Love to read, kids? Get ready for the Age of the Manual

Alexandra Petri / The Washington Post /

Published Dec 11, 2012 at 04:00AM

Forget “The Catcher in the Rye.”

New Common Core standards (which affect 46 states, including Oregon, and the District of Columbia) will require that, by 2014, 70 percent of high school seniors’ reading assignments be nonfiction. Some suggested texts include “FedViews” by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, the EPA’s “Recommended Levels of Insulation” and “Invasive Plant Inventory” by California’s Invasive Plant Council.

Forget “Huckleberry Finn” and “Moby-Dick.” Bring out the woodchipping manuals!

I like reading. I love reading. I always have. I read recreationally still. I read on buses, in planes, while crossing streets. My entire apartment is covered in books. And now, through some strange concatenation of circumstances, I write for a living.

And it’s all because, as a child, my parents took the time to read me “Recommended Levels of Insulation.”

Oh, “Recommended Levels of Insulation.” That was always my favorite, although “Invasive Plant Inventory” was a close second. (What phrases in literature or life will ever top the rich resonance of its opening line? “The Inventory categorizes plants as High, Moderate, or Limited, reflecting the level of each species’ negative ecological impact in California. Other factors, such as economic impact or difficulty of management, are not included in this assessment.” “Call me Ishmael” has nothing on it!)

“It is important to note that even Limited species are invasive and should be of concern to land managers,” I frequently tell myself in moments of crisis. “Although the impact of each plant varies regionally, its rating represents cumulative impacts statewide.” How true that is, even today.

My dog-eared copy of “Recommended Levels of Insulation” still sits on my desk. That was where I first learned the magic of literature.

“Insulation levels are specified by R-Value. R-Value is a measure of insulation’s ability to resist heat traveling through it.” What authority in that sentence!

And then came the table of insulation values. I shudder every time that table appears. It is one of the great villains in the history of the English language. Uriah Heep and Captain Ahab can’t hold a candle to it. In fact, I do not know who these people are. I have never read about them.

I do remember curling up with “Recommended Levels of Insulation” and reading it over and over again. It was this that drove me to pursue writing as a career — the hope one day of crafting a sentence that sang the way “Drill holes in the sheathing and blow insulation into the empty wall cavity before installing the new siding” sings.

Look, I was an English major, so I may be biased. But life is full of enough instruction manuals.

The best way to understand what words can do is to see them in their natural habitat, not constrained in the dull straitjackets of legalese and regulationish and manualect. It’s like saying the proper way of encountering puppies is in puppy mills. Words in regulations and manuals have been mangled and tortured and bent into unnatural positions, and the later you have to discover such cruelty, the better.

The people behind the core have sought to defend it, saying that this change is not meant to supplant literature. This increased emphasis on nonfiction would not be a concern if the core worked the way it was supposed to, with teachers in other disciplines, like math and science, assigning the hard technical texts that went along with their subjects.

But teachers worry that this will not happen. Principals seem to be having trouble comprehending the requirement themselves. Besides, the other teachers are too busy, well, teaching their subjects, to inflict technical manuals on their students, and they may expect the English department to pick up the slack. Hence the feared great Purge of Literature.

The core has good intentions, but it will be vital to make sure the execution is as good, or we will head down the road usually paved with good intentions. There, in the ninth circle, students who would otherwise have been tearing through Milton and Shakespeare with great excitement are forced to come home lugging manuals of Exotic Plants.

All in all, this is a great way to make the kids who like reading hate reading.

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