Too many good books?

According to this muddled Washington Post story, students are reading too many classic books, thereby destroying their love of reading. Too much reading of good books is the problem?

The story implies that in the good old days before NCLB and standardized testing, teachers didn’t assign reading; there were no book lists.

With high-stakes standardized testing driving curricula and teachers increasingly required to use scripted lesson plans, what is getting lost for many teachers is the freedom to allow students to explore books of their choosing — and the time to explore the meaning, the educators say.

Scripted lessons typically are used in elementary school to teach beginning readers. Many schools scheduled 20 to 30 minutes a day for “sustained silent reading.” Students are told to read a book of their choice.

All this has nothing to do with the story’s anecdotal student, the daughter of children’s book author Louis Sachar, who burned out taking AP English and other demanding classes. Cornell-bound, she’s hardly the typical student.

The story reflexively blames testing for what appears, by Sherre Sachar’s description to be bad teaching, notes Kimberly Swygert.

How is it that Sachar’s teachers are described as either clueless of the complexities of books or too focused on esoteric details, yet it’s tests that get the blame? Even teachers who are following guidelines, or who of aware of the content on state exams, should be able to – especially in an AP class – convey the material in such a way that is thorough yet not mind-numbing.

When my daughter took honors English courses, culminating in AP English, I thought too few books were assigned. Students read books in great depth, searching for symbolism all the while, but didn’t get much breadth in their reading because they read so few books. Classic writers like Hemingway, Austen and Dickens got short shrift in favor of contemporary minority and Third World writers, though Shakespeare and Fitzgerald’s Gatsy survive.

The Post story is anti-intellectual, quoting a University of Kansas professor named John Bushman, who thinks students aren’t capable of enjoying classic books.

Curriculum often demands that those students read classics, even if students have no “clue about the theme, the syntax, the vocabulary and for the most part they really don’t care because the literature does not connect to them,” he said.

There is no “making meaning as readers” — allowing students to bring their experiences and thoughts into the analysis of meaning — because many students don’t understand what they have read, Bushman said. Teachers are left to “tell them what it means,” he said.

The debate about “relevance” certainly didn’t start with NCLB. I remember it from the paleolithic era. It seems to me that good literature is meaningful to people with a wide range of experiences. I remember walking through rooms of ninth and 10th graders during Downtown College Prep’s silent reading period and counting all the Mexican-American students enthralled by Harry Potter’s adventures at Hogwarts Academy.

The story ends with a list of books recommended by elementary students and teachers. I have to say the teachers’ list sounds boring.

About Joanne


  1. superdestroyer says:


    QUESTION: Several readers have asked this question: What is the theme of Ender’s Game?

    — Submitted by many people

    OSC REPLIES: – August 31, 1999

    I can’t help you at all, because, in my opinion, a good novel won’t have “a theme.” That’s what essays have. Novels have a STORY. If your teacher is asking you to find themes in a novel, to me that makes about as much sense as looking for gears in a fish. So how can I possibly help you find “THE theme”? You can quote me.

    I use this as example of how maybe English teachers really do not know what they are talking about. They tried to read things in that the author says are not there.

  2. This is why we homeschool our four children. You’ll be darn sure they are reading classics! And guess what? They understand them!

  3. Nancy D says:

    “Theme” to most English teachers just means the underlying meaning. I’m guessing that OSC and Superdestroyer were taught that an essay’s main idea was a theme rather than a thesis.

    Superdestroyer, do you not think works of literature have underlying meaning in addition to the story? For example, could a person reading The Great Gatsby learn that careless people can crush idealism in addition to knowing what happens in the story?

    I don’t remember Ender’s Game very well so I don’t get the first comment; is the point of showing that the question about theme has been asked many times 1)that kids don’t understand contemporary works any better than the classics 2) that literary terms as misapplied or 3) something else?

    I agree that sometimes English teachers take kids on symbolism safaris, and they treat all association as equally important to the meaning created by the author. However, Superdestroyer you should probably keep in mind that sometimes the additional interpretation that English teachers teach is based on, dare I say it, expert knowledge of the text in question.

  4. Did you really have to tell us “that good literature is meaningful to people with a wide range of experiences” and then use Harry Potter as an example?

