I received this very lovely letter from a high school student this spring. (I’ve waited until after her school assignment was due to post her letter and my response.) I thought some of her questions about reading and writing might be of interest to other students who write me from time to time. So here is her letter and my answers.
Dear May-lee Chai,
I am B… W… and I am currently a senior at Y… High School. I am writing to you as a project for my Elements of Reading Literature class in which we are assigned to write to a person of our choice, asking them how reading has influenced their life. I chose to write to you after reading “Saving Sourdi” in my AP Short Stories class. It remains as my favorite piece of work we have read in AP Literature and I am continually astounded with your thought-provoking plot and emotionally relevant characters. I would greatly appreciate it if you would take the time to respond to a few questions for my project.
- How have books and reading played a role in your life and influenced your own writing?
- Who do you remember as being a major influence in your learning and enjoying to read?
- What is your favorite book of all time and why?
- Do you think reading will be a necessary skill in the future, or will a visual world of television, movies, video games, and computers make reading a less important activity?
I would be grateful if you could respond by Tuesday, May 18 so that I am able to share your responses with my fellow classmates. Thank you again for taking the time to respond to these questions. I look forward to immersing myself in more of your incredible literary works in the near future!
[I don’t post students’ full names when they write to me unless they write me back with specific permission to do so. So, if you want credit for this lovely letter, B.W., let me know!]
Thanks for your letter! I’ll try to answer your questions the best I can. Here goes!
1) Books have been essential in my life since I was in elementary school. My parents used to criticize me for reading in bed instead of sleeping. In fact, I once melted the plastic lampshade of my bedside lamp by putting a cloth over it so that my parents wouldn’t see the light while I was reading late at night. Alas, they smelled the smoke, and that ended that particular attempt at subterfuge.
Seriously, I don’t know how I’d live without books. Reading gave me a sense of the larger world, a sense of possibility, that I would not have had otherwise. Books stir my imagination and nurture me.
I’m sure every book—good or bad—has influenced my writing in ways that I’m not always aware of. I do not consciously attempt to imitate other writers when I write my own works, but I’m sure the influence is there in my subconscious.
My mother & I (& our cool matching outfits!)
2) My mother was my first influence. She always encouraged my reading (except at night when I was supposed to be sleeping), took me to the library when I was too small to get my own books, recommended books to me that she had enjoyed, and shared with me stories about her own reading habits. She had not been encouraged to read as a child, but she told me how much she loved to read and how the books she’d read on the sly as a child helped her to overcome difficulties in her own life.
My teachers were the ones who actually taught me to read. I remember that my middle school English teacher, Mrs. Margaret Cash, was the first teacher who encouraged me to write as well as read and the first teacher who ever told me that I could become a writer someday.
3) I love too many books to choose just one favorite. I have different favorites every day for every mood. To choose one example, however, I love the book The Lover by Marguerite Duras, which I first read in the original French (L’amant). But also I love the Barbara Bray translation in English, and I like to re-read passages and compare the differences in the English and French versions. I love how Duras creates her characters, first through memory of photographs, then in scenes that use strong visual imagery. Her language in French is lyrical and sensual and seems to form a soundtrack for the story. She often uses very long sentences and passages punctuated by a short, sharp sentence. The English version is not as musical, but it has a precision and unique vocabulary and phrasing that makes the language fresh and the story come to life for me.
As a child in elementary school I had two favorite books, which I read over and over, for years. The first was Little Women by Louisa May Alcott and the second was Alice in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. Although they are both very different, they featured female protagonists who could have their own adventures. I still re-read these books as an adult.
4) I know that reading will continue to be essential in the future. Visual media like movies, TV shows, video games, etc. still depend upon their ability to tell a story.
The evolution in video games, for example, hasn’t just been in making the backgrounds and avatars look more “realistic;” gamers have tried to create more compelling narratives.
Reading stories and books teaches us how to think, how to analyze, how to communicate across time, how to create a narrative, how to imagine. If we lose this ability, we will also lose the ability to create visual media. But there are many more important reasons for us to read.
In the 19th century, slaves were forbidden to learn to read and write. It was also illegal to teach a slave to read. Why is this? What was so important about the ability to read if you had no legal rights? According to the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision of 1857, for example, slaves were property even if they lived in “free states” for a time, thus they were not citizens and they had no right to sue in court for their freedom. It would seem if a person has no legal rights in a society, literacy wouldn’t make that much of a difference. So what was so dangerous about teaching slaves how to read that it had to be illegal? I think reading allows us to dream of a better life, to imagine a different future than the present that we know, to communicate better, to grow intellectually, and thus to outsmart our captors. It can create within us hope by learning about history as well as other people in our predicament and other ways of living. If human beings can have access to this knowledge, and thus to these ideas and these dreams, they will never accept their status as slaves.
Most totalitarian regimes—such as Mao-era China, Stalin-era Russia, East Germany under Communist rule—strictly controlled what citizens were allowed to read and prohibited most literature that was not propaganda written by the state. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia out and out killed people who were literate! Why? These leaders were afraid that if the people could read about other ways of life, they wouldn’t accept the lies and deprivations inflicted upon them. The people who were literate would also gain the power to influence others and overthrow the oppressive regimes.
I think it’s significant that in North Korea today, students are allowed to study science and technology—hence North Korea’s nuclear program—but the study of literature is greatly curtailed and most world literature is banned. What does that tell us about the power of reading?
I know that reading is a necessary skill for Americans in order to keep our society strong and democratic. I don’t fear new technologies or competition from visual media. However, I do worry that cuts to school funding and cuts in early education, libraries, universities, etc., will hurt our nation’s ability to teach the next generation of Americans to read well.
I realize this is a rather long letter, B–, but I really loved your questions. I could certainly go on forever about my feelings about books and reading!
I’m very happy to receive your letter. Your Elements of Reading Literature class sounds very cool, and your teacher has come up with a very creative assignment for you.
Thanks for writing to me. (And thanks much for all your kind words about my story, “Saving Sourdi.” I’m quite gladdened to hear that you liked the story so much!)
P.S. I would love to read about your own thoughts on reading and your favorite books. If you want to write back and tell me how you would answer the questions that you asked me, I’d be thrilled.
Click on the link for more information about Dragon Chica, my novel about the characters in “Saving Sourdi.” Dragon Chica will be in stores this October 2010. (Amazon.com currently says it’s for “ages 9-12.” That’s not accurate. I’d say that it’s appropriate for high school age students and adults. It’s definitely not for children.)
Dragon Chica (my novel about the characters from "Saving Sourdi"
My copy of L'AMANT by Marguerite Duras
English-language version of The Lover
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