“I Was a Teenage Illiterate”: Missing Reader’s Advisory

In a recent New York Times column novelist Cathleen Schine explains how her adolescent reading was waylaid by a chance encounter with Dostoyevsky. In seventh grade, she picked up The Idiot “thinking it would be a funny book about a stupid person”. From there she moved through an idiosyncratic list of classics, and found herself as an adult without the modern literary context of her peers.

When Anna reflected at the article on Jezebel, a number of commenters chimed in with the classics their English teachers crammed down their throats that made them hate reading.

Schine’s problem, though, derived not from a teacher, but her own choices. What she really needed was some good reader’s advisory. The librarian in question should have intervened and suggested a more appropriate choice. She was able to read The Idiot, but admits she was only able to understand a tenth of it.

Recently in my high school a girl needed a book for independent reading. She’s an avid reader who counts The Picture of Dorian Gray as a favorite. I explained the basic plot of The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks to her. I knew she would love it. She practically is Frankie. But she wrinkled her nose. “I don’t normally read teen-y stuff.” I told her to just try it, and she sat down and read for the rest of the period, at the end of which she asked to check out the book. I wonder what might have happened if Schine’s librarian had offered her a challenging but relatable book.

When I worked in a public library, it was usually the parents who insisted their children were incredibly advanced. “He’s only four, but he reads at a fifth grade level. What do you have for him?” It’s always a tricky conversation explaining that just because a book may be at a lower reading level, it doesn’t mean that it’s not the right book for the student. What are your stories of parents or teens choosing the “wrong” book and how do you handle it? I’ve heard some pretty fantastic stories on this issue, and am looking forward to hearing your tales.

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2 Comments

  1. I thought the essay was fairly fuzzy, and was a bit disappointed that it had not been revised to be tighter and make more sense. Illiterate…yet going on to name a lot of books read in and out of class. What, exactly, does she mean by illiterate? In a way, it almost is an insult to those who struggle with reading.

    What I ended up getting out of it was that the author was a pretend reader — pretending to enjoy certain types of books and not opening herself back up to the fact that books can be fun until after grad school. As some readers do, she had to grow out of a “snobby” view of reading – – reading not for pleasure (and that reading can be genre, classic, literary) but reading to impress (see my big book! see my classics list! see my literary book!).

    For readers advisory it can mean one on one bookselling, like you mention. But also displays and lists to “match up” books (If you liked Jane Eyre… you’ll like The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place (OK a kids book but such a laugh and more laughs for Eyre readers). And what a reminder to librarians to not judge a reader by a book! Don’t dismiss the reader who seems to know what they want and not to ask for suggestions as not “needed” a librarian.

  2. Megan Frazer Blakemore

    I like your notion of a “pretend reader.” Unfortunately that attitude can be encouraged by adults who make distinctions of “real” and not real literature (“fake literature”?).

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