    I have some sympathy for superdestroyer’s argument. Of course thematic currents exist and are detectable, but too many teachers treat works of literature as trite morality tales written for the sole purpose of extracting the lesson to be learned. Which works all right, until you come across a great writer who’s a moral reprobate. At that point it becomes clear that thematic currents are not the defining feature of great literature.

  5. hardlyb says:

    When I was in 10th grade, we read 2 books a week, on average, in an honors English class. And then when the teacher got sick, and the sub they sent in didn’t like our attitude, she tried to bury us in work, and we read 5 books a week for about a month, which resulted in the sub being unable to keep up with the reading, making her hate us even more. Not every book we read was Moby Dick, of course, or even David Copperfield, but it was all better than the junk on that Washington Post reading list. None of us had that much trouble getting through the work, and none of us got tired of reading, but except for a 6-week period with the loser substitute, we had a really good teacher we all thought was great, and who expected the world from us. Perhaps the reason the girl in the story is tired of reading is that she has lousy teachers or they are having her read boring books, or both.

    I love the way anti-NCLB reporters extrapolate from a single case to conclude that things were much better before NCLB. But in this case the reporter is so lazy that he can’t be bothered to find even that single case…

  6. superdestroyer says:


    OSC is Orson Scott Card, the author of Ender’s Game. If the author says that he did not have a theme in mind when writing a nove, I say you have to believe him.

  7. BadaBing says:

    “Novels have a STORY. If your teacher is asking you to find themes in a novel, to me that makes about as much sense as looking for gears in a fish.”

    What an outrageously moronic declaration. Of course novels can have themes. You mean to tell me that Of Mice and Men doesn’t have a theme? How about Catch 22, in which there are numberous motifs threading their way throughout the narrative? Leo Tolstoy, who was no slouch, said that the highest call of literature is to teach something. That’s why he considered Uncle Tom’s Cabin the greatest novel of Western lit. I don’t agree with Tolstoy’s choice but thought I’d point out a writer of “classic” literature who believes theme is central to his writing. (An example of a Tolstoy short story that has a theme is “God Sees the Truth but Waits.”) The theme is the title, for crying out loud. Currently I am teaching Lord of the Flies, a book that should be a requirement for high school English classes. If you don’t see a theme in that book, then you don’t belong in an English class. On the other hand, some modernist writers’ stuff (Raymond Carver, Donald Barthelme, Mary Robison, et al) may or may not contain a discernible theme.

  8. Nancy D says:

    Oh, I understand the original comment much better now. The writer says he didn’t have a single theme in mind; he had the story in mind when he wrote the work.

    I believe Orson Scott Card when he said he didn’t have a theme in mind, so you’re right that in this case, the teachers’ sending kids out to look for a single theme indicates they don’t know much about what the writer intentionally emphasized in the work.

    I guess I’d have to differ with OSC and Superdestroyer though, if you are trying to say that the events in a novel/story don’t often reveal more universal meaning. (I don’t mean that they have morals, like fables; I mean that some observations about human nature or the world in general are usually revealed in works of literature.)

    So although OSC didn’t mean to illustrate a certain single “theme,” I’m guessing that some universal truths are manifested in the story. (I’m kicking myself here because I can’t remember too much about Ender’s Game: is it kids playing war games that turn out to be real military engagements? Am I thinking of the right work?)

    Just so you know, I’m not the kind of nut who believes that everything a reader sees in a work is as valid as what the writer intended. I do believe though that even in the most entertaining works, so universal meaning is usually present.

  9. My objection to the way middle and high school literature is taught is that it treats the novel as a mere vehicle to convey the theme. Teachers gloss over any artistry in the plot, the characters, their development, the language, just to get to the theme. (At least, that’s what all my teachers did.) The problem with this is that joy of reading doesn’t come from the theme of book. It comes from the excitement and emotions of the narrative, from associating with the characters, from immersing oneself in the book. Searching for the theme pulls one out of the book and turns reading into nothing more than an easter egg hunt.

    Is it important to recognize what themes are present after one’s read a book? Absolutely. That, however, is not the same as sending readers into the book searching for a theme.

  10. Michelle Dulak Thomson says:

    Joanne, that link is to the Chicago Tribune, not the Washington Post. Is it correct? (I’m registered at the Post, but not the Tribune, and have sworn off more registrations, so I haven’t gotten in there yet. Must go to bugmenot, I suppose.)

