When I was a school-aged kid, I had to write book reports. I can’t remember how far back my book report-writing went and, alas, I don’t remember the first book for which I had to write a book report. It seems to me, however, that the book report had one primary value and one secondary value. The primary value of such a report was to demonstrate to your teacher that you read the book. The secondary value was to possibly demonstrate your understanding of the book in a possibly larger context–say, the history you were learning about.
My early attempts at book reports resulting in rather formulaic rehashing of the plots of the books that I read. It was important to mention all of the main characters and perhaps provide some kind of summary. With experience, these became easier and easier because I learned, at least subconsciously, what it was my teachers were looking for. But until high school, there was something missing from my book reports. I certainly did my best to demonstrate that I knew what the book was about. And I may have even been able to tie that to my larger understanding of things–such as they were at the time. What was missing was my opinion.
No one ever told me it was okay to insert my opinion in a book report, and I can’t recall what it was that spurred me to do so, but in high school, I began adding my opinion to some of my book reports. I suspect that I was wearying of these “classics” being forced down my throat and my secret rebellion was to dash off a book report that by all accounts demonstrated that I read the book and understood the context–but also offered my opinion of what I read. In some sense, I was crossing a line between book report and critical commentary. Looking back on it, I’m somewhat amazed that it was tolerated, especially when I’d offer the opinion that A Tale of Two Cities wasn’t nearly as entertaining as, say, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation–which was also about two cities if you think about it. The thing is that I hated writing book reports and I rebelled in any way that I could find. It seemed to me that I wasn’t being trusted to read the book by my own teachers and had to prove my reading and comprehension by what seemed to be a time-wasting exercise of regurgitating what I’d read.
The irony, of course, is that all these years later, wild horses couldn’t keep me from writing about the books and stories that I read. Maybe because its voluntary, or maybe its because I am rarely parroting back a plot, but I enjoy thinking about the work and its relationship to other works I’ve read.
And I am certainly not the only one. Blogs have made book reports ubiquitous. Only they’ve been re-branded We don’t call them book reports. We call them book reviews or criticisms or whatever. The book review has become a form of entertainment, something that we enjoy reading–remarkable as that seems–as much as writing. The irony in all of this is so thick you could drown in it, but the arc of it is lovely in its own way. Going from a kid who hated writing book reports–which were dull and which my teachers probably hated reading–to one voice among millions writing (hopefully) entertaining pieces on the things that I read for much larger audiences–some of whom are paying money for the privilege of reading what I have to say.
My kids are still too young to be writing book reports, but I often wonder what book reports are like for kids today. With Wikipedia summaries and Amazon and the myriad of reviews that just about any book has, a book report loses that value that it once held of proving that you’ve read the book in question. Do book reports, as I wrote them, even exist anymore? I guess I’ll find out in a few more years.