By: Angel Hu
As we continue to settle into the normalcy of the school year, we must confront yet another obstacle that prevents us from achieving our desired grade, being homework free on the weekends, and making the most of our middle and high school experiences – required reading.
The narrative is too familiar for us all. In English class, you are assigned a book. But for whatever reason, you simply just could not find the time or motivation to read the assigned chapters. Maybe it was the Shakespearean language that made even the first word feel like a plague on both your houses. Maybe you were just too busy with homework from your other classes. Or maybe you were able to get through over half the book… only to realize you can’t even recall half the plot. And to make matters worse, you have a quiz tomorrow, so you do what any pragmatic and efficient student would do – SparkNotes it. Providing concise and easily comprehensible summaries for probably every literary work imaginable, SparkNotes has been a popular alternative to in-depth reading.
It seems like students today are more averse to reading, preferring to cut corners to finish assignments rather than engaging in thoughtful literary analysis. I mean, why analyze the theme yourself when the big blue tab titled ‘Themes’ has done all the work for you?
In reality, the issue is more complicated. Thanks to the wide accessibility to the internet, it’s easy to create and view content about certain books, which can actually encourage people to read more. Plus, the effects of staying at home during the COVID-19 pandemic still resonate with us now; many people discovered brand new hobbies that they still pursue today – including reading. Online communities of fellow booklovers have become more popular and influential in these past few years. The community BookTok on the social media platform TikTok, for instance, now has over 79 billion views and features numerous teenagers discussing the reads they enjoy, sharing in-depth reviews of authors and books, and making skits or inside jokes relating to book characters and plotlines.
Sophomore Megan Zhao, a fantasy, sci-fi, and dystopian novel enthusiast who only rediscovered her love of leisure reading over this past summer, notes that “internet reading communities can give out some of the best book recommendations.” After finishing certain books, she can easily find others similar to the ones that she enjoyed reading. This has allowed her to explore numerous genres, authors, and series, and along the way she has developed her own tastes and preferences in books.
“[In general] I enjoy reading books in a series because it’s easy for me to get hung up on certain worlds and characters – so the more content, the better,” she says. Megan recommends any book by the author Brandon Sanderson and the book The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon.
Similarly, junior Alisa Rowell has enjoyed engaging with online communities of readers. She often rates and writes reviews of the books she reads on the website Goodreads. Goodreads allows users to take a self-directed approach to reading as it allows them to track their reading progress, set goals for their reading, and compile lists of their favorite books, but it also promotes community engagement as people can engage with fellow readers and even notable authors like Rick Riordan or Colleen Hoover on the site. Alisa says that Goodreads has allowed her “to discover books that [she] wouldn’t have overwise known existed” and that she likes the “inclusivity” that comes with rating and reviewing books.
However, this love of reading can be immediately diminished when the idea of “required” is attached to it or when the rich worlds and stories within the pages become reduced to “assignments.” Megan says that she struggles tremendously with enjoying texts assigned in class. “I often get sleepy, bored, or distracted,” she adds. When students are not interested in the work they are assigned, they are less motivated to engage with it, thus it becomes a chore to be completed rather than an opportunity to learn and think deeply. Additionally, as students’ schedules become busier throughout the school year, the tug-of-war game between efficiency and enjoyment simultaneously intensifies.
While Megan had a lot of free time during the summer to pour through her collection of books, she says that “balancing reading with schoolwork and extracurriculars is [now] a challenge for me.” She admits, “I haven’t read as many books as I would have liked this first quarter since I’ve had other books to read for school.” Alisa agrees, noting that she “finishes books faster when there’s no deadline than when there is one.” “When I read for a school assignment, I have to keep the questions for the assignment in mind while I’m reading, which sort of taints the process,” she adds.
The perceived decline in student reading is primarily a result of lack of interest or busy schedules. It’s understandable that students would use websites like SparkNotes to lessen the burden of all their work, but it comes at the expense of high-quality engagement with high-quality books, which any student is capable of experiencing.
So how do we fix this issue? We can’t just get rid of high school reading curriculums simply because the books on the list are “boring,” nor can we just dismiss a prevalent and valid concern among students. But we can start bridging the gap between the polarizing attitudes towards reading, and that’s by focusing on the parts that make reading an enjoyable activity rather than a chore.
As we have seen the popularity of reading communities like BookTok and Goodreads, we should know that reading does not have to be a solitary activity. Simply talking with my friends about the parts we liked or didn’t like in a book or who our favorite characters were can increase my interest and motivation to read. Even reading for pleasure can help cultivate the comprehension and analysis skills necessary for our assigned reading books. From increasing our vocabulary to enriching our minds with exciting storylines and vivid imagery, there are still benefits, even though they may not be as elevated as reading renowned classics. Most importantly, reading for pleasure allows us to discover the intrinsic value of reading, rather than be constrained by the extrinsic factors that limit our interests.
Next time you’re in the Central library, find a book that relates to what you’re passionate about, and fall down the rabbit hole of reading as you become lost in the pages of a wonderful book!