Guest Post, Alissa McElreath: We Read

I teach English for a living. I primarily teach the composition sequence to freshmen students at my university, but I also teach creative writing, and now and again, literature classes. Sometimes, getting my students excited about reading and writing feels like trying to coax my kids to eat the green stuff on their plates. I know why reading matters in my life – helping my students see why it is relevant in their lives is often another thing entirely.

This semester, on the first day of classes, I asked my Studies in Literature students why it was important to read literature. It was one of those general, ice-breaker-type questions that I tend to throw out into the mix on the first day. It helps me gauge where my students are coming from – and to get a sense, early on, of the dynamics between them. There was an awkward silence for a few minutes, until the answers began to flow. I wrote their responses on the board.

We read:
To learn
To be entertained
To discover
To escape
To transcend loss
To confront big truths (life, and death, and everything in-between)
Because we have to

“Do we?” I asked. “Do we have to read?”

Of course, the answer to that question was ‘yes’ – because, the students told me, if they didn’t read they wouldn’t get the grades they wanted. But I encouraged them to think about reading as a necessity for living; that books provide us with the roadmaps we need to navigate through life. Books are like manuals created just for us – we can even personalize them to our needs and liking. Through them we can learn to be more empathetic and compassionate; we can learn our histories, and those of others; we can learn how to treat the living, and the dying, too. We can learn about hate, and love, and forgiveness. We can learn about motherhood and fatherhood, and sisterhood and brotherhood, and try those roles on from the safety of our couches. Without reading, everything is one-dimensional. Without books, our worlds are narrow and impossibly limited. Sure we can live that way, I pointed out, but would we want to? I mean, really, and truly?

reading boyI am lucky in that I get to see firsthand the impact that literature has on a life. While my students do not find all that they are assigned to read entertaining, I know they learn from some of it. Only last week, a student came shyly up to me after class to tell me how much she got from Helena Viramontes’s story The Moths. This story, narrated by a 14-year old girl, is about family, and loss, and love (how often it is difficult to separate the three). While my student did not see herself perfectly mirrored in the narrator’s story, she had an epiphany-type moment after reading it, and she was able to look back on her own 14-year old self with a new clarity. She could now confront some Big Truths about her own family – ones that she had buried deep inside of her. I’ll never forget the student athlete who gobbled up Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone (I never knew people could write about stuff like that, he told me), or, when I taught a night class one semester, the veteran whose voice (and hands) shook with emotion when it was his turn to share a favorite passage from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

I see the impact of books reflected all the time in my own kids. For example, driving to Harris Teeter with my 11-year old daughter last weekend, I found myself, improbably, discussing T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. It began when she unexpectedly quoted the first two lines while we sat in traffic at a light.

“Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky…Do you know that poem? she asked from the backseat.

“I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled,” I replied. “One of my favorite poems! How do you know it?”

She reminded me that Hazel Grace recites the poem in her Favorite Book of All Time: The Fault in Our Stars. She read the book earlier in the summer and, at the time of writing this, has re-read it five times, and watched the movie twice. (This excludes all the viewing and re-viewing of the movie trailer that happened before I decided she was allowed to watch the entire film.) The book changed her life as a young reader – threw the door to a whole new reading experience (and world) wide open. Green’s book led her to Eliot’s poem, which in turn led us into what can only be described as an absolutely delightful yet mind-blowing discussion of Eliot’s poem while we were headed to complete a very mundane errand. Talking with her about The Love Song absolutely made my day. If she hadn’t read TFIOS when, unprompted by teachers or homework obligations, would she have otherwise turned to the Internet to look up the poem by herself? I couldn’t stop thinking about this. The fact that Green took Eliot’s poem and, coming as it does from Hazel Grace, made it new and accessible and interesting and cool and relevant to countless young (and yes, old) readers all over the world – young readers who would perhaps not even have given the poem a second glance outside of the world of the novel – that right there is what books can do; that’s the kind of power they have, and it’s pretty staggering when you think about it.

So, why do we read? We read:
To learn
To be entertained
To discover
To escape
To transcend loss
To confront big truths (life, and death, and everything in-between)
Because we have to – we really, really, just have to.

Alissa McElreath

Alissa (Aliki) McElreath's fiction and non-fiction has been published in Superstition Review, Literary Mama, in the anthology Mama, Ph.D. published by Rutger’s University Press., on the websites Love Isn’t Enough, And I Ran, and at the Family Education Network. She is a college English professor, freelance writer, and editor, and lives in Raleigh, NC, with her husband and two children.

11 thoughts on “Guest Post, Alissa McElreath: We Read

  • October 17, 2015 at 1:57 pm
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    This was a great read. I think it’s very important to think about why we participate in literature without the pressures of institutions. Alissa McElreath is right, reading teaches us so much.

