I did English as an O-level and an A-level (old style exams in Britain) and a degree, and as a result, I had to read a lot of set texts. People have said to me that reading for exams destroyed reading for them. They disliked being forced to read a book, and they disliked being forced to deconstruct a book. They say children should not be forced to read books for exams. They say it destroys the pleasure in books.
Personally, I loved it. The books I read changed my life.
The first was Jane Eyre. My class had a choice between reading Jane Eyre and Great Expectations. We could take one home to read, and I took Jane Eyre. It was wonderful. I had never read a heroine like her before. I had never read a heroine so like myself. I had never read anything like Jane’s cry for equality from the top of Thornfield Hall. I had discovered Jane and the Brontes, and I was hooked.
My class went with Great Expectations (which I also enjoy, but didn’t quite change my life the same way).
The Shakespeare play we did was Macbeth. We read it out loud, and I understood the rhythms. I understood Shakespeare should be spoken, not read. I understood that Shakespeare did all the best movie moments before movies were invented.
The poem was Do Not Go Gentle Into The Good Night, by Dylan Thomas, about the death of his father. My father had died recently. The poem gave words to my inarticulate pain. I understood then that poetry could put feelings into words and rhythms.
During my degree I read To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Someone said that nothing happened, and I found myself saying it’s not a book about events, it’s a book about people. I hadn’t understood that a whole book could be just about people and the way they feel and think before. I hadn’t known prose could be so beautiful. It introduced me to Virginia Woolf, and the beauty of a phrase that lingers.
If I hadn’t been forced to read these for exams, I might never have discovered them, or discovered them a lot later in life. If I hadn’t discovered them during school or university, I wouldn’t have had teachers around to help me learn about these books, what they meant, what the background was, what the hidden meanings were, what I could read next.
My exams and my degrees didn’t destroy reading for me, they illuminated it.