For the past seven weeks, I have been edging my way through Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. I started it on the airplane on the way to Tulsa, Oklahoma for the National Writing Project’s Urban Sites Network Conference, and from page one I was captivated. But that book is h-e-a-v-y on many levels. First, the content is simultaneously illuminating and depressing. The constant connections Alexander makes from Jim Crow, to the Drug War, to the current system of mass incarceration, to the struggling Black and Brown underclass who have been released from prison, to many of today’s societal issues is a lot to take in. Great information, pertinent information, mind-blowing information and a lot to process as a reader. Second, the court cases and other pieces of evidence she uses to illustrate this linear progression of history provide a more-than-substantial illustration of how this historical progression has come to be, but, again, it is a lot to digest. I have notes written in the book, passages underlined, court cases squared…I don’t think I have annotated a book so heavily since my doctoral course work.
I found that while reading this book, I could read approximately 10 pages at a time and then I needed to put it down to digest or to do something else. My brain was tired from it. It was an exhausting read.
So, what did I do when I got tired of that book?
I read multiple other books WHILE reading The New Jim Crow.
One of those books was Fifty Shades of Gray. Yes, audience, I indulged in “mommy-porn” (a term I saw used to describe it in a Huffington Post article). And yes, it was an enjoyable read. And, yes, I plan on reading books two and three. Why? Because it was easy, fun, mindless reading.
Even though Fifty Shades of Gray might be the worst written book I have ever read, I still liked reading it. I found myself tolerating the author’s horrible and repetitive word choices, almost laughing at them and her writing, but I still continued reading the book. In the first few pages, the author uses the expression, “I put the pedal to the metal” as the protagonist took off in her car, and I couldn’t help but think that not only is that a simply awful cliche, but my MOM talks like that. My 68 year old evangelical mother in North Carolina says corny things of that nature, but the narrator in the text was supposedly a 21 year old recent college graduate. Incongruent? Then I looked at the photo of the author in the back of the book and that explained a lot. I can’t say that E L James captured the voice of young America at all, but she certainly captured everyone’s sexually curious and erotic imagination in her S&M pornographic book.
(I need to write a real post on Fifty Shades of Gray, but that’s for later).
Peppering The New Jim Crow with Fifty Shades of Gray and two books of another dystopian Young Adult series (Matched and Crossed) helped me sustain the energy I needed to make it through a book with such heavy content. Nobody ever explained to me that this sort of strategy is what good readers do, but somehow I figured it out along the way. In reflecting on this reading balance, I think it needs to be explicitly stated and practiced in the classroom. Students should know that even adult readers find certain texts challenging and that we, too, like to indulge in some enjoyable, fun, easy texts as relief. I think sometimes students are made to feel guilty for reading urban fiction or graphic novels or books below their perceived reading level. Some say those aren’t real books, they aren’t “rigorous” enough, they are dirty, blah blab blah. I’d like to call bullshit on those statements. Reading is reading. We need to teach students how to be life-long readers, and I think there are very few of us who only read difficult texts. I think there are many who read only easy texts. But we need to teach them to mix texts, to challenge themselves by reading a book that’s a bit hard and then to sit back and enjoy reading with a book that is pure enjoyment.
In a session at the National Conference for Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education yesterday, I sat in front of a lovely young woman named Muni Adebimpe from Chicago–and guess what she was reading? She kindly let me take her picture. She was mixing it up!
Mix it up, out there. Too many heavy books will discourage students. Too many light ones won’t have them grow as readers. We need both.