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  • October 17, 2015 at 9:47 pm
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    I loved this. Reading has always been an important part of my life, and this post truly reminded me of why. TFIOS was also my first introduction to that TS Eliot poem, and so when I read it in college for a class, I was excited to recognize it. Another poem I read in college that was featured in TFIOS was “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams. It’s great to see contemporary literature introducing today’s youth to classics like those.

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  • October 18, 2015 at 9:46 am
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    “To read” has been one of my most treasured activities ever since I was little, and this article really reminds me of why. I always tell people I love to read, but I haven’t really thought about the reasons in a while, and this post was a great reminder. I love the list that the students were able to come up with– I think my favorite reasons included “to escape” (which I relate to immensely) and to discover.

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  • October 18, 2015 at 6:47 pm
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    This spoke to me so much. I agreed with everything that was said, and I think once people or kids start looking at reading as something that can transcend the classroom and teach you how to engage and interact with the world around you, reading takes on a much greater impact. It’s not always about analyzation to a serious metaphorical or symbolic sense, but even the simple analyzation of a character and how they view the world that really teaches us how to do the same. I’ve found it is so difficult being an avid reader and having someone say to me that they don’t really read, or find it boring. I like to quote J.K. Rowling, who said: “If you don’t like to read, you haven’t found the right book.”

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  • October 18, 2015 at 7:45 pm
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    This article is a great reminder of the importance of reading. As an avid reader, I never think about the decision to read a book, I am always reading, at any given time, at least 2 books. However, now and again I meet people who don’t read books at all and don’t seem very interested. It’s baffling and hard for me to understand. Like the above article explains, we need to read. The internet allows for many forms of escape but books allow us to escape into another mind. We get to live as another person for hundreds of pages, within their world, experiencing fears, loves, and losses that we maybe haven’t experienced in our own lives yet and if we have, another point of view on a similar situation is always valuable. After every book I feel that something has been gained. Not only have I expanded my vocabulary and improved my own writing, even if unconsciously, but I have a better understanding of things. I think understanding is a key word when it comes to my feelings about the necessity of reading books. Gaining that kind of knowledge and empathy is essential to living a full life.

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  • October 18, 2015 at 9:05 pm
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    Yes we really do have to read. It is an activity that I have always loved to do since I was little and I can’t say how happy and proud I was when my eight year old brother displayed an early love for reading as well. I love how much you can learn about the world and people without having to travel all over the place to do so. Also, I love how you can be anybody, do anything, and survive intact mind and body no matter the state of the characters in the books we read. It is truly a privilege to be able to have these experiences. It is also wonderful that literature of today can lead us to other works of the literary fiction genre so that we can continue to expand our understanding of the world every time we pick up something new to read.

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  • October 19, 2015 at 12:04 am
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    It’s amazing to think about how much of an impact books like TFIOS can have on young readers. Though I have never read it personally, I know that it had quite an effect on those who had read it and the reference to Elliot’s poem likely inspired many other young readers to seek out the full piece. I know from my own experience that when I come across a literary reference in a novel I am enjoying I feel that I simply must seek out the original work. I feel like a close friend is handing me the novel, poem, or story. I have learned so much from books that I cannot imagine who I would be without having been encouraged to read as I was. Books are essential to our lives, allowing us to learn from the lives of others, to live out fantasies or experience things we may never have the chance to otherwise.

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  • October 19, 2015 at 8:01 am
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    This is exactly why, when it came down to it, I felt it was so inevitable that I study English Literature–because I have to keep reading, and I have to keep talking about why reading is important. McElreath’s story about her daughter’s interaction with a poem from the early 1900s through a 21st century YA novel is so exemplary of what a powerful tool reading can be. Our drive to read and write not only allows us to connect with the people around us today, but across centuries and continents. Reading gives us access to the intertextual network which spans nothing less than the whole world. I think we read with same drive as those first explorers who crossed oceans in canoes and longboats: there are stories out there waiting to be discovered.

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  • October 19, 2015 at 8:26 am
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    This is so true. I couldn’t read until I was in third grade, and really didn’t see the point in trying. I thought I would never need to read a book. I was so wrong! When I finally learned, I couldn’t stop. I’m always sad when people complain about reading. It is a gift that I almost didn’t accept. Keep on inspiring your students!

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  • October 19, 2015 at 8:34 am
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    I love this! Such a relevant read 🙂

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  • October 19, 2015 at 10:58 am
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    This made me think about by own life and the reasons I read. I have had a love of books since I was young but I’ve never thought, in-depth, about where this love of reading has sprung from. I also love the things books can teach us and many times I have bought an older book mentioned in a modern novel (I can’t think of examples at the moment but I know that’s how quite a few classics have landed on my shelves). I also enjoy reading as a way of taking an in-depth look at other people’s lives who may have less than us, or may have more. Books relate humans and broaden our minds. I also loved your reasons for reading and am so glad there are people in the world making sure students find a way to love books as much as born readers.

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