Finding the literary G-spot
We're doing a big push on reading this term. In order to encourage the kids to read more, my HoD is creating a literary hall of fame, where teachers identify any books that significantly shaped their lives. Predictably, The 7 Habits of Highly Ineffective People has been a popular choice among our senior managers, while the principal nominated The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe as his seminal tome. Its influence on him still prevails. His latest development plan - in which pupils make 27 sub-levels of progress while builders demolish the school around their ears - requires us to work Narnian shifts to pull it off in time.
But I'm glad we're doing something about reading. As a former reluctant reader myself, I know the damage that not reading can do. When I was a teenager I gave up on books because they seemed to give up on me. They offered me no insight into my own life. No one in Jane Austen's novels slept in brushed nylon sheets or ate a packet of digestives in one sitting. And if Fanny Price suffered from blocked pores or combination oily skin, then she kept it to herself. Nor is there much evidence that Elizabeth Bennet melted away her muffin top with the Rosemary Conley hip and thigh diet or by jamming down a grapefruit at the start of every meal. Austen's world wasn't my world. When I finally realised that Mr Darcy could paint Pemberley's front door whatever colour he wanted without asking the council's permission, I shut myself off from reading. As a result, I probably have the worst A-levels in my school.
Fortunately, magazines kept me going. Books held a mirror to a life I could never have, but the glossy pages of magazines were rich in possibility. By reading the right one I could acquire flawless skin, bee-stung lips, and become a glamorous personal assistant, heading into work with a stylish trench coat, nipped in at the waist, and with shabby-chic Kate Bush hair. Lucky Cosmo readers also received a step-by-step guide to achieving a multiple orgasm and a free pull-out map of their G-spot. I never did find mine; I'm hoping it might turn up on Google Earth.
Between 14 and 18, I didn't read a single novel except those I needed for my exams. Eventually I'd flat-lined on fiction for so long that it took a crash-cart of American literature to get my pulse racing again. Charles Bukowski and William S Burroughs shocked me like literary poppers, delivering a short, powerful high and triggering a whoosh of new interest in the written word. Now, their sordid content is too graphic for my taste. But they served a functional purpose: they were the brash loss leaders that lured me back into the bookshops and made me re-invest in books.
I'm not by any means suggesting that we should round up our tardy KS3 readers and lock them in the library with The Naked Lunch, a Doors CD and a bong, but maybe we need to find a better way of encouraging kids to read than dishing out large-font texts about football or flatulence or - in the worst case - both. Expecting these to ignite a teenager's interest is about as likely as jump-starting a patient in cardiac arrest using two corn-pads and a toffee hammer.
It's very easy to read the research on children's reading habits and point the finger accusingly at parents. But teachers also come into the frame. Perhaps the kids reject their class readers because the books we give them aren't really all that classy.
Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the north of England.