Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Classics We Love To Hate

Ok, so you know that article I linked to in the blog post before this one?

It's apparently started going haywire out there and people left and right are posting things.

Meg Cabot says this.

Candy at Smart Bitches says this.

And as for me, I think I fall solidly in the middle of them. "Classics" are good, but reading freedom is even better. To understand my point of view, I think I need to give you the short history of my experience with reading.

I have very smart parents. They are educated and well-read, and one of the first things they did was talk to me. They talked to me a lot. I could recite my vowels before I could say any words. I spoke at four months, and was speaking in full sentences by eleven months. I was an advanced child.

And my parents read to me, too. Lots and lots of stories, of every kind. I could recite my favorite fairy tale, "Titty Mouse and Tatty Mouse" when I was a year and a half old, my mother tells me. My parents fostered this in me, and my mother taught me to read when I was three and a half. I haven't stopped since.

But here's the important part of this story: they never told me what I could or couldn't read. They very, very rarely removed books out of my reach. I can think of a handful of examples, including several Harlequin novels that my mom wouldn't let me read when I was eleven. But other than that, they never yelled at me about what I was reading. They told me about books they liked, and they sometimes read to me still, even when I was much older. We talked about things I liked, a lot. And we talked about the books I hated.

They never, ever told me that I had to read a certain book because it was important and it would tell me something.

As a result, I always, always read above age level. I've said before that I read JANE EYRE when I was ten. I read HAWAII by James Michener when I was eleven (at my mother's recommendation). I plowed through most of the YA section before I entered middle school, and was firmly into adult books by that point.

And then I encountered English teachers. Granted, I had a few good ones, but most of them were terrible. Lest you think this was a problem that started with middle school and above, I'd like to point to the example of my sixth grade teacher:

We read THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE in our gifted and talented sixth grade class. We were all smart kids. I had read the book literally years before. I love that book. And my teacher WOULD NOT LET ME SPEAK ABOUT THE BOOK BECAUSE THE OTHER KIDS MIGHT NOT HAVE READ IT YET. I wanted to talk about it, to discuss it, to engage in it and explore the allegory and the writing. I wasn't allowed. It was infuriating.

The pattern continued in later years, although I was allowed to talk about the books or plays at least. We read A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM in seventh grade, ROMEO AND JULIET in ninth grade, JULIUS CAESAR in tenth grade, MACBETH in eleventh grade, and HAMLET in twelfth grade. I like them all, even JULIUS CAESAR. But you have to understand that I was bored to tears in all those English classes because I had plowed through a good portion of Shakespeare when I was about eight years old. (I particularly liked THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR at that age, although I'm not sure why.)

And then we had to read the required books, which continued to bore me. Things like A SCARLET LETTER, OF MICE AND MEN, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, and JUDE THE OBSCURE. I was so bored in my AP English class in twelfth grade that I downloaded the list of "recommended books" from the AP website and started reading through it alphabetically.

Which all adds up to the fact that there are certain authors and certain books that I despise because school tainted them for me. I have no suggestions how to get rid of this dislike, nor do I suggest trying to dissuade me from my dislike of the following authors and books.

Classics That I Love To Hate:

Charles Dickens (except for A CHRISTMAS CAROL)
John Steinbeck
Ernest Hemingway
Herman Melville
JUDE THE OBSCURE and everything else by Thomas Hardy
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT and everything else by Fyodor Dostoevsky

I'm sure there are others, but those are the classics that I love to hate. I have classics that I love, but I'd like to point out that I read all of these before we touched them in school, and many of them we never, ever encountered in an English classroom.

A short, non-inclusive list of Classics That I Love:

Anything by Ibsen, but especially "Hedda Gabler" and "A Doll's House"
"Miss Julie" by August Strindberg
Anything by Shakespeare
Anything by Jane Austen
Anything by Louisa May Alcott
JANE EYRE by Charlotte Bronte
Anything by J. D. Salinger, but particularly CATCHER IN THE RYE
BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley
THE SECRET GARDEN and A LITTLE PRINCESS by Frances Hodgson Burnett
THE CANTERBURY TALES by Geoffrey Chaucer
1984 by George Orwell

If it hadn't been for my parents' influence, I wouldn't have known how much fun books were and searched for the classics that I love.

