It’s autumn, and students are returning to the store in droves, like swallows to Capistrano. The scene brings to mind the famous opening of Don DeLillo’s White Noise—“The station wagons arrived at noon, a long shining line that coursed through the west campus”—although our students are arriving in hybrid SUVs in search of books for the upcoming semester. A few are looking for so-called free reading, but most are on the hunt for specific titles on a syllabus. It’s fun to imagine someone young encountering a famous work without any preconceived notions: “Animal Farm? Sounds a little like Charlotte’s Web.” It also inspires an adult return to the classics. How long has it been since first reading To Kill a Mockingbird? I don’t think I ever did get around to Jane Eyre, but maybe this is the year.
Shakespeare is a perennial target of these searches, and the most popular format for him of late is the No Fear series. These paperbacks feature the original text of a play on one page with a complete version in modern vocabulary on the facing page to aid comprehension. This kind of packaging has provoked more than one customer to ask me, “Do you have any Shakespeare in English?” In my curmudgeonly way, I’m always afraid that kids are reading one side instead of both, which would only reinforce the stereotype that the Bard is boring. Paraphrasing the plot and leaving out the rich language is like recreating a Hendrix guitar solo on a typewriter. The approach seems to work for a lot of people, but I think it’s misguided.
Since we’re talking about well-intentioned mistakes, let me just mention that our local school district has kicked off a new program that involves handing out iPads to each and every eighth- through twelfth-grader. I know we live in 2013 (a number that seemed unimaginably futuristic when I was in high school), and I know that growing up today means coming to terms with technology, but I’m still not sold on this scheme. I could almost buy into it if the devices were being gifted to the students, but these will remain the property of the school. Which means that the district is saddling itself with hundreds of machines that will be obsolete within months, and that someone has to be responsible for all of them. Responsible for replacing them if they’re lost or broken, and responsible for making sure they’re not used for anything improper. No pirated music or movies, no fleshy photos, no unfriendly tweeting, no activity that leads to commercial gain, and no “support or opposition for ballot measures, candidates, and any other political activity.” I’m glad I don’t have the job of digital locker inspector and Angry Birds exterminator.
Of course, my real beef is that this program encourages kids to turn away from the local and personal in favor of the virtual and corporate, as if the world wasn’t moving quickly enough in that direction. Does enabling fourteen-year-olds to download electronic copies of The Crucible or Lord of the Flies really benefit them as much as regular visits to the library (or–ahem–their neighborhood bookshop) would? Maybe I’d feel differently if these machines were truly neutral pieces of technology, but they’re decidedly not. They’re not just branded with a logo on the back; their very workings try to link users to the company store. At least make it a fair fight by loading a Kobo app on there. Then the kids would get a chance to support the small business that in turn supports their school.
I’d settle for that, but I’d prefer to see them do their studying the old-fashioned way. Not because it’s traditional, but because it works. If they scribble notes in a marbled composition book they remember them longer than they would otherwise. Science proves it. If they read a real book they employ all their senses, not just their eyes, while they do it. Their recollection of the story’s details will be better, and they’ll be training their brains for focused attention through the use of a classic, single-purpose learning device. They can even exercise their first amendment rights by slapping a campaign bumper sticker on it if they want. And if it’s a copy of Othello and they buy it from me, their parents can rest assured that I’ll be reminding them not to skip the important parts.