"Every eight-year-old must be able to read," President Clinton proclaimed in his State of the Union message. Perhaps I can contribute to his education "crusade" by emphasizing that we should make reading fun, something not everyone believes.
For five decades as a professor of literature I've been teaching students how to read for fun. My problem has not been so much with students as with those who believe that students are not supposed to enjoy any sort of serious reading.
Many parents worry that their children will never start reading. I stopped urging mine to read when I realized the more I pressed, the more they resisted. My son says he began reading seriously only after I established a track record of suggesting things that actually pleased him. His younger sister got caught up in his fun.
It helped to remember my own introduction to books. When I was eight or so, my father took me to the public library. Because we did not speak English at home, he asked the librarian for advice. The books she recommended enchanted me, and I kept returning. On my own, I found myself reading any piece of paper with words on it.
I felt that any reading my children enjoyed would be better than none. Paul, now a newspaper editor, reminds me that I never told him that any particular book or type of reading - "Huckleberry Finn," "Gulliver's Travels," Tarzan, Tom Swift, Classic Comics, the Bible - was good or bad for him. He thinks if I had, I might have turned him off.
Parents and teachers, and sometimes publishers themselves, keep forgetting that fun is exactly what reading ideally produces. Defoe, Austen, Dickens, Twain - with their powerful narratives and fascinating characters - used to provide the pleasures and, inevitably, the learning, that film or television, at their best, do today.
Having fun with Shakespeare
Too many continue to believe that education must be solemn, formal, even uncomfortable. No pain, no gain. I once prepared an anthology for college students containing James Thurber's spoof, "The Macbeth Murder Mystery." "Students are not supposed to have fun with Shakespeare," huffed a teacher-consultant to the publisher. (Lady Macbeth's father did it, Thurber concluded. It is worth reading "Macbeth" just to get Thurber's joke.)
An Education Department study found that about 25 percent of 8th- and 12th-grade students rarely read for plain fun. It also reported that students with the highest reading scores talked over their reading with friends and teachers instead of just answering workbook questions. Alert teachers know how animated classes get when they allow free discussion of reading.
We often promote reading by rote. "Read at least six books this summer," a local library bulletin urged, "and you'll receive free books, discount coupons for CDs, tapes, and other merchandise." Of course, we should commend the library and the merchants for mingling books with pop music, but such projects may be self-defeating if followed mechanically.
Bernard Malamud once wrote a story, published in The New Yorker, about a high school dropout who became a neighborhood hero when he said he would read 100 books over the summer. He read not even one and felt bitter shame in the fall.
Reading for fun requires that we actually understand a text. Reading should never become busy work. Some teachers in summer seminars I've taught reported that they used Robert Frost's "Birches" to assign "research" on trees, the poet's biography, metrics, symbols, hidden meanings. They were oblivious to the pleasure to be found in the poem itself - for themselves and their students.
Books are not all equal
Everyone can and should have fun reading. But we should not expect the same reward from everything we read. "Some books are to be tasted," wrote Francis Bacon, "others are to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested."
Some reading will disappoint us, just the way some movies and some games will. But regular reading will repeatedly surprise us - and that's always fun.
* Morris Freedman has taught English at the City College of New York and the Universities of Maryland and New Mexico. He also has written and edited textbooks for college and high school students.