Over the past few days I’ve found that one thing just leads to another when it comes to the classics. One book I’ve been reading, Alan Jacobs’ The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, led me to reconsider a reread of some of the books I read many years ago, in the hope that I’d find something different, and maybe something more, than I did when I was twelve, or sixteen. Quite frankly, I thought maybe I needed the break. Some of the characters and situations I’ve been encountering in genre fiction recently have been really annoying, and it’s hard to enjoy a book when you want to shake the characters, or, alternatively, the author. I remembered loving Dickens, so I found myself a copy of Oliver Twist (which is free on Kindle, another benefit of many of the classics). And even with background knowledge of Dickens, I might very well have been stopped by his style and vocabulary in the first few pages if I hadn’t been determined to read it. I might add that Dickens’ dislike of the British workhouse system and treatment of the poor results in such heavy-handed sarcasm that anyone who didn’t understand what he was trying to do would be completely baffled. So I get it. It can require guidance to read one of these books, and persistence. It’s not necessarily easy to get into the flow. When Kelly Gallagher writes about teaching reading in a critical sense in his book Readicide, this is what he’s talking about. Some books are worth the effort. You CAN get into the story, but you need help to get through it.
What reading the classics SHOULDN’T mean is that they’re taught in isolation from context, or taught as a means to an end. As I was looking through my library’s catalog to see if it happened to own Tales of Mystery and Imagination, the Poe book with the terrifying illustrations that I wrote about previously, I discovered that while they didn’t own that particular collection, they did own the Kaplan SAT version. WHAT? I guess it’s one way to learn vocabulary, but what a turnoff. You don’t need Poe to learn vocabulary. And that’s not the reason to read him.
There are so many versions of Poe’s work, including student editions like this one, which unobtrusively provides help with words kids might not know, with a focus on the STORIES, graphic novels like this one, and awesomely illustrated ones like this, all of which give their readers compelling reasons to master Poe’s language and style without getting beaten over the head with the test practice opportunities his work may provide. You can memorize words and their definitions all day long if you want but you might as well just memorize the dictionary in that case- for understanding (which you’ll need for those analogy questions) and for enjoyment, wide and deep reading are what’s necessary.
You might need a push and a little guidance from someone else to get going, but promoting Poe as vocabulary practice for the SAT? That’s not how they’ll grab you. Once you get past the first words and start to feel the terror in the beating of your heart, you won’t rest in peace until the tale is done.