Paul Acampora (acampora) wrote,
Paul Acampora

Fighting the Straw Man

I want to talk a bit about the recent Wall Street Journal piece that characterizes kids’ summer reading lists as “Literary Losers.” Before that however, I encourage folks to check out the really great conversation taking place at Laurie Halse Anderson’s journal about whether or not kids should be required to read “the classics.” And now, back to Wall Street…

In a strange, hodgepodge essay, the Wall Street Journal concludes that “we’re raising a generation of cereal-box readers” in part because we do “not assign books that ask students to use their imaginations.” Whether or not this generation is able to read a cereal box is debatable. Obesity statistics suggest that cornflakes have been replaced by Krispy Kremes as our nation’s morning staple anyway. But you’d never know it from the Wall Street Journal piece. The essay is a silly straw man argument that wouldn’t merit much attention if it had not been printed in one of the nation’s premier newspapers. Still, the thing intrigued me because the great quote at the center of it – Why not have them read cereal boxes? – comes from the University of Notre Dame English Department, a place that I used to be a little bit familiar with.

So yesterday, I picked up the phone and called Notre Dame Professor Mary Burgess to whom the quote is attributed. We spoke for about 15 minutes and laughed for much of it. I met a truly lovely person whose love for books and learning and teaching is palpable and real. Below you’ll find a few bits from our conversation.

Q: Do you think summer reading lists are filled with “literary losers?”

A: No, of course not. My thoughts are a bit more nuanced than that.

Q: Here’s the whole paragraph in which you are quoted:

That such books might keep kids reading is a meager defense. If that's the point, asks Mary Burgess, a professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, "Why not have them read cereal boxes?" Such lists, by offering mere "formula fiction," represent "a lost opportunity," she says. "They put kids into a real comfort zone."

Is there a place for formula fiction? Is it really a lost opportunity when kids read this stuff?

A: (Laughs) Really, I am not some mad fascist. I have two teenagers of my own, and I know that some kids will read nothing but Baby Sitter Club books. That’s fine. But for kids who want to go in different places, I think we need to help them get there. I think that summer reading lists should include all kinds of books for all kinds of kids. Offer them formula fiction. Offer them classics. Maybe librarians could provide a list that’s just challenging stuff for kids who want to move forward without teachers looking over their shoulders. It is my opinion that summer is a special time when kids who want to can really read deeply. To make summer reading only just for pleasure is no more fair than saying it should only be enriching or inspiring. Offer a mix because there are all kinds of different kids. I worry that that high schools are actually creating a deep disconnect between deep pleasure and books. So often, high school seems to present literature as simply one more grade opportunity. That’s the missed opportunity. Literature is not a math problem that needs to be solved. The point is to teach young people how create their own relationship with this deeply human experience through books.

Q: You’re teaching some of the top students in the nation. Is it fair to expect that all kids will read at that level?

A: It’s true that the students here are remarkable. They all come out of high school tops in their class. The average high school GPA for Notre Dame students is something like 3.8 or 3.9. But I have to disagree with your assumption. It is shocking how few read. It really scares me. The vast majority of young people read most of their words on a computer screen now. They’ve all read Harry Potter of course, but after that it’s hit and miss. A bit more about the importance of those summer reading lists though: At the end of each semester, I ask my students to bring in a book that they love, something that has meaning for them. Often times, they bring in children’s literature.

Q: What are you reading for pleasure?

A: Well it’s my job to read all the time. My great love and my area of study is Irish literature. I love to read poetry. Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark is wonderful. I also ask my kids for recommendations so sometimes I read what they’re reading. I’ve loved the Harry Potter books and think that Phillip Pullman’s Dark Materials books were amazing. My kids loved the Mortal Engines books so I got into those a little. My favorite book as a child was written by the same person who wrote 101 Dalmatians, Dodie Smith. It’s called I Capture the Castle so I always revisit that and recommend it when I can.


So there you go. Thanks so much to Doctor Burgess for taking the time to talk. It was much more interesting than the piece of fluff in Wall Street Journal I think. You’ll find a few other responses to the WSJ piece below. All of them are more thoughtful (and better written) than the original essay. The comments are fun too. Enjoy!

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