I’ve gotten on my soapbox before about how high school English ruins reading for kids.  And be forewarned, here we go again.   But before I begin, I just want you to read this:

“This was the tree, and it seemed to me standing there to resemble those men, the giants of your childhood, whom you encounter years later and find that they are not merely smaller in relation to your growth, but that they are absolutely smaller, shrunken by age.  In this double demotion the old giants have become pigmies while you were looking the other way.”

I have one question.  How the HELL does anyone expect a 16-year-old to understand that?

The fact is, course, that they can’t.  They’re sixteen, mere emotional fetuses.  They read John Knowles beautiful words, but they don’t digest them.  They hear but they don’t listen (isn’t that typical teenager behavior?). They don’t get what this book is really about, which is deeply sad, because there is so, so much to “get.”

I know this, because I was asked to read this book when I was sixteen and I even I, a practically professional reader, almost forgot about the third protagonist – the war.  What I remember most was wondering idly which of the boys I would have liked to date (Finny of course!).   In that way I am (or rather, as I like to think, was) no better than the scads of Twi-hards in their Team Jacob and Team Edward tshirts.

So again I think with dismay about how such a wonderful, almost perfectly written and executed book is lost and devalued by an often hostile captive audience of students.  It’s tantamount to literary abuse (to the book, not the students). There are so many layers that can’t even be explored in the context of a class.  The best we got was the more enlighted students, thinking they were “deep,” pondering whether Finny and Gene were gay (I still think Gene is and really, who could blame him!).

So why is it taught to high school kids?   Well for one it’s about World War II, and so it is be default deemed “educational” to a generation of kids who have no cultural knowledge of such a thing.  Second it’s about a 16-year-old boy.  But interestingly it’s not narrated by Gene’s teenage self, not really, what we’re seeing is the “old” Gene’s filtered memories of his adolescence.  But even if it was narrated by his younger self, does that meant the story is appropriate to teenagers?  Do we teach Room to kindergartens because a 5-year-old narrates?  If we’re smart we don’t.

I wonder if this book is still taught in schools anyway, seeing as it was written in 1959 and would seem an impossibly ancient text to the kids of today.  There is also an arguably helpful movement to introduce more “modern” and “interesting” and “fun” reading into curricula these days.  I’d be curious to see.  Regardless, readers will hopefully continue to find this gem of a book.  Adult readers most of all, since this book is not a cautionary tale or handbook for how to survive adolescence (or a war). Instead it’s a tribute to those who have survived.  And that includes all of us.