Why the 250-Page Limit?

Why the 250-Page Limit?

Just a few weeks ago, as the spring semester was creeping toward final exam week, I overheard two college-level English professors chatting over coffee. They were agreeing with each other that it was nowadays not advisable to have their students read any books longer than 250 pages. “The kids just don’t have the patience or the attention span.”

This conversation is unfortunately not an anomaly. The idea of “taking it easy” on the students has been around for years but is becoming more and more prevalent. Yet I don’t think it’s a good idea because even the least academically inclined students are smart enough to know that a diminished reading list is a reflection of a teacher’s low expectations. It’s as if the instructor is saying to the class on the first day of school, “I know you don’t care very much for literature, so don’t worry, I won’t tax your brains with Moby Dick or For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

I confess that when I was a freshman in college — “during the Punic Wars,” as George quips to young Nick in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf — I blanched at having to read The Portrait of a Lady and Vanity Fair (the book by Thackeray, not the magazine), but I sensed the professor’s implied respect for my ability to understand and appreciate those books. What has perhaps happened in our colleges, and even in our country as a whole, is that too many teachers have lost that optimistic regard for the potential of each and every young mind.

It’s true that I would probably not choose Henry James or Thackeray for my students this fall, but I would sure like to assign Underworld by Don DeLillo (832 pp) or The Sunlight Dialogues by John Gardner (736 pp). These two books moved me in so many incredible ways, that I would love to have my students share that kind of reading experience. Perhaps I am part of the problem by not following my heart, but I’m almost afraid to in the present academic atmosphere.

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