Today's Reading: "A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like" in The New York Times, August 29.

Given the reading theme here, this article (originally linked from Silliman's Blog) seems highly relevant. My opinion? This sort of thing ought not to be necessary, but in a culture where kids need to be taught why they should read as much as how to read, it's a good idea. Better, though, as the beginning of an ongoing program that would push them to deepen and broaden their tastes over the course of their education maybe by eventually narrowing the choices to a list of those "classic" books we used to force on them? That would also be a nice chance to broaden the curriculum, to possibly give kids exposure to a wider range of literature than just The Scarlet Letter and Of Mice and Men (two great books, but only two).

Of course, this raises a slightly edgier question for those of us "bent on doubting everything that can theoretically be doubted" (to borrow a phrase from the Wayne Booth book I'm editing). Namely, do kids need to be taught why to read? Or at least, do they need to be taught why to read literature? Is it necessary that literature survive as a major part of our culture, even if it's only on curricular life support? Doesn't the same death of the canon that enables the "read what you like" approach, if taken to its logical extreme, include the option to "don't read if you like"? Can the social functions of literature be carried out equally well by equivalently sophisticated works in other medialike television and film, which are surely the only two artistic media in our society whose future as a part of the mainstream culture seems secure? (Even music, it seems to me, is in the early stages of slowly, slowly going the way of poetry.)

For me, this question is deeply tied to the ongoing arguments about how to make poetry popular again, nicely embodied in Charles Bernstein's defiance of National Poetry Month. He doesn't quite say it there, but elsewhere Bernstein has suggested that maybe poetry, or at least certain kinds of poetry, don't need to be popular, that a mass audience isn't necessary for a viable art form and can even be harmful. That kind of thinking will get guys like Bernstein accused of elitism. But is it really more elitist to say "read what you like," and even "don't read if you like," rather than insisting that a certain kind of reading, "our" kind of reading, is essential to full personhood?