Each semester in my son’s online English class, they read one book. Last year, it was The Way to Rainy Mountain one semester, which is a phenomenal book, though perhaps not the most obvious choice for 9th graders. And The Alchemist the other semester, and apologies now to all of the readers I’m about to offend, but that book is a load of crap. Just so bad. One semester last year there was a bonus book: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was just relieved not to have to plod through Julius Caesar or Romeo & Juliet.
As with most assigned reading, I’ve taken a resigned approach. We’ll try to get through it, however we can. We read every word of The Way to Rainy Mountain and spent a lot of time online looking at maps and photos of the areas Momaday describes and discussing the book. The Alchemist was just too badly written to read aloud–we were both squirming over some of those corny sentences. So we read chapter plot summaries we found on the Internet. I worried that Shakespeare would be a bit much for my English Language Learner, so we watched the movie, and he liked it very much–and laughed when he should have–and was then ready to try a few sonnets, which he also understood, though I’m not sure how much he liked them.
I can’t see any rhyme or reason behind the titles chosen, so I had no idea what to expect this semester. I was both pleased and horrified when I saw that Night would be our required read. Pleased because it’s a good book and an important book. Horrified because my son avoids anything too disturbing in his reading. And it’s hard to imagine a more disturbing book than Night. At least it’s short, I told myself. We’ll read a few pages a day, we’ll manage.
But I underestimated my son. He has been deeply engaged, and reading even a few pages a day takes forever because he has a million questions. I keep the computer handy because we frequently shut the book to hop online and do some research. He knew a little bit about the Holocaust before, but most of the story is new to him. All of our research and all of our conversation isn’t helping him come closer to an answer to his big question: how could humans do this to other humans? I don’t know, I keep saying. Because I don’t.
Yesterday we read the scene where the child is hanged, and he sat there with his hands covering his face as I read. He has been deeply emotionally affected by every scene and situation in the book.
“This is a really hard book,” he said afterwards. “But it’s so good. I think this is my most favorite book I’ve ever read.”
That gave me pause.
I don’t believe in required reading. Choice and independent reading are two of my most cherished teaching beliefs.
And yet. I know that my son never would have chosen to read Night independently. He never would have picked it up on his own even if I had given the most dazzling book talk about it. And now it is his most favorite book ever.
I’m not sure what, if anything, to make of that. I guess that sometimes a book can be the right book at the right time even if it’s required.
I think back to my own history of required reading and all the books that were the right book for me at the right time, even though they were required. It was the required reading throughout 11th and 12th grade that made me fall in love with literature, that turned me into an English major. It didn’t have that effect on anyone else in the class. To my knowledge, I was the only future English major in those two classes. I don’t know how much that steady diet of classics grew anyone else’s literate life. But still. Maybe there were a couple of books in the curriculum that were the right books for someone else too?
Mostly, this makes me ask what next for my son. If he is ready for the power of Night, what else could we read together? My mind is full of titles that could be his next favorite book ever. Whole categories of literature that I never thought of sharing with him suddenly feel possible. What might he choose from the selection of titles I’ve got swirling around my mind right now?
But I wonder, too, if there can also sometimes be magic in having no choice at all.