Monday, 4 May 2015

Sucking the Joy out of Reading, one college essay at a time

*Note: this essay was written as the final for my second semester English Literature and Writing course beginning January 2015. I was supposed to write an essay citing (quoting) three prior essays that I had written this semester. These are "Overpowering Your Brain," an essay on television in the novel Fahrenheit 451, "Fictional Reality," a short essay on the play Beauty by Jane Martin, and "Fall of the North," my research/multicultural essay on Korea during the Japanese Occupation.

Sucking Out the Joy

     Nearly everyone will know a bookworm at some point – and nearly everyone will know another person who cannot stand to read. I have long wondered at those who have foresworn the written word, having had so much pleasure from it during my life. Having written stories since childhood, I have been saddened to see those who have let their writing ability fade away: dismayed to hear those who fondly recall their childhood writing days recount how they have no happiness in the craft now they are adults. Having partaken in two college English courses, I think I have found the reason for the average American’s dimmed love of literary efforts. The technical nature of essay writing, the narrow and often dismal reading selections, and general crushing of natural interest with neglected library resources have also dimmed my fondness for the field as shown in my essays over the course of this semester.
     The first portion of the answer is found in required essay writing courses, which foster an inability to more creatively express yourself in writing. The technicalities of essay writing – the placement of thesis and topic statements as controllers for subsequent paragraphs – are so very different from the creative, free-flowing style that is novel writing. The essay form is so structured it can be very hard not to display nothing but bones: paltry sentences dangling off stilted topic sentences which hold, vicelike, thesis statements with their sharp claws. Sentences such as “outside the novel, the Korean language was one of the key points to Japanese colonization” from my essay “Fall of the North” would never be welcome in story writing: “show us, don’t tell us” is the novel writer’s motto. On the other hand, the topic sentence “Bethany’s friend Carla is beautiful, attractive, popular, and a model” in Fictional Reality would only work if the entirety of the paragraph was devoted to Carla’s being beautiful and a model. As a sentence, it sounds nice; as a controlling statement in the comparison of two women, it fails utterly. The issue, though, is when the English college course does not remind the student there are other ways of writing: merely reading it in a story and expecting the students to learn by osmosis is not enough to build a love of reading and writing. College should be teaching how to bend and break the rules of technical writing taught in earlier years of school, right when the grasp of language in the average adult should be great enough to branch out into more creative, less structured writing. Instead, spending semesters on classes full of solely essay writing crushes the writer in all but the hardiest souls, discouraging them from looking further, restively settling with reading only writing “professionals.”

     The reading of these professionals, though, is another step in crushing the prospective writer or reader upon attending college. This semester, unlike the last, came with pre-selected stories and required reading that took away the possibility of fully enjoying literature. With Fictional Reality, I wrote about a play I had no interest in at all, coming up with ridiculous paragraphs and forced comparisons, describing Bethany’s wishes as those that “many characters in fictional tales confronted with wish-granting powers” choose. I love the madness of Hamlet, the double entendres of Mercutio, the taming of certain Shrews; these, however, were not allowed as choices though they stand as great works of English literature – just the sort of work I expected to encounter in a college course. I had hoped to use favorite poems by Lord Byron, explore the naïveté of Northanger Abbey, or revisit the chilling works of Poe in my essays. I had hoped to share my love of the novel, the written word, the enjoyment of new worlds and old adventures with those I would meet in class. Upon attending the class, however, a very different reality presented itself. Instead of being able to read and write essays on the novels I did enjoy, I was stuck writing about television’s ability “to divert, to entertain the pain away” in Overpowering Your Brain. Instead of being able to share interest in reading, I watched my class get frustrated with the exhausting overflow of words in Fahrenheit 451, lose hope of doing well in their multicultural essays with a novel list primarily filled with war stories, and struggle to find poetry that reflected some truth to them in the narrow confines of their English text. Even the most basic English class should have some taste of passion for the written word – not present it like a dead thing to be dissected and written of in compartmental paragraphs with perfect margins.

     In the compartmentalization of writing, this semester reminded me yet again of the magical four steps to writing. I do not write outlines – prewriting, the first step, has never been a step for me at all. This side of New Year, however, in an attempt to get through the stolid essays, I did begin to use outlines in an attempt to pull some ideas into being. Ironically, the essay I used outlines for received the lowest grade of the year – Fictional Reality – and all other essays I wrote without the “first step” resulted in much higher grades, including my longest essay, Fall of the North. The final two steps – revision and editing – are steps that I have long put to good use, which has been reflected in the essays I have submitted. Though I do not use outlines, reading through the paper locates the odd patches that need moving or replacing, and editing is something quite quickly corrected as the errors occur or as found in final read-throughs. Reflecting on the fact that these steps are being recalled to my classmates and me this far in my education reveals again the breaking up of an art into proper little rules and sciences. Instead of finding joy and creativity in writing, the point of the exercise is to get the steps right; rather than finding what works for you in what order or what needs to be left out, the orthopraxy of writing needs to be observed.

     The final load heaped onto the hopeful writer or reader is the abysmal state of the Tri County Technical College library. The difficulty in finding textual support to go with the online databases for the novels on the school’s own list of texts for this year is insupportable. Each book on the list for the multicultural essay should have been chosen in light of having enough print texts to give sources for the essay; otherwise the books chosen should have been immediately reconciled with the library by adding necessary sources to the shelves. Locating sources about Korea in their wars, general histories, language, and culture for my essays both last year and this has been extremely difficult. Only my passion for the country and its people has enabled me to pull fragmentary sources together from the maze of online databases. Of all libraries, college libraries should be the best stocked, both to supplement the student’s academic efforts as well as to satisfy their curiosity for knowledge of the world around them. This lack in sources has severely hampered the flow of the writing stage in my essays, strangling efforts to branch out to areas of interest both to myself and my fellow classmates for scarcity of information.

     The discovery of the answer to the low interest in writing and reading among Americans through experience of their struggles has left me greatly dismayed. I have long loved words in all their forms, and I wish with all my heart to see colleges at the very least supporting those who show even the slightest interest in the same. Though I learned very well how to use MLA format in the writing of essays, I learned nothing else. Though I saw plenty of text, I never got to a story I could love. What disappoints me more than anything, more than being left unsatisfied, is the hundreds of students who sat through that same class, realizing there really was nothing for them here. Crushing the love of an art by forcing scientific rules on it will never aid the appreciation of the art – nor will it do any good in the education of new generations. These generations will have the love of words beaten out of them well before they reach the outer world, where they will continue to beat it out of each other, until we indeed have Fahrenheit 451 – a world where books are not allowed, but not for their divisive uses: people will simply have forgotten how to love reading.