The DVD extras should be turned off when reading for the first time

Several years ago I got a DVD player with the intention of enjoying the extra materials and features of my favorite movies. I’d built up a huge VHS collection, so I was resistant to adding the new format, but I was intrigued by the idea of extras. Hearing the director or actors speak about the movie, seeing behind-the-scenes coolness, I figured it would all add value to some of my favorite movies.

What I quickly found out was that the DVD extras didn’t add all that much for me. I’m sure they could, but I found that the director loudly talking over all the neat parts of the movie kept jarring me out of the moment, and often I found neat movies ruined by realizing all the good parts of the movie had been accidents by the director, not purposeful genius.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are actually many DVDs I get where I get a lot of out of the extras occasionally, but it’s actually surprisingly uncommon. You have to really, really geek out on a movie for the extras to be that enjoyable (to rewatch an entire movie with commentary).

So it was a total shockingly neat moment when I was having drinks with a fellow writer and we both started talking about the way in which reading fiction is taught. I railed against a system that often has early readers reading a book in tiny bits while the teacher constantly coaches them through the novel telling them about symbols to look for, background info about the writer and the times, and having discussions and dissections of the book. My fellow writer said “it’s like having someone watch a movie for the first time with the director’s commentary turned on. How can they even begin to understand what it’s like to just experience the item in question first?”

You really have to love something to keep hypertexting it like literature is usually taught. There is no value almost in just letting the work either stand for itself or fall on its own merits to the modern reader.

Now anecdotally, one can’t assume their own experience holds true for all, but I wonder how many young readers are being turned away from fiction because the only way they’ve experienced it is with the DVD extras turned on and loud for the first time?

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  1. 1. Mindy Klasky

    Wow. I’ve never thought about reading this way – I appreciate the window that you’ve opened in this former English major’s way of viewing literature.

    When I was in college, I took an “Intro to American Literature” course. We mostly read short stories, and alumni complained bitterly that, “back in the day”, they read novels by the same authors, rather than “just” short stories. Looking back, I suspect that the professors were trying, intuitively, to get away from the DVD commentary situation that you describe. I know that they were trying to get us to consume some literature whole, rather than chop it into analytical bits and pieces.

    And yet, the solution isn’t perfect, to use short fiction rather than long to teach analysis of fiction. The depth of character, plot, (and, often, symbology) is so much richer in long fiction…

    Interesting thoughts that you’re sending hopping my way!

  2. 2. Sarah Prineas

    I think the kids that are readers don’t just read during those limited school times, they read at home, too. And when they do–this is anecdotal!–they read immersively. When The Maud gloms onto a book she likes, I don’t see her for the rest of the day, because she’s holed up in her room, reading. Then she gives the book to her bookaholic friend…

    I wonder if the classroom reading experience might help short-attention-span readers to ease into the reading experience?

    That is to say, I don’t think teachers are doing anything to make reading harder. Sure, following symbolism in a book might interrupt the reading experience, but in the end it makes for a richer reading experience.

  3. 3. Marie Brennan

    That is to say, I don’t think teachers are doing anything to make reading harder.

    I’m not sure I agree. Teaching reading (of books, not of words in general) like it’s a process that requires some Magic Decoder Ring strikes me as a fine way to make it seem like work — and work that some kids might not feel smart enough for, at that.

  4. 4. tobias buckell

    I never felt smart enough. I became an English major because I learned to read at such a young age no one told me it was a chore or that I shouldn’t be able to speed read. And being able to read an entire novel in the hour or so before class to discuss it, or reading the novel in one night and then attending all the classes where it was then analyzed meant my primary reading experience was never touched. I enjoy books despite my education, not because of them.

    I’m an English major as well, even applied to grad school for it, but the dis-emphasis on reading as a primary experience and focus on reading as a process that needs analysis and interpretation is ruinous, I feel, because it’s attempting to take an entire population of readers and tell them that the way to read is to be like an English major.

    I wouldn’t do that anymore than expect someone to have to be an archeologist (um, correx: geologist) in order to enjoy a beautiful mountain :-)

  5. 5. resar

    I wouldn’t do that anymore than expect someone to have to be an archeologist in order to enjoy a beautiful mountain.

    Geologist, please. Archaeologists are all about the cultural remains.

    resar the anthropologist doing some unnecessary cross-discipline nit picking. ;-)

    So far at our house we only approach non-fiction by the “hank into easily digestible chunks” method. I find it interesting that the thing I most want to avoid (that voice-over effect) is a common experience in modern education. How does one teach critical thinking if you tell the student what to think? I’d rather make them think it out on their own, tell me what they think and then we can discuss what others and the Experts think.

