An Idaho state senator (admittedly half-jokingly), introduced a bill that would require every student in the state of Idaho to read Atlas Shrugged, one of several tomes by Ayn Rand illustrating her philosophy of objectivism, or as she put in another book “The Virtue of Selfishness.”
Now we could have a discussion about the ways this book has been appropriated by the tea party. We could talk about the quality of Rand’s writing and how poorly she writes women, or the fact that most of her books could use to be 500 pages shorter. Or we could talk about the ways in which people who base their life philosophies off her writing are a lot like people who base them off the writings of L Ron Hubbard…
Okay, I’ve gotten that off my chest. Sorry.
What I actually want to talk about is this: Why have reading lists at all?
The basic purpose of a reading list as I understand it is to expose students to a variety of worldviews and styles of writing. Reading also helps in the development of good writing skills. But I think a more basic assumption is that without the list, the students wouldn’t read these books.
I admit my current reading list isn’t determined by the “classics”. I’m probably not going to pick up Thucydides or Erasmus anytime soon and I’ve read all the Shakespeare I intend to. (I’ll watch Kenneth Branagh perform it any day but that’s another story). I’ve already read two of Rand’s books (Anthem and The Fountainhead) and I doubt I’ll add her 1000 page treatise on John Galt to my list.
When I was getting college brochures the one I always remembered was the one from St. John’s University. The degree being offered was a Bachelor of Arts that was essentially a four year reading list which included The Bible, classic histories, and literary fiction. I made an effort to acquire as many of these books electronically as I could, hoping to read them. I haven’t yet, even though I recreated the list when I got my Kindle and access to even more public domain eBooks.
But I read every day. I’m currently reading a book on Christian views of video games (from a Christian Gamer’s perspective). I’m reading Scalzi’s serial novel, and Old Man’s War, Stephen King’s Under The Dome, and The Fractalist. Diverse viewpoints and styles.
I think more than requiring a particular book, schools should be encouraging a love of reading. And maybe that requires a pool of books to choose from, to at least get ideas in front of kid’s eyes. But what’s important is that they read at all. More than encouraging a love of books we should encourage a love of ideas, a thirst for for knowledge, for thought. Requiring students to read Atlas Shrugged will not force them to engage with the ideas therein unless they want to engage.
And if we need lists, I think we can trust teachers to make judgments without state mandates. We want our teachers to be well read, to be teaching to books they know and are passionate about. Students could suggest books that interest them as well. I understand the need for a curriculum. At the end of the day the class has to have something to discuss, and reading a common book is the often best way to achieve that. But there is more than one approach to that problem. If we really want students looking at all sides of an argument, then have half the class read one perspective, and the other half read another. I’m just spitballin’ here I realize, but there are a lot of great ideas out there that are more effective than everyone reading the same thing.
And frankly, as a writer, I don’t want anyone reading me because they have to. I’m not writing for everybody. Not everybody is going to agree with me. If I tried to write for everyone, then I would have very little of note to say.
I’m not saying you can’t enjoy a book you’re forced to read, but the experience is a different one, and one I think is less than reading a book because you want to, because someone you trust recommended it, or because you came upon it by chance.
What about you? Any books you think should be required reading?
Here’s my list of 10 books everyone should (but don’t have to) read:
Foundation by Isaac Asimov
Chaos by James Gleick
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis
The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman
Dune by Frank Herbert