December 7, 2012

Forget “The Great Gatsby.” 

New Common Core standards (which impact 46 out of 50 states) will require that, by graduation in 2014, 70 percent of books studied be nonfiction. Some suggested texts include “FedViews” by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, the EPA’s “Recommended Levels of Insulation,” and “Invasive Plant Inventory” by California’s Invasive Plant Council. 

Forget “Catcher in the Rye” (seems to encourage assassins), “The Great Gatsby” (too 1 percenty), “Huckleberry Finn” (anything written before 1970 must be racist) and “To Kill A Mockingbird” (probably a Suzanne Collins rip-off). Bring out the woodchipping manuals!

I like reading. I love reading. I always have. I read recreationally still. I read on buses, in planes, while crossing streets. My entire apartment is covered in books. And now, through some strange concatenation of circumstances, I write for a living.

And it’s all because, as a child, my parents took the time to read me “Recommended Levels of Insulation.”

Oh, “Recommended Levels of Insulation.” That was always my favorite, although “Invasive Plant Inventory” was a close second. (What phrases in literature or life will ever top the rich resonance of that opening line? “The Inventory categorizes plants as High, Moderate, or Limited, reflecting the level of each species’ negative ecological impact in California. Other factors, such as economic impact or difficulty of management, are not included in this assessment.” And we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past has nothing on it!)

“It is important to note that even Limited species are invasive and should be of concern to land managers,” I frequently tell myself, in moments of crisis. “Although the impact of each plant varies regionally, its rating represents cumulative impacts statewide.” How true that is, even today. Those words have brought me through moments of joy and moments of sorrow. They are graven on my heart. I bound them as a seal on my hand.

My dog-eared, beaten copy of “Recommended Levels of Insulation” still sits on my desk. I even got it autographed. Their delay in making a movie of this classic astounds me. That was where I first learned the magic of literature.

“Insulation level are specified by R-Value. R-Value is a measure of insulation’s ability to resist heat traveling through it.” What authority in that sentence!

And then came the table of insulation values. I shudder every time that table appears. It is one of the great villains in the history of the English language. Uriah Heep and Captain Ahab have absolutely nothing on it. In fact, I do not know who these people are. I have never read about them.

 “Wall Insulation: Whenever exterior siding is removed on an

Uninsulated wood-frame wall:

·           Drill holes in the sheathing and blow insulation into the empty wall cavity before

installing the new siding, and

·           Zones 3–4: Add R5 insulative wall sheathing beneath the new siding

·           Zones 5–8: Add R5 to R6 insulative wall sheathing beneath the new siding”

I remember curling up with that and reading it over and over again. It was this that drove me to pursue writing as a career — the hope one day of crafting a sentence that sang the way “Drill holes in the sheathing and blow insulation into the empty wall cavity before installing the new siding and” sings.

But I doubt I will ever achieve this lambent perfection.

Look, I was an English major, so I may be biased. 

People often, feelingly, write about a vague namby-pamby thing called the Magic of Literature. By the time you stagger out of one of these essays you wish that they had not been read to as children. 

But I am not saying this as an advocate of the vague namby-pamby magic. I truly believe that everything you need is already there, in the greatest works of literature. If you want to fight your way through a thorny sentence, look no further than Shakespeare. If you are having trouble figuring out what equipment is necessary for the task you are about to perform, look no further than the Iliad, where Achilles has a similar problem. 

Life is full enough of instruction manuals.

The best way to understand what words can do is to see them in their natural habitat, not constrained into the dull straitjackets of legalese and regulationish and manualect. It’s like saying the proper way of encountering puppies is in puppy mills. Words in regulations and manuals are words mangled and tortured and bent into unnatural positions, and the later you have to discover such cruelty, the better.

The people behind the core have sought to defend it, saying that this was not meant to supplant literature. This increased emphasis on nonfiction would not be a concern if the core worked the way it was supposed to, with teachers in other disciplines like math and science assigning the hard technical texts that went along with their subjects. But teachers worry that this will not happen. Principals seem to be having trouble comprehending the requirement themselves. Besides, the other teachers are too busy, well, teaching their subjects to inflict technical manuals on their students too, and  they may expect the English department to pick up the slack. And hence the great Purge of Literature. 

These are good intentions, but it will be vital to make sure the execution is as good, or we will head down the road usually paved with good intentions. There, in the ninth circle, students who would otherwise have been tearing through Milton and Shakespeare with great excitement are forced to come home lugging manuals of Exotic Plants. 

All in all, this is a great way to make the kids who like reading hate reading.

That’s certainly one way of addressing the reading gap.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.