Finally getting to day two of the Los Angeles Times Festival of books -- by five o'clock on Sunday, both my son and I had come down with a wicked virus picked up somewhere between the booths and the food court.
Hip Hop Harry closed out the day -- he's a body in a huge bear costume (he's also the star of a tv show on Discovery Kids) vaulting around to the delicious sounds of Kurtis Blow. Not only did Harry underscore that old school hip-hop whomps the newer stuff, he also emphasized our wrong-headed approach to getting kids to read.
Harry rapped about the importance of washing hands, brushing teeth, and cooperating. All fine, but damn him for what he did next. With my impressionable three-year-old in the audience, he followed those "good for you" messages with a riff on books, reading and libraries called "I Love to Learn." I should've covered my kid's ears.
Sven Birkerts, a former teacher of mine and the writer of a few seriously contentious books (especially The Gutenberg Elegies, which he wrote while I was in his class -- not a compliment!), has written about his problem with prescriptive reading, and I have to agree.
I learned about the power of the written word when I was in sixth grade, when I giggled over the Judy Blume book Forever with a classmate at recess one day. The next day, I was called for a very serious conference with the teacher. Seems that my classmate, who had just arrived from Egypt, told her dad about the book and that was that. The book was officially banned from the school.
Now, I'd never had any restrictions on my reading (and I'd never, ever been in trouble at school before). Did I learn that books were powerful? Did I learn that some books were considered "bad for you"? Oh, yes. Did I hate reading for it? Heck no!
Also, because of my hideous illness, I have had the time to read many of the Atlantic Monthly's entire 2010 fiction supplement. My favorite story was a bizarre and wonderful slice of fiction called "Bone Hinge" by Katie Williams about a pair of Siamese twins. Was this story good for me? Probably not, because it was both creepy and sad. But it was worth reading -- it took me somewhere.
So what do we need to teach kids about reading and books (and libraries)? That reading can be dangerous because it can break you out of yourself, that it can take you to a new place, that it can be disturbing and sad but still glorious because it can rock your world. No, Harry, reading is not good for me. It's not even "good." And that's the best thing about it.