If it hadn't been for my English teachers, I wouldn't have had to read the classics that I love to hate.

I think there are arguments that can be made for either side, but I strongly prefer the principles by which my parents raised me. You can say that puts me more on Meg Cabot's side, but you also have to remember that my parents had these books in their home. They had read some or all of them, when they were students. I read Shakespeare at my aunt's house, in a giant volume she had of all the plays. I was exposed to classic books as naturally as I was exposed to any other book.

But what about kids who don't have parents like me? What about kids who weren't exposed to books, both high-brow and low-brow? Should they have mandatory reading in school still? Should the goal be to introduce them to books and have them discuss them altogether? Or is the new method in the article the way that reading should be taught? Or is any required reading just a way of forming even more Classics We Love To Hate?

Thoughts are welcome!


Tochi said...

Somehow, I'm amazed that most people wouldn't conclude that the middle ground is better on this one. I'm not a fan of extremism as they both have their glaring problems, so why not try to combine the best of both worlds and live in the middle?

I agree with you 100%. and honestly, "snob" books are just as useless to me as "slob" books, assuming both are at the extremes. I've been forced to read plenty a 'snob' book that was just formulaic and lame.

Secondly, principles don't come cheap. I'm not sure about letting children select what they want to read 100% of the time. It seems like a dumb idea/easy way out, which isn't surprising coming from some mediocre teachers who don't want to invest passion and understanding into their work. Children should be presented with a wide range of reading experiences, both 'literary' and not until they reach a certain age where they can then decide what to read. If they never read again, at least they have some basic reading and comprehension skills.

If a kid can't get through 'what he/she doesn't want to read', how is he/she going to survive university? or even the workplace?

Principles don't come cheap.

MattDel said...

I'm right there with you on hatred of The Scarlet Letter. *muttered cursing about paragraphs that last for three pages* And on the hate of Hemingway too.

I think views on what's "worthwhile" is more than a little skewed among teachers. Let's take Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth as an example.

I *hated* that book. It was the most boring piece of crud I'd ever read in my sophomore year of high school ... great, let's follow some random Chinese man as he goes from a farm to the city and back again. How awesome that we get to see a slice of life in 19th Century China. Apparently that, and the messages about family and the like, make the book good material for English classes.

Yeah, if you want to turn your students off from reading forever.

And Tochi, I agree with you about not letting kids choose what they read all the time. Instead, perhaps presenting a choice among various books would be a good plan. Especially in the more advanced classes where students will be widely read. That way teachers can be almost certain students will be engaged and attentive. Which is what everyone should strive for.

/teacher's son rant

Esther Jade said...

I also hated Charles Dickens! Great Expectations is the one school setwork I couldn't stomach finishing. Thomas Hardy, on the other hand, I loved. But then I discovered Hardy before we did it in class. I also loved Daphne du Maurier, but studying Rebecca kind of killed her for me.

I also tend to be in the middle. I think there is definite value to learning literary techniques of analysis and a lot of novels aren't going to stand up to the same level of analysis as The Great Gatsby. But at the same time inculcating a love of reading is more important.

I think one way to go would be to allow kids to pick their own books (possibly with the proviso that they're from the school library) when they're in younger grades and as they get older, introduce them to classics (possibly still with an option as to which they read).

Jenny Rae Rappaport said...

MattDel, funnily enough, I really love THE GOOD EARTH by Pearl S. Buck. =) I've also read a lot of her other books too--but then again, that was due to my mom introducing me to them.

Adam Heine said...

I'm with you, Jenny. Unfortunately, HS English put me off reading for years and put me off literary fiction possibly forever.

My least favorite books are the ones I was forced to read and never understood. My favorite classics are the ones I chose to read on my own.

Except for LORD OF THE FLIES. That was the one time I was excited about English class :-)

MattDel said...

