By Robert Oliphant
Recommended reading, very much like physical exercise, has always been fair game for American cranks. Certainly anyone who has looked at the Harvard Classics would have been puzzled by the presence of Calvin’s “Institutes,” or the Syntopticon’s bizarre decision to reject the Samuel Putnam translation of Rabelais in favor of Sir Thomas Uhrquart’s (1611-600) melange of personally coined new words.
By way of cautionary contrast the National Association of Scholars has elected a consensual system for producing its “Books for Common Reading,” a 50-book selection of high quality fiction and nonfiction for all Americans, not just high school students. Even better, each choice is accompanied by an energetic, well-written energetic description, presumably by the NAS member who nominated it.
To be frank, this is the best recommended-reading list I’ve seen in the last 20 years. I hope it stimulates other organizations to explore this genre further. So on this assumption, I propose to make a few friendly suggestions based upon my own experience, including my mistakes, in trying to get students to read good books on their own.
THE SELECTION PROBLEM. . . . To me recommending a book is like recommending an accountant to a friend: I’m always afraid the pairing won’t work. So by way of ducking this awkward responsibility, I simply asked my ESL students some years back to pick their reading selections from a list of Pulitzer prizewinners in the field of biography.
Today this group comprises 280 biographies, each of them fairly short and well
written. Even better, it can be extended to encompass biographies honored by the National Book Awards and other organizations listed on the internet. As indicated by the relative sympathy biographers displayed regarding their subjects (even Hitler or Franco), a biography invites fast, retentive reading far more than any other prose form, including history. Why couldn’t the NAS participants have used a national authority like Pulitzer as a starting point for their personal choices?
COMPLIANCE. . . . Readers and viewers need a chance to display the results of
their experience, e.g., asking a four year old, “Whom did Alice meet FIRST on
the Yellow Brick Road? — The Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, or the Tin Woodman? Consequently, since brute force reading is a practical goal, I’ve had good luck by erasing the page numbers on photocopied pages, re-sequencing them in random order, and then asking readers to identify their original sequence, e.g., “Which page appears first — a, b, or c.
By way of cutting costs, I and other reader-friendly teachers in the Los Angeles system now ask each student to prepare a group of 20 non-numbered pages, from which the instructor or office assistant can choose ten to serve as a re-sequencing target. Given 15 biographies read by each student, this testing system monitors almost 2 million words of sequential nonfiction read by each student.
IMPACT. . . . All volume-reading students deserve to be reminded that their futures may well be far more brilliant and productive than some of their more precocious colleagues. Since high-volume reading is our quickest route to vocabulary growth. Along these lines, instructors can build their students’ self esteem by encouraging them to measure that growth via dictionary-based questions like “Please identify the 9-letter word whose pronunciation is represented as /kwes”cheuhn/ and whose 4th definition is ‘a subject of dispute or controversy’ in the Random House College Dictionary.”
Like other college-size dictionaries (roughly 1600 pp.), Random House College
contains different kinds of entries: foreign words, abbreviations, proper names,
phrases like HIGH SCHOOL, etc. But the key feature shared by Random and other college sized dictionaries is their common offering of roughly 60,000 headword-pronunciation-definition combinations (cf. the above question: answer: QUESTION).
FRUGALITY. . . . This term applies to both our new “GRE Computer Adaptive Testing (GRCAT) program and its worldwide Indic competitor (also in American English), “Aspiring Minds Computer Adaptive Testing (AMCAT), sometimes read as “American Course Achievement Testing. Already making an impact in India, AMCAT focus upon worldwide employability and graduate school acceptance is now taken seriously in many other multi-lingual nations like Indonesia and China (17 mutually unintelligible spoken languages, e.g., Cantonese and Mandarin.
To put it more tendentiously: Right now more than over 2 billion earthlings speak SWADE, many of them with better articulation than the average American college student, judging from our own positive reactions to recent telephone interviews with Egyptian rioters and Japanese refugees. Why shouldn’t the NAS see its reading program as a vital anti-multiculturalism step against surrendering American students against being conquered by their own language — in graduate schools and even in telephone salesmanship.
TO CONCLUDE. . . . As asserted at the outset, the National Association of Scholars has given Americans, all of them, an excellent 50-book reading list that includes a graceful commentary for each book. But its lofty concerns with western civilization and multiculturalism imply, for me, at least, the desire to give Americans something more ambitious than an off-the-wall list of personal favorites.
Let’s hope members of the splendid organization dig in and place a practical foundation under their reading list, ideally one that home schoolers could use to achieve measurably impressive results.
Robert Oliphant currently serves as executive director of The Alliance for High Speed Recreational Reading, and formerly served as executive director of Californians for Community College Equity. A resident of Thousand Oaks, CA, and an overseas Air Force veteran, he is an emeritus professor of English at Cal State Northridge.