I was lucky. By the time school had started requiring us to read this or that novel, I had long been hooked on reading for purely leisurely enjoyment. As a child who was clearly not born to play a sport in the big leagues (thanks mom and dad) and whose permitted television stations were limited to shows on PBS, I quickly adopted reading as my diversion of choice. I tore through books with an uncharacteristic tenacity and considered myself a master speed-reader by third grade. I loved (and still do) that I could create worlds and characters in my own head that were unconstrained by the whims, opinions, and perspectives of Hollywood. Through this, I could transport myself into stories that felt exponentially more real than anything a flat screen could hope to compete with.
During particularly boring stretches of my education, I would find myself reading about a book a day. Unlike most parents who try and force their kids to read, mine were so sick of my habits that they took to hiding books in household appliances to keep me from reading too much. I consider my pleasure-reading streak, which lasted up until about 10th grade, to be by far the greatest educational experience of my life. I gained a more solid foundation in history, science, economics, English, philosophy, and just about everything through reading outside of the classroom then I ever did in school.
It is thus not surprising that, after the incredibly enjoyable self-selected reading I had been doing on my own for years, I detested a large majority of the reading required of me by the California public school system. I speak for most of my classmates when I say that just the thought of Island of the Blue Dolphins, Boy of the Painted Cave, Huckleberry Finn, and virtually every other in-class-novel that I was forced to read still gives me the chills. The only upside to in-class reading was that I was able read whatever far superior book I was reading for fun under the façade of required reading. If school had been my first foray into literature, I can safely say that I would not be a "reader" as I consider myself today. My own experiences have led me to the conclusion that the strictness in school literature requirements and lack of breadth and in permitted genres to choose from for said requirement is one of the biggest problems with education in America. Nevertheless, I believe that this problem is also easily fixed.
If you were to ask the majority of American teenagers or even pre-teens the last book they read for fun, you would most likely be met with blank stares. Even among college students, reading for the sake of enjoyment is a relatively foreign concept. However, this is completely understandable reaction. We are often forced to read ancient, irrelevant stories about people we can rarely relate to. If at some point we do manage to become enthralled in a story, the experience is often a short-lived one because we are generally encouraged to stick with the pace of the class, which prevents us from reading at a pace that matches our enthusiasm and inevitably ruins any momentum that we might have.
As much as it sounds like I despise the books we were forced to read early on in school, I actually hold most of them in high esteem. Reading classics and famous works is extremely important and everyone should do it. However, a student first needs to learn to appreciate the beauty of words on a page. Imagine learning to ride a bike, but only learning while riding up hill. No one would be surprised if after being forced to learn, you never wanted to ride again. Similar to this is process of learning to read through the difficult literature taught in the classroom. It is hard enough to get kids to learn to read and enjoy doing it through books that they would enjoy. Substitute those enjoyable books for the complicated literature taught in the classroom and you have a recipe for permanently turning kids off from reading.
In a strange way literature can learn a thing or two from the world of film. We might watch a plethora of frustratingly boring and poorly made educational films in class, but when we go home at night, we are exposed to advertisements for the very best storytelling, special effects, and acting that Tinseltown has to offer. Imagine if every The Scarlett Letter or To Kill a Mockingbird read was complimented by The Da Vinci Code, or Ender's Game. At least some kids would start to develop the love for reading at the early age they need to. While requiring kids to read more page turners might not bring about many immediate benefits, in the big picture, this could help turn around the currently dismal prospects for our education system.