Thursday, February 24, 2011

Vignettes: The Not-Literature

When I was an English student, my course advisor, who was English department chair, used to lend me books from the heavy-laden shelves in her office –romance novels, “beach reading,” murder mysteries – in an effort to broaden my horizons. I would read these books, despite their lack of dragons, out of respect and admiration for this woman, and discuss them with her over long lunches at a restaurant near the campus green. We would be laughing over the plots and characters, describing what we enjoyed about each book and why…

Then she would soberly say, “But of course it’s not literature,” and take a slow sip of coffee as she stared out the window.

My God, it was like someone had shot her dog.

During my first month as librarian at the inner city high school, I opened the fifty heavy boxes with anticipation, relishing the new-book smell. The last librarian had qualified for a generous grant and ordered hundreds of new titles, but accepted a higher-paying job elsewhere before the order came in. They were beautiful! They were shiny! They came with free library processing! I basked in their light without having to do a lick of work. It was glorious.

The principal did not share my excitement. Herself a product of the inner city, she held high expectations of her low-achieving students. Picking through the “Hi-Lo” page-turners, designed to be of “high interest” to young adults reading at an elementary or “low” grade level, she saw Not-Literature, such as my old professor had lamented. She wrinkled her nose as she picked up a Goosebumps book. “Why would the librarian order this trash?”

Because reading trash is a step up from not reading. To this day, I kick myself for not saying that aloud.

When the state closed the inner city high school due to low achievement, I landed at a magnet middle school. “These kids read all the time!” my predecessor claimed before she retired.

But the English teachers told a different story. “They only read enough to earn their AR points, then they stop.”

I sighed as I surveyed the generous library, packed wall-to-wall with shiny, untouched Literature.

“If I get them to read more, do you care how I do it?” I asked.

“Knock yourself out,” the team leader said.

My days blurred together, spent at the shelves as often as behind the desk, pushing Not-Literature into unsuspecting hands.
“This one’s got spaceships in it,” I told the kids,
and “You’ll like this one: there are pirates”
and “Just read the first page, and tell me you’re not interested. I dare you,”
and “You look like you need a ghost story.”

The reading scores improved.

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