February 7, 2013

Mandatory Reading

Giacomo & Slick

Giacomo & Slick

Should Schools Have Mandatory Reading Lists?

I was talking to one of my younger relatives a few weeks ago, and I asked what they were reading in school.

She groaned, and then said, “The Great Gatsby. It’s on our mandatory reading list.”

I empathized with her. I hated The Great Gatsby. Perhaps loathed would be a better word. I found it ridiculously boring. And yet, some teacher—who must have enjoyed the book—thought it necessary to inflict pain on her students and forced us to read it. My reaction back then, and now, is the same. Why? Why should I read a novel that I have no interest in? I can state without question that the only thing The Great Gatsby, and similar books, did was turn me off to literary fiction.

Before you mount your arguments about what reading a classic can teach someone, please take a step into the real world. The vast majority of students do not want to read the novels on mandatory lists. And if they don’t want to read a novel, they won’t. They’ll purchase the CliffsNotes. Mandatory reading lists are what keeps CliffsNotes in business. (Now owned by John Wiley and Sons, Inc.)


Instead of giving the students a “literary experience,” we are teaching them how to avoid an assignment. And, even worse, we are quite possibly teaching them that reading is boring. If that person doesn’t have a strong interest in reading, we risk losing them for good.

I was fortunate. I had parents who encouraged reading, and I went to a Catholic school where reading was highlighted and strongly encouraged. In the third grade, I told the nun that I wanted to read about Napoleon. We had nothing in the library on him, so she gave me a pass to the “eighth-grade library,” and let me check out a book from there. I devoured that book, and continued going back for more. Napoleon led to Caesar, and other generals, and that one act by a teacher began an interest in military history, and history in general, that continues to this day.


But the nuns weren’t through inspiring me. I had the good fortune of getting Sister Lawrencia for a fifth-grade teacher. She was my favorite teacher of all time. There were two things that I can attribute directly to her. First was an intense interest in geography. She got me interested in collecting maps, and learning how to read maps. She taught us how geography influenced history, and I’ve never stopped wanting to learn more. But perhaps, most importantly, she cemented my love of reading. And she did it in the strangest way—she let us read anything we wanted.

I think she’d have drawn the line if someone brought in erotica, but there wasn’t much she’d have censored.

Detective Books

…on the other hand, I loved. As I did comic books. I cherished these stories, and they were the impetus for a lifelong love of SciFi/Fantasy and Mystery/Thriller novels.

Detective novel

Detective novel

So for Sister Lawrencia’s class, I brought in comic books and cheap detective novels as reading material, which was where my interests were at that time. She not only didn’t forbid it, she encouraged it and asked questions about what was going on with characters in the books. It instilled in me a love of reading that I never lost. I almost lost it during the dreaded “mandatory reading” years of high school, but I got it back.

I have three primary areas of interest when it comes to reading: military history, mystery/thrillers, and SciFi/Fantasy. And I can directly attribute my love of reading to the wisdom of a couple of nuns who were far ahead of the times, and who understood that the goal is to get a child to love reading, not to love a particular author or genre.

What Message Are We Sending?

Think of what we’re telling our kids in school. “You must read this.” It’s like forcing kids to eat certain foods, or watch certain movies. Or forcing them to play certain sports. It just doesn’t work for some kids—for most kids.

Think of some comparisons. Imagine saying, “No, Julie, you can’t take gymnastics. You have to play football.” Or telling Tommy, “You can’t join wrestling; we want you to take ballet.” Or how about we force all kids to take Russian?

I would never dream of forcing someone to read The History of the Peloponnesian War, by Thucydides, yet when I discovered this gem in the eighth grade I couldn’t put it down. I even got in trouble for reading it in math class. At the same time, if you tried forcing me to read James Joyce’ Ulysses, I would ask for a gun or some hemlock as an alternative.

Bottom Line

We need to think about what we’re doing to our children. As a country, we have already fallen far behind other parts of the world in many areas of education. Let’s not fall even lower.

My daughter-in-law is a third-grade teacher. Her favorite saying is “Read what you love, and love what you read.” And she reminds her students of that all the time.

I think it’s fantastic advice. How about you? I’d love to hear your opinions.

For further reading on this subject, check out The Future of Reading.


Ciao, and thanks for stopping by,




Giacomo Giammatteo is the author of Murder Takes Time, and A Bullet For Carlos. He lives in Texas where he and his wife have an animal sanctuary with 41 loving “friends.”


photo credit: Patrick Peccatte via photopin cc

2 Responses to “Mandatory Reading”

  1. That was one forward-thinking nun!

    Like you, I went to a Catholic school. I don’t remember any required reading, but every week we were allowed admittance to a tiny library at the school where we were encouraged to pick something out for the week.

    But I had a little problem. English was not my first language and reading was very difficult for me. Sister Callistus helped me pick out books I could handle. With her help, by the time I finished 6th grade, I was reading at the college level.

    By the way, comic books were how my father learned to read English.

  2. That’s a great story, Maria. I left Catholic school after 7th grade, so I don’t know if they had the mandatory lists, but the public schools did, and that’s where I ran into trouble with the teachers. I tended to be argumentative. And yes, at that time anyway, comic books were great reading.

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