The reading habits of my students…

I’m not sure how many of my students would be considered “readers”, but I’m fairly certain it’s not many. Less than half, certainly, probably not much more than a third (though maybe that’s just me being pessimistic).  I would define “reader” as someone who reads novels outside of assignments for class, and, more than that, does so consistently; i.e., always has a novel with a bookmark in it.

It probably shouldn’t be all that surprising, knowing the multitude of distractions we have available to us today: readily downloadable movies, smart phones, video games, instant messaging, etc.; the opportunities at which  a novel can be cast aside (figuratively or literally, you pick) for something more immediately stimulating, perhaps a bit less challenging, are legion.

And it saddens me, though I admit I’m often victim to the same distractions.

Prompting these thoughts are the reactions many of my seniors seem to be having toward Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated and acclaimed plays.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not apathy to the play or to my class  that I’m seeing (at least I don’t think it is, though they are just 10 weeks away from graduation), but many are complaining that reading the play is too difficult.

It would be easy for me to write this off as laziness, and in a few cases I think that’s true. I have to squelch the urge to say “millions of people for centuries have enjoyed Shakespeare’s plays, so what does that say about you?” because that would be unfair. Blank verse can be challenging for anyone, and even moreso for students who don’t read often. Still, I do think it speaks to a limitation held by  many of my students, but not one of intellect.

Rather, their limitation is one of empathy, meaning it appears many of my students don’t attempt to connect emotionally with the characters.  Not that what Hamlet is experiencing is outside the realm of their own experience – I don’t believe one need lose a parent to understand what Hamlet is feeling – but because they don’t read (often) in the first place, they have not developed an ability to empathize with fictional characters. They can’t, or don’t, look at what they read as works that present “real life” because that’s not what they look for when they read.  Real life to them is separate from what they read – they’ve grown up on Harry Potter which has given way to Twilight.  Beyond that what do they read?.

To illustrate, we were looking at Act I, scene iii of Hamlet where Polonius gives some good advice to his son, Laertes, who’s leaving for France, and then turns his attention to Ophelia:


What is’t, Ophelia, he hath said to you?


So please you, something touching the Lord Hamlet.


Marry, well bethought:
‘Tis told me, he hath very oft of late
Given private time to you; and you yourself
Have of your audience been most free and bounteous:
If it be so, as so ’tis put on me,
And that in way of caution, I must tell you,
You do not understand yourself so clearly
As it behoves my daughter and your honour.
What is between you? give me up the truth.


He hath, my lord, of late made many tenders
Of his affection to me.


Affection! pooh! you speak like a green girl,
Unsifted in such perilous circumstance.
Do you believe his tenders, as you call them?


I do not know, my lord, what I should think.


Marry, I’ll teach you: think yourself a baby;
That you have ta’en these tenders for true pay,
Which are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly;
Or–not to crack the wind of the poor phrase,
Running it thus–you’ll tender me a fool.

We had already mentioned that Polonius appears to be a very loving father when looking at his relationship with his son, but here I asked them how they felt  about how he was treating Ophelia.


After waiting a bit, I then posed a question to the females in the class: how would you feel if your dad asked you to explain your relationship with your boyfriend? The reaction was immediate and vocal: they’d feel it was awkward and embarrassing. Exactly!  That’s exactly what Ophelia is feeling! Then why didn’t they pick up on that while reading? They weren’t putting themselves in Ophelia’s situation because that’s not how they think about literature.

And I should note that what I see is not just reflected in their reactions to Shakespeare and his blank verse – I can’t write it off merely because the play might be difficult. The short fiction we read over the past four weeks also suggested this inability to connect with the characters: my students read John Updike’s “A&P” to begin the semester, a story about a nineteen year old cashier at a grocey store who ogles some girls in bathing suits and then quits his job in an act of chivalry when he feels they’re insulted (go ahead, read it). Many of my students came in saying they “didn’t get it” or thought that the narrator was a “creeper” (what, some of the girls in my class don’t have boyfriends already in college?). It’s as if they’ve never known a teenage boy before.

I suppose what I’m saying is that for far too many of my students, reading is viewed as an activity to be kept at arm’s length (heh). Emotional investment in the characters is rare, and this hurts their ability to truly understand what they’re reading.  As a reader, you have to be willing to get involved in the story and think about the characters as real people, attempting to understand their motivations, their desires, their strengths and weaknesses, all which lead to their actions. Reading’s a richer experience this way, and it ought to be a lesson that is learned early.

4 Responses to “The reading habits of my students…”

  1. To me, the question is, “Why do I need or want to get emotionally involved with these characters?”. I don’t consider myself a “reader” at all. Four years of college, an undergraduate thesis, and 3 years of law school took any “reader” straight out of me. I have enough angst and drama in my life – I don’t care to add the angst or drama of a fictional character to it. For the same reason, I don’t much care for TV or movies unless they amuse me. I’m very interested in people and what makes them tick – pop psychology, people watching, and besides that, just plain being interested in the lives of my friends – but that is all reality – not the made-up interactions of two made-up characters from a guy that lived a few hundred years ago.

