There's something about assigned reading that's different from other homework assignments that makes students dread it and avoid it at all costs. Maybe it's that it seems so time-consuming to read hundreds of pages. Maybe it's that there are resources like Sparknotes and Cliffnotes that make it seem like reading the book isn't even necessary. Or, maybe it's that teachers' selection of literature triggers that eternal question, "When are we ever going to use this in real life?"
I get why students are so annoyed with being told what to read by their teachers. As a senior in high school, I've been assigned a variety of books, ranging from Crime and Punishment to Half of Man is Woman to Things Fall Apart to Death of a Salesman. Not only is it sometimes difficult to find some of the novels that my teachers have assigned -- I've gone to the local Barnes and Nobel multiple times to buy a book for class and come back empty-handed -- but it also feels like these books are irrelevant to our lives. What does Raskolnikov, a conflicted man living in St. Petersburg in the 1800s, have in common with me? How could I possibly relate to Zhang, a worker in one of China's labor camps during the Cultural Revolution? Why do I need to know about Europe's colonization of the Igbo people? And I'm not planning to be a salesman -- so why would Willy Loman's career troubles concern me?
But, as I read each one of these works of literature, I was surprised by how much I could relate to the character and their issues. I get why Raskolnikov is so torn between continuing his lifestyle and changing in order to be a better person. I understand why Zhang needed to go through a rough relationship so that he could regain his confidence. I can relate to Nwoye, Okonkwo's son, because I know what it's like to be the odd one out. And, I know what it's like to feel as though your dreams can never be achieved, like Willy Loman does. Each novel, play, etc. that I have been assigned to read has not only been bearable but surprisingly relevant to my life.
And this brings me to what I see as "the beauty in assigned reading." My English teachers pick out books that I would never think to read, but I end up loving them and relating to the protagonist or the central conflict in the work of literature. The true beauty of assigned reading is that it forces us to go out of our comfort zones. It makes us willing to hear about a different culture during a different period of time, keeping our minds open to new opinions and perspectives. And these stories that we've never heard before might actually be similar to experiences that we've gone through or feelings that we've had. Maybe it's the just the nerd in me that actually loves my teachers selecting books for me to read, but I really believe that there's a kind of strange beauty in assigned reading, as it essentially takes us out of our comfort zone and makes us try something new.
So even though homework is rarely ever fun or enjoyable, I think it's possible to look at these plays, novels, and poems that we're assigned to read in a new light, seeing it as trying something different rather than just another boring assignment. And, for all you high school students out there, I know it's tempting to just Sparknotes a book instead of reading it, but just try to read the novel. You honestly never know what you'll find.
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