  6. 6. Tobias Buckell

    Yeah, geologist. That’s what I meant. Typing too fast and not thinking deeply enough.

    :-)

  7. 7. Chris

    It’s analysis vs. synthesis. I think you’re right that the former can trip up the latter, as they are quite different processes. It’s like, as a writer, proofing vs. reading. Reading is very enjoyable, proofing less so. Both are valued experiences, but it’s the reading that will make you dream.

  8. 8. S.C. Butler

    Now you’ve got me going – I’m with Toby all the way on this one. The way reading is taught in most schools these days makes it just another chunk of boring homwork. Very few folks seem to teach reading as something that can be fun. Assigned books, book reports, analysis of text – it all adds up to make reading one more dull chore. Younger kids especially should be encouraged to read for fun. Why not have the reading homework be to read a book of the child’s own choosing for 15 minutes a night? More work for the teachers, I suppose, but it can’t produce any fewer students who like to read than are out there now.

    I was a Lit Major in college too. As Toby says, the emphasis on analysis and interpretation made the reading experience there even worse. Perhaps this is because the only way literature professors can have an impact on what they teach is by dissecting it. Or maybe they just prefer to teach books (Finnegan’s Wake immediately comes to mind) that require extensive decoding. My favorite courses were the ones that concentrated on technique and thematic similarity rather than meaning.

    Sorry. Rant over.

  9. 9. David de Beer

    >by realizing all the good parts of the movie had been accidents by the director, not purposeful genius

    this happens every day on writer blogs.

    Analysis and dissection of the works I did not mind when taking English in varsity (your college, I think), it was a lot of the works themselves I didn’t like. Also, we were expected to have read the book before the lecture on it started; in high school, this wasn’t true, but nobody actually prohibited you from reading it straight through when the lectures began. And then, stopping at intervals to take a look at what happened, why it happened, and what is coming and being done, makes a lot more sense (prior knowledge of the book, as opposed to experiencing book while being taught book).

    > My favorite courses were the ones that concentrated on technique and thematic similarity

    is a writer’s interest; the how of the book.

    >rather than meaning.

    is a reader’s interest; the what of the book.

    You cannot actually separate them, when teaching reading, both are of importance as well as interest.

    Kids who want to read are going to read anyways, no matter what or how precisely they are taught. As long as they are taught the basics of ABC, and given access to books or comics, they will read.

    Insofar as teaching reading -in my experience, it comes down a lot to the teacher. A teacher with the rare ability to fuse her/his enthusiasm for reading, and why s/he likes to read, will draw interest even from many non-readers.
    But, the reason such teachers are rare is simply because so many kids have either little interest in reading, or they do, but at that precise moment in their lives, it is not as important as sports, boys/girls, parties, etc. Kind of hard to muster enthusiasm for a subject you must teach if the odds of being awarded is small.
    And, teachers teach what they themselves have been taught; it is possible that they simply accept at face value the rigthness of what they have been taught and do not in fact understand the why of it. Therefore they cannot teach it.

    To be blunt, IMO a large number of adult readers – including writers – don’t know how to read properly either. Don’t get me wrong – they can read, but are themselves very limited in their ability to do so. They have a very narrow definition of what constitutes “a good book”, or “pleasurable/ provocative/ enjoyable reading, or whatever”.
    It goes something like this – this book does not comply with the X,Y,Z components in the ABC manner in which I understand writing, therefore it is automatically shite.
    There is, therefore, not an attempt by the reader to engage a work on its own merit and try to understand it within its own unique framework; it is forced to comply to a mode of reading expectation that it might never have been designed for.

    >There is no value almost in just letting the work either stand for itself or fall on its own merits to the modern reader.

    how must the reader do this, if they have not been taught the how and why of what constitutes skilled writing? how will they measure it if they have not been taught to consider and recognize the virtues and flaws of a written work? remember, there is a vast difference between personal likes of a work (taste), and the skill of a work (execution).

    Rough example: the NFL = books overall.
    My personal taste runs to offense; however, the defense (completely different manner of approach to the game than offense, and possible almost a direct contradiction to the offense, in the sense that an offense seeks to gain yards whereas a defense seeks to restrict yards), cannot be measured with the same yardstick for success and skilful execution as the offense.
    In order for me to evaluate the skill of a defense, I need to learn to understand and judge the defense on its own terms, not based upon my value judgements of taste as dictated by my preference for the offense.

    (like I said, a very rough example).

    Point is – people very often confuse personal taste in concept&approach to skill in execution of writing.

    I have to be honest though, in that I don’t fully understand what point you’re driving at? far as I can gather:

    1) teaching reading to kids is important;
    2) reading is not being properly taught;
    3) writing should not be analysed and kids should not be taught to do in-depth examinations of text (??)