    Loved the Bushman quote, though. When we studied Julius Caeser in eighth grade, you better believe the kids (especially the boys) were “connected” to it. A dude stabbed 38 times? Men falling on swords? “Now, while your purpled arms do reek and smoke, fulfill your pleasure”? Come on. Boys live for this stuff.

  11. Nancy D says:


    I wonder why your teachers emphasized themes so much. Do you have any insights for me?

    My only guess is that some standardized English tests ask students to connect the plot, the characters, their development, the language, etc. to the meaning of the work. The AP Literature test often asks about a particular element and then asks the kids to write an essay explaining how that element illuminates the meaning of the work as a whole.

    If the kids don’t know what to speculate about in terms of the meaning of the work, then they’re in bad shape.

  12. superdestroyer says:

    Nancy D,

    Many writers of fiction have stated that the story they ended with is not the story they started out with because as they write the dialog and the events of the plot, the characters become real and have a history and they change. Arguing that an author has a theme and everything points to it means that those authors are liars.

    Novels have plots, and the the elements of the story develop around the plot instead of believing the writer want to send a message on some kind of morality play and then somehow manages to make everything work for the message that they want to send.

  13. Riccardo says:

    There is a kernel of a point in saying that assigned reading may destroy love of reading.
    When I was in high school in Italy everybody had to read “I promessi sposi” (The Bethtroted), by Manzoni.
    My mother recommended that I read the book on my own, before it was taught to me in school, so that I would enjoy it instead of hating it. She was absolutely right: I read it and enjoyed it as a good novel with interesting stories and plot. I also am sure that I would definitely have hated it if I had to read it a chapter at a time, analyise it and generally crush any life or art out of it, as my literature teacher proceeded to do through the school year.

  14. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    Anti-Western Civ. activists claim that ‘minority’ students don’t personally connect with the ‘classics’. The ‘classics’ are, indeed, CLASSIC, because they have stood the test of time; stories that have universal themes and touch people in profound ways, from Shakespeare to Joyce to Anne Frank. Certainly, one could include ‘authors of color–the point is in the quality and timelessness of the story, NOT the color or eth nicity of the person who wrote it.
    In my experience, teaching 5th grade for 16 years, the ‘minority’ underclass (and that includes whites) do not bring the same level of background knowledge or personal experiences to school as students coming from homes that value education, and whose parents expose their children to a variety of social/educational experiences. There are all kinds of poverty other than economic. Perhaps these students have no point of reference for which to ‘connect’ to the meaning of the text, because they lack the background experiences in life that impact development and growth. So, denying them the ‘classics’ is not the answer. A creative teacher will bring rich meaning and creative opportunities to draw those students in, by providing a meaningful context and teaching them the strategies to do that for themselves. And we need intelligent teachers to give students an interesting ‘smorgasbord’ of literature, without demeaning Western culture, or ‘dead white male authors’. ‘Nuff said.

  15. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    I have to laugh, reading some of these posts! OSC’s comment is laughable and his defining and deconstructing “the novel” is ‘reductio ad absurdum’. Of course novels are stories which have underlying themes…themes encompass IDEAS, CONCEPTS, PHILOSOPHIES, VIEWPOINTS, PURPOSES. I just hope that OSC isn’t teaching a captive audience. Stick his Big Ideas right next to Jacques Derrida’s.

  16. Nancy D says:


    Whether the author intended only a certain meaning when he began may not be the point. It’s not the point I’m making anyway.

    Again, I don’t hold with the whole “readers create their own meaning” crap, but although I understand and agree that most really excellent novels probably didn’t start as morally didactic messages, meaning is present in the works. Often the meaning can be seen and stated by people who have read the works. Themes will be present in all literature.

    Yes, I too have read about how writers create works, and few that I admire seem to indicate that they started with a moral lesson. I’m with you on that.

  17. Nancy D says:


    I’ve got a question for you. What would you have teachers emphasize, instead of THEME?

    How would you talk about a book or its elements and not talk about what meaning is created or reflected? Are you saying that literary study should be focused just knowing what happens in the story?

    Again, I want to emphasize that theme does not equal moral. Themes aren’t the moral lesson unless you’re reading Aesop.

  18. superdestroyer says:


    Don’t you realize that you are critizing an author of a book for saying that teachers are reading things into his book that are not there. Of course he teaches writing at UNC-Greensboro so I guess he does not know what he is saying.