    I’m truly not trying to jerk your chain- all the kidding about Mark Twain aside – and just explain how I – as someone who probably much more closely aligns with your students – views a study of Shakespeare, poetry, or a lot of literature. I think I’d have to see what was in it for me – why waste my time investing in some fictional character when I have other things to do – before I could truly care.

    Mark asked me a while back what I was reading right now. That question was almost funny to me. Why would I be reading something? At the time, I had a book on adjusting skin tones in Photoshop laying on my nightstand, so that was the best answer I had.

  2. I have always used literature as an escape and still do. Baby’s in bed? Great! Time to get back to The Count of Monte Cristo. I find time to take a bath? Awesome! The next installment of Fables accompanies me.

    Reading is a chance to put my own current worries aside and pick up someone else’s generally more interesting life. Why would I want to exchange the drama in my life for that of another? Because it isn’t mine. And because IT inevitably ends. I like reading because it makes me think and it teaches me many things about myself. More often than I can count have I read something in a novel and thought to myself, “What would I have done?” (Sydney Carton’s ultimate act of selflessness comes to mind.) Or I read, thinking, “That woman is CRAZY!!!” (Clearly, Lady Macbeth.)

    No matter what I’m thinking when I’m reading, the point is that I’m thinking. Does it make me better with numbers or public speaking or lawyering (it could be a word)? No. Does it make me a better problem-solver, a more well-rounded and socially conscious individual, and a better person in general? Hell yes. In conversations with friends, I often make a connection with our real-life issues and “something I’ve read somewhere.” Then I think about what happened in the book and consider my options for handling the situation. The same is true for being a daughter, sister, wife, and parent. I’ve learned many things from many characters.

    Reading and paying attention to characters’ emotions and thoughts can only add to a real-life person’s character. You don’t have to empathize or sympathize with a character, but even an attempt at understanding his thoughts or feelings still teaches you something. It’s a win-win. And I don’t understand the down-side.

  3. bigredpoet Says:

    I agree entirely that too few students seek to empathize with the characters they read, or even to take an interest in what those characters experience throughout their fictional lives. I’d venture to say, though, that this is not the root of the problem. It’s deeper. Remember my post about showing sophomores “Dead Poets Society”?
    It seems that many of the students who enter my classroom are emotionally crippled in a way that’s bigger than failing to empathize with characters on the page. My experience with “Dead Poets Society” has showed me that many of them can’t connect with a (very nearly) living, breathing character on the big screen who’s suffering a truly tragic moment of loss and guilt. Hell, all you’ve got to do is walk through the hallways at the school to see that many of the kids don’t even have empathy for ONE ANOTHER when they meet face-to-face.

    I’m not one to say “it was better back in my day,” but I do think modern technology is having an adverse effect on the teenagers we meet in the high school. So much of their interaction happens one status update, one tweet, one “like” at a time that it’s eroding their ability to relate to their fellow humans in a genuine, connected way. After all, what’s the difference in the way I “like” a picture posted by my closest friend and the way I “like” a picture posted by some dingbat who knows a guy who used to date a girl I kinda knew in high school? Nothing. In the world of cyberspace, interaction is interaction is interaction, and very little of it is actually personal. Modern inventions like LOL and 😦 tell the reader how he or she is supposed to feel about the text, and there’s no room left to think about what the sender has sent and empathize when the time is appropriate.

    The inability to understand why Ophelia is uncomfortable with Polonius’ questions is the same inability to understand Todd’s vomiting and panicked flight through the snow. Sadly, both of these are the same inability to understand people that lead teenagers to call each other “fag,” “retard,” “nigger,” and God knows how many other awful names. It’s a terrifying trend, and I wish I knew some way to counteract it. Teaching my students to connect with the characters they read is a start, but I fear my influence is awfully small…

    Also, the paragraph that begins “Rather” ends with a right parenthesis that has no left-sided mate that I can find, and it’s killing me.

  4. Kracker Says:

    Based on your definition, I am not a reader. That is, novels have never been to terribly interesting to me or at least for the most part. I do read. Often in matter of fact. A book about history, philosophy, politics or economics is what gives me pleasure. If a novel contains any of the proceeding, it becomes interesting to me. If it doesn’t, I will in most cases become bored and quit the task. The important part though is finding a relevant connection to the person.

    When I read Hamlet in high school, I loved it. It was profound to me, as was Othello. I connected with the characters of Hamlet and Iago. Why? Perhaps because Hamlet was so perfectly insane, and Iago so perfectly villainous. Frankly, most of the books I read in high school were interesting to me probably because the classics all “mean” something. They had a reason to be read. They all had the ability to teach me something new.

    So many kids today don’t need to be taught something new, because they already know it all. It’s not interesting, because they think they already get the point of the novel, so there is no attempt to connect with the book and therefore have no real connection to any part of the novel. I have my students read Slaughterhouse Five for extra credit in class, but none of them like it. They “don’t understand it,” “or it’s too weird “they say. This blows my mind.

    Well Mike. From this non-reader, I want to commend you for making my night melancholy. Thanks!

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