    I’m sorry, while I don’t entirely agree with some of the particulars you mentioned, I don’t understand the overall point either?

  10. 10. David de Beer

    oh, insofar as what happens behind the scenes and extras go – I read this essay once by a (then) retired critic on Stephen King; he used to be a fan of King until IT came out. Now, he mentioned that at one stage King tried to direct a movie, and King was also on record as stating that he has no interest whatsoever in the boring stuff that happens offscreen, he only wants the work itself, the meat.
    The movie he made was apparentlyso bad it showed in onl a few theaters and totally tanked.

    It may have been wise for King to have tried to do an in-depth anaylysis and dissection of the stuff that happens offscreen, and not only concentrate on the produced item itself.

  11. 11. Tobias Buckell

    David, what I’m saying is that readers are not being taught to enjoy reading the work for its own sake first, they’re being distracted by having to analyze the work while reading it. The tools and mental state of reading a book in a critical state of mind are different than when you just let it happen. It’s why newer writers are super-critical and lose enjoyment of reading for the sake of reading, as do critics.

    Yeah, lots of readers do not learn how to refine their tastes, but to be honest, my tastes and the tastes of most people I know *anecdotally* evolved from reading a great deal and *NOT* anything we’re taught. None of my reading strategies come from schooling, either low or high, they come from my excessive reading.

    You’re talking NFL, so let’s run with that:

    I don’t think you should be forced to apply a coach’s perspective to the game at first. Learning the nuances of football is something that grows if you like the game and repeatedly watch it.

  12. 12. Blue Tyson

    The being made to read thing is bad. I read a lot, like to read, learning to read when learning to walk, but hated that English Lit type stuff at school, despite being good at it.

    Think about it this way: I have heard tons of arts student types say they hate maths for example. Being forced to do it is no fun for them and really boring, exactly the same thing applies. If those that like the aforementioned turned up to Literature class and the next book they had to read was Feller’s Probability Theory, they wouldn’t be too thrilled.

    Similarly for kids that get made to play, say, football, when they don’t like getting dirty, are scared of being hurt, or don’t like being hit or hitting people, etc.

    As far as David’s football goes – if you have to analyse sport for a living, you get jaded and sick of that too, you watch it differently without the same enjoyment as previously.

    The being made to read something in particular is like going into a bookshop to buy something and being told, sure, you can buy a book, as long as it one of these two.

  13. 13. S.C. Butler

    > My favorite courses were the ones that concentrated on technique and thematic similarity

    is a writer’s interest; the how of the book.

    >rather than meaning.

    is a reader’s interest; the what of the book.

    You cannot actually separate them, when teaching reading, both are of importance as well as interest.

    I’d actually argue that you HAVE to separate them when teaching reading. Meaning is highly subjective, especially in more ambiguous, modern works.

    Personally, I never read for meaning. I read for story and emotional content. An English professor at Columbia published a book to just this point last year:

    THE THINGS THAT MATTER
    What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life
    By Edward Mendelson.

    I never read it, though, mostly because I’d already read and not enjoyed his seven classics.

  14. 14. S.C. Butler

    > My favorite courses were the ones that concentrated on technique and thematic similarity

    is a writer’s interest; the how of the book.

    >rather than meaning.

    is a reader’s interest; the what of the book.

    You cannot actually separate them, when teaching reading, both are of importance as well as interest.

    I’d actually argue that you HAVE to separate them when teaching reading. Meaning is highly subjective, especially in more ambiguous, modern works.

    Personally, I never read for meaning. I read for story and emotional content. An English professor at Columbia published a book to just this point last year:

    THE THINGS THAT MATTER
    What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life
    By Edward Mendelson.

    I never read it, though, mostly because I’d already read and not enjoyed his seven classics.

  15. 15. Karen Wester Newton

    You mean you actually read the books on the syllabus in chunks like that? Phfft! When I start a book, I read it through. That’s what I did in high school and college, and that’s what I do now—even the Hemingway novels I had to read in freshman English and mostly hated (The Old Man and the Sea was the exception). Yeah, the teacher would go through the books a chapter at a time and talk about the symbolism of specific scenes, but for me, that was all after the fact. I had already read the story and made up my mind about it. So I guess I’m agreeing with you.

    We had an easier time in art history. They never made us look at a third of a painting.

Author Information

Tobias Buckell
Tobias Buckell

Tobias is a professional blogger, freelance writer, and author of 2 novels. His Caribbean roots often inform his fiction, but so does his love of technology, science, and the rapidly changing world all around us. Visit site.

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