Monday, August 31, 2009

The Future of Reading

I know, I know, I’m still supposed to be on vacation, and for me vacation is all about reading. For several days, except for an occasional swim, I did nothing but sit in a lounge chair by the lake at my friend Amy’s summer cabin in New Hampshire and read. It was a book a day, choosing from the stack I’d brought as well as the plethora that have accumulated in the house over the years. Best was re-reading Michael Frayn’s brief novel The Trick of It (I provided a link, but the review is a spoiler), so gorgeously observant and funny that I, as a writer, was seething with envy. Worst was Anita Shreve’s plodding, lifeless Body Surfing, which I ultimately threw in the trash.

While, as a child, I considered school nothing more than an irritating interruption in my reading, I hated every book my teachers assigned—to this day cannot get through Moby Dick, and A Tale of Two Cities remains the only Dickens I don’t adore. That’s why this article from the Times, “The Future of Reading / A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like” was enough to get me away from my current book to write this post. It’s amazing that we’re in the year 2009 and the idea of allowing children to follow their interests is still revolutionary. I think the root of the problem is that we don’t trust children to be intelligent, to choose well for themselves, to be persistent, or to learn without adult assistance. And yet children are nothing but persistent—when they’re interested.

Of course the other thing I did as a child was draw and paint—and I hated that in school, too, where the teachers were always trying to get me to paint objects, instead of the “besigns” (as I called them) I preferred. And in 2009, I’m appalled to say, I can still walk into some college art classrooms and find still-life arrangements of dried up plants in dusty wine bottles, or pears on a plate, as one might have seen 100 years ago. Nature morte indeed.

Keeping in mind that the success of any endeavor is directly proportionate to the level of interest brought to it, when I taught Fundamentals of Painting at Bennington College (an institution that also encourages its faculty members to follow their interests), while we touched on abstraction, landscape, still-life and portraiture, with each I insisted that the students be in charge of their subject matter. I mean, really, wouldn’t you be more motivated depicting a friend, a family member, a lover or the guy with the curious face at the convenience store, than some model? And how do you know how far you can go with anything if you’re not bringing all you have to it? It’s also a way of marrying content with execution, as it should be, from the very beginning.

And…and…and…but enough! With that rant, my hiatus from my hiatus is over. Back to my book.


hhp said...

It's so perfect, in a way, that this post greets me when I have come to check in with you. I'm actually homeschooling my daughter because I can't fathom her being subjected to that lack of trust in her interests and interest level. What a fun way to reconnect.

Have you read Rachel Cusk's "A Life's Work"? Maybe it's just so timely for where I'm at, but I thought it was inspiring-ly (maddeningly) delicious.

Civic Center said...

I used to be a reader. Currently I'm a writer. Though they feed off each other, the balance has shifted completely. Welcome back to the writing side.

Lindsay said...

Hi Carol. Your painting and writing assignments at Bennington were awesome. And I do recall vividly your insistence that we make our own decisions about subject matter. And that our writing could be personal without being overly confessional.

Carol Diehl said...

Hi Lindsay and Hillary--great to hear from you--and Lise, who wrote by email--to revive those memories of Bennington. It was a very rich time--and it's really true that it's a two-way street, and you learn as much from your students as you give.