexie Reinecke, Staff Writer

In the increasingly digital age we live in, many high schoolers don’t have an interest in reading. While I read F. Scott Fitzgerald in my free time, I have found myself surrounded by students who complain about Hemingway, and more commonly, those who don’t bother to read at all.

Assigned reading is a major component of high school English curriculum, and no matter how enthusiastic the teacher or significant the writing, educators across the country are struggling to motivate students to read the books, not to mention comprehend their themes and messages.

A majority of the assigned texts are classic works, novels which have stood the test of time. More often than not, these pieces offer valuable lessons and insight into the human condition. To much of the new generation however, this is meaningless; teens nowadays are too involved in social media and fast-paced entertainment to spend time cracking open a book.

High schoolers are overstressed and under rested, with many playing on sports teams and participating in multiple extracurriculars on top of their school work. To many, myself included, it seems as if there aren’t enough hours in the day.

For past generations, reading was a popular pastime. But with the abundance of and emphasis on technology, they now look to web sites like Sparknotes and Cliffnotes in order to “understand” literature without actually reading it.

“If kids don’t read the novel itself, and try to cheat through all of it, it doesn’t help them. It’s only bad for them in the end,” said Claire Stewart of the common practices used by her peers.

While some of us have intellectual challenges like dyslexia, reading is still important. There’s really no getting around it.

I’m confident in assuming that the vast majority of Campolindo students are literate. So what is the use in knowing how to read if you don’t read? As novelist Mark Twain famously said, “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.”

Some of the most popular books assigned in high school English are Animal Farm by George Orwell, Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, and perhaps most famously, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Each of these books has been hailed a classic, and an American benchmark in literature. The thing which makes such literature difficult to many students isn’t the writing itself, but rather, the complex and often allegorical messages the authors are attempting to convey through their writing.

Take for example, The Old Man and the Sea. On the surface, the novel seems pretty basic, with terse sentences and easily understood words. It seems that the book is about an old fisherman who catches a marlin. But in actuality, the theme goes much deeper than that. Much of classic literature is complex and nuanced, which is what makes it difficult. It takes engagement and reasoning, which can be arduous and time-consuming to students who are used to finding logical, “correct” answers in subjects such as science and math.

Many students don’t like assigned reading, because for some reason, they don’t connect with the themes. While classics are important to read, I think it’s equally, if not more important, to find things you like to read, as reading is all about your own reaction to writing.

What you like to read may be different than what your best friend likes to read, and that’s okay. I was a voracious reader as a kid, but  I wouldn’t say I had a love for any one type of literature. Only last year did I read The Great Gatsby, and it made such an impact on me that not only did I come to appreciate literature on a whole new level, as an art form, I found an author who I loved. I have gone on to read all of Fitzgerald’s novels and most of his short stories.

The most important part of literature is the impact it has on the individual.

One of the best things about books is that they unite us. Even novels that were written a hundred years ago can convey messages that can be applied today. Take Gatsby for example. The main theme of the book is the American Dream, which is shown through Gatsby’s dedication to winning Daisy.

I’m sure all of you can relate to having a dream. These are common experiences, and they can tie us to characters created decades ago. As Fitzgerald explained it, “That is part of the beauty of literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”

Just because you don’t like the books your English teacher assigns you, doesn’t mean you should give up on reading altogether. I can guarantee there are books out in the world which will make an impression on you.

While you can’t always choose what you’re reading, you’re always entitled to your opinion; books we praise should be those which we find worthy of our personal praise, rather than the library list of books we are taught to admire. As writer Italo Calvino phrased it, “There is nothing for it but for all of us to invent our own ideal libraries of classics.”