I just finished reading M. T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad. This is truly a mind-gripping book for YAs and adults. Sure, I knew some of the details before I started reading—the German invasion of Russia, the unspeakable acts of Stalin and Hitler, the impact of history on everyday life, and the enormous power of music. Yet there was still so much that I didn’t know about—the life of Dmitri Shostakovich during the siege of Leningrad, the efforts to copy the symphony on microfilm in order to send it to the U.S., the terrible human suffering and loss of life, and the persistence of the human spirit in even the worst of times.
I found this complex book totally engaging. I found myself thinking about it during the day and stealing time from my schedule to read just a bit more. I talked about to everyone who crossed my path. That’s because there is so much in this book to think about: questions of freedom and control, the power of art and music to change our lives, the moral decisions we make about war and peace, the quality of our personal relationships, the nature of heroes and villains, and more.
Some of the events described were so painful that I had to stop reading and do something else for a while. Other times, I simply had to read on to see what would happen next. Not only did I learn a great deal about Shostakovich and his family, I learned about the incredibly difficult circumstances in which he lived. In addition, there was the author’s presence in the book, reminding me that this history was difficult to construct. Not only was a massive amount of research necessary, but also it was hard to tell if certain sources were even credible. To learn more about this book, see Betsy Bird’s informative interview with M. T. Anderson at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZSVt1UfagQM
Reading this book prompted me to think about this important question: What if complex, mind-gripping books drove our curriculum, at least part of the time? What if pacing calendars mandating the topics teachers must cover during specific months were replaced every so often with time given over to mind-gripping books? What if we focused some attention on reader response—how books make us feel? The passion for reading just might return. And, surprisingly enough, those Common Core and subject matter standards would still be embedded in the experience of reading a responding. We could, in effect, bring back “feelings” while still teaching “facts.” We could have both.