    I would say that a book should be viewed more like a movie. Is it enjoyable or interest? Did the author tell the story well? What style did the author use? Can the author describe a scene, or write dialogue well, or develop characters well?

    Almost, instead of a theme, you could ask what you thought the author’s world view and philosophy are and how they affect his writing. I think that is what people mean when the use the term “theme.”

  19. Missouri says:

    Re: the Orson Scott Card “theme” above:

    1) Not to be too Clintonesque, but I think part of the confusion may hinge on what “theme” means to all parties in the debate. If you have read Card’s introduction to newer editions of Ender’s Game, you know that he was working with several “themes,” not least of them the struggles of gifted children.

    2) A book, once it goes out into the world, takes on a life of its own. The author may not have consciously imparted certain things in his book, but readers may legitimately find them there. The first person to note this phenomenon was none other than Plato (in the Phaedrus). Plato argued that writing is inferior to speech because writing, when it leaves its “father,” the author, is an “orphan,” and people can do with it whatever they want. So Card, like any author, has to let go of his work. He may say with full truthfulness that he never intended a certain “theme,” but if a reader sees it and can make a legitimate argument for it being there, there it is.

    All that I wrote above is fundamental literary criticism and is nothing new. I could expand on it and clarify it more but will stop here.

  20. greeneyeshade says:

    Boo, Quincy, Riccardo,you’re on to something.
    I think it was Meg Greenfield, of blessed memory, who wrote of the education wars back in the 80s that a lot of the people taking up the traditionalist cause didn’t seem to enjoy the classics much themselves, or think it mattered whether the kids did. The classics were something like spinach or chopped liver _ *good for you*, like ’em or not.
    (Kevin Canty has the protagonist of his excellent new novel, ‘Winslow in Love,’ think something like that about teaching poetry to collegians _ too long to quote here.)
    Anyway, a lot of teaching _ and even more of the book-club appendices I see stuck onto good books (like Louise Murphy’s Holocaust novel, ‘The True Story of Hansel and Gretel’) _ strikes me as guaranteed to make students think of fiction as chopped liver. Nothing about play of language, changes in narrative point of view, subtlety of characterization: all morals, morals, morals. Reminds me of Henry James’ complaint about the younger Alexandre Dumas: James was no slouch as a moralist himself, but he complained that Dumas’ hammering away at it made reading, say, ‘La Dame aux Camellias’ like ‘arriving at a dinner party accompanied by a pair of constables.’

  21. Richard Brandshaft says:

    “Too much reading of good books is the problem?” Actually, yes, because what the educators define as good isn’t what the student considers fun to read. That issue still gives me an adrenaline spike (a sign of how lucky I am to have accumulated so few real grievances in the intervening 50 years). Making the students want to read works better than coercion.

    I made the jump from comic books to regular books with “The Hardy Boys”, my first clue all regular books weren’t as dull as the stuff they gave us in school. Science fiction and mysteries made a reader out of me. Even as an adult, I don’t consider Shakespeare worth the trouble of figuring out.

    That’s me. The point is not that Shakespeare should be replaced by Perry Mason or even Robert Heinlein, but that letting students find something that is fun to read is better than selecting “good” books. In the 1960s or 1970s someone used his head and gave boys at a job corps camp soft core pornographic (for the time) books to read. Some idiot congressman found out and the good idea had to be dropped.

  22. hardlyb says:

    I disagree that schools should give students only books that they “enjoy”. Many things are an acquired taste, and a part of a decent education is real exposure to a range of human accomplishment. I enjoyed Heinlein and the Hardy Boys as a kid, but these are sufficiently accessible that you don’t need help appreciating them any more than you do an episode of The Simpsons, while learning to appreciate Shakespeare requires effort and is much more likely to happen with some help. And I get a kind of pleasure from reading or watching Shakespeare that I don’t get from The Simpsons or Carl Hiassen, and I probably wouldn’t have experienced this pleasure without being exposed to his work in school.

  23. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    Destroyer–I couldn’t care less about where anybody teaches, whether UNC, Hahvahd or a community college. The school doesn’t give credibility to the prof, the work does. (Princeton has Cornel West; University of Colorado has Ward Churchill, to cite two egregious examples). Authors have their own ideas and truths about what they write, but they also have to expect diverse interpretations from readers, if they let that door open. Frankly, this guy should be happy with any attention given to his writing. I’ll stick to my canon of literature, you stick to yours.