I can’t read just one book at a time. At any given moment, I’m in the midst of reading as many as a half-dozen books. (According to my Goodreads account, I have 11 books on my Currently Reading list.)
As a result, it takes me forever to finish a book. But my multitasking habit has its upside. Every once in a while, I come across two passages in two books I’m reading simultaneously that I might not otherwise think about. This magical synergy happened recently when I read “The Republic of Imagination” by Azar Nafisi and “The Martian Chronicles” by Ray Bradbury. The books were written more than a half-century apart, but for a little bit, both writers talk about the same thing.
Neither Bradbury nor Nafisi is a fan of the new Common Core reading curriculum. I know this about Nafisi because she makes a well-reasoned case against Common Core in her book. I am guessing Ray Bradbury hated Common Core because of an inspired massacre he depicts in “The Martian Chronicles.”
More on that in a second.
Nafisi’s case against Common Core stems from the fact that it places a higher value on “informational texts” than fiction. In high schools, for instance, the split is 70/30 in favor of the former. Not that she opposes nonfiction; Nafisi wrote that she would love to see, for instance, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” taught alongside James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It on the Mountain” to demonstrate the “intersection between history and fiction.” But that’s not what’s happening. Imagination, she says, is being sacrificed for vocational preparation.
“The goal was … to replace anything that might invite subjective interpretation — the realm of imaginative knowledge — with tangible facts.”
Bradbury shows us the danger of such a lofty goal in “Usher II,” one of the later chapters of “The Martian Chronicles.” In it, an earthling named Mr. Stendahl flees to Mars to escape the “clean-minded” people who rid the earth of all great literature by the likes of Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and others. He builds a mansion in tribute to some of Poe’s greatest horror stories on his new home planet.
When officials from the Department of Moral Climates come to inspect Stendahl’s facility, he kills them off one by one, in the fashion of Poe’s stories: an orangutan, a pit and a pendulum and of course, the Masque of the Red Death. He saves the best for last, sealing his last victim up brick by brick inside a vault.
The poor guy never sees it coming, of course; he’s never read “The Cask of Amontillado.”
The late Bradbury’s predictions weren’t spot on: “Usher II” takes place in 2005, long before Common Core became a talking point among education bureaucrats. At the time, he wasn’t after those people. Bradbury was satirizing censors who used fear to silence works of art. But his point still stands, even in this age when we don’t have (as much) to fear from prude guardians of taste who would destroy anything deemed the least bit smutty.
They have the same problem as the people who dreamed up Common Core’s dull standards: a lack of imagination. Consider this passage:
“‘Oh, the word “escape” was radical, I tell you.’
‘It was! Every man, they said, must face reality. Must face the Here and Now! Everything that was not so must go. All the beautiful literary lies and flights of fancy must be shot in mid-air.'”
And if reducing a high school student’s reading list to informational prose in place of imaginative fiction doesn’t shoot down the “beautiful literary lie,” I don’t know what does.