Joy Ann Ribar is the author of the Deep Lakes cozy mystery series. You can find out more about her at her website JoyRibar.com, or by clicking here. You can read her last post here, and see her books here.
Authors spend a lot of time talking about writing techniques, plotting, creating characters, and whether or not we’re plotters or pantsters. One thing I don’t often talk about is what kind of reader I am.
I do spend a lot of my reading time doing reading favors for fellow authors. It’s not that I don’t want to read their books, but because authors are inherently good people, we take part in book exchanges. “I’ll read your book if you read mine, I’ll give you feedback if you give me feedback,” is how we help each other in this business. Our friendships are real, but also often transactional.
Today, I want to talk about the kind of reading I do that’s my passion. Literature, and literary classics in particular, own my heart. I spent 15 years teaching Advanced Placement English Literature with high school seniors seeking college credits. If you’re a teacher, these are the students you salivate over; students who discuss and write about Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Erdrich, and Keats without complaint. Yes, they do exist and they’re not from another planet.
Every year in May, AP students take a three-hour long grueling exam divided into four parts. The exam begins with 55 multiple choice questions based on several reading excerpts. These questions make college instructors cower in fear, so imagine an 18-year old on the cusp of high school graduation facing the same.
The exam next progresses to three essay questions. The first is based on a poem; the second on a prose excerpt; and the third offers a provocative open-ended question with a list of suggested book and play titles from which to write the essay. Each essay is allotted 40 minutes. Written in long-hand, students are certain to suffer hand cramps, fatigue, and general malaise at some point.
Grading the exams
When all is said and done, more than 400,000 students in the U.S. and abroad will take the AP English Literature exam. Of course, someone has to read those 1.2 million essays. I am one of those “someones.” Each June, during the cream of summer weather, I travel to Salt Lake City and spend eight consecutive days, eight hours each day, leading other teachers through a scoring guide and grading exercises as we do our darndest to give a fair and accurate score on every written essay.
I’ve been asked if I’m mad or crave toture when I tell people I do this. But, you must understand, it is a labor of love. There are about 900 of us from everywhere, the chosen ones, the Readers. The 900 who talk about James Joyce as if he were a drinking buddy, who chat about Virginia Woolf without fear. Teachers who love their students so much they will subject them to William Faulkner and Annie Dillard. Teachers who force their students to write Petrarchan sonnets just for fun. These are my people.
This exam is the culmination of a school year spent in classroom discussion about topics most high school students will not have the chance to consider. Literature provides entry points for talking about how women have been written over the centuries; whether it is Medea (a woman with power who is deemed a witch) or Nora slamming the door on her marriage in A Doll’s House, or Shakespeare’s wide-eyed innocent Miranda from The Tempest, these characters testify to female experience from the page.
Where else would my students have the occasion to talk about colonialism, except through the lens of books like Things Fall Apart or Heart of Darkness? Social issues reveal themselves in texts like Beloved, The Grapes of Wrath, and A Thousand Splendid Suns. There are hundreds more titles I could mention.
For me, literature is an endless offering to the world, telling timeless stories of universal human experiences through deeply flawed characters. Their voices fuel our discourse and engage our minds to digest anew. In that digestion, we come to new realizations about the world and ourselves.
Every time two or more people share a reading experience, the conversation begins again.
From my time spent with the Readers, I can testify that these conversations make our students feel smarter and turn them into seekers of more knowledge and wider experiences.
This is the best testimony I can offer for the reason I spend two weeks every year in a windowless, concrete room in a convention center reading about 150 to 200 essays a day, dreaming about the better world that will exist because these young people chose to read.
Getting back to my fellow authors: Reading each other’s works is where relevant and lively reading conversations blossom. I appreciate you all and wonder in the next 100 years, which of you will be considered essential reading. (I know at least a few!)