Jenny, I happen to a fairly big fan of Charles Dickens. Also due to discovering his body of work on my own rather than having it shoved down my throat.

Side note: I love the comment in the NYT article about no one choosing to read Herman Melville ... all I could think was "Because everything he wrote except Moby Dick was boring, that's why."

Jenny Rae Rappaport said...

MattDal, oh god, yes, totally. "Barteleby the Scrivener"? Ugh

~Jamie said...

Can I just say this is exactly how I feel about The Great Gatsby. It has a GREAT title... but the book just SUCKED. I've even read it since high school, hoping I was just being an angst-filled teen--nope. That book is wacked.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Your story is very similar to mine: parents read to me often and early, I read everything I could get my hands on without censorship, I was often bored in lit classes because I was ahead of them. Writing essays was quite challenging, but only because I had to hold myself back.

In addition to writing, I'm working on my library degree, and although I don't plan to be a children's librarian, getting kids to read is an important issue to me. I do think there needs to be some guidance from teachers, or many kids will not challenge themselves. This should be combined with a free-reading approach, where the kids are also required to read a book of their choosing (with perhaps some guidelines, in the cases where they continue to read books far below the level they should be at).

ryan field said...

My taste is so eclectic I shouldn't even comment. I'll read sci-fi, then read a classic, then switch to a mystery novel. One week it's a romance, the next a horror. A lot people don't like Henry James. I love him.

My parents read things like PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT and RABBIT REDUX, so I had a lot of contemporaries from that era growing up. And John Irving.

The one book I can never seem to finish is ON THE ROAD. And I do love to hate it. I keep it on my nightstand, look at it every day, and still can't get inspired.

Douglas L. Perry said...

Great post Jenny. I never liked English class in school because of all of the books I was forced to read that I simply could not relate to. I am an engineer by training, and liked books that explored science or technical topics more than relational ones. I would have loved to read Asimov, Orwell, and other authors like that in class. Instead we read touchy feely relationship books because they were required. It actually put me off personal reading for a long time.

If there is a silver lining, I am actually writing books that I would have enjoyed, and loving it.


Sabrina said...

There are a lot of classics I haven't read, and some of them were heavy to get through, but some I love. Never finished Great Expectations, never read Lord of the Flies. But I remember pulling out lines from Walden. And I absolutely loved reading Frankenstein, both the common version from 1831 and the earlier 1818 edition. Of course, fantasy is first in my heart, but the classics can be good stories, once the (possibly) book-wary high schooler gets past the "old-fashioned" language.

As an English major and book-lover, that seemed to be one of the things that turned off my non-Eng major friends. (When I said I liked writing, they tended to give me the 'she grew a second head' look.)

word ver: agonizz--like someone who fell asleep in the midst of saying 'agony.'

Angelo said...

I am a firm believer that the ONLY discovery is self-discovery. This occurs at every age. The worst thing we, as community members who elect board members who decide school district policy (often against the better judgment of the superintendent, a trained educational professional) can do is to destroy the desire to discover, the desire to learn. Once that is extinguished, there is no magic lighter to re-ignite the flame. Dim can flare, but extinguished is extinct. After all, why else would anyone doing 55mph in the left lane ever think they were in the right? You cannot teach them that they are wrong by passing them in the right lane, cursing and screaming, honking your horn, flashing your lights, getting in front of them and slowing down, or downright ramming them off the road (at the behest of my lawyer, I advise against this). They do not learn, because their desire to learn has been extinguished. They believe they are in the right, and will never know that they are, in fact, wrong. Same with books.

I loved Lord of the Flies, 1984, and most Shakespeare. I hated most 19th century literature, which apparently, was the "greatest stuff ever written by anyone ever in the history of literature and the world.. ever." Enough with the conch shell. I burned my copy of Crime and Punishment during my favorite Two Minutes Hate, and you can stamp a big red "A" on every test I ever took. Why? Because I cheated. I was so sick of having other homework to do, sports practices, club teams, and God forbid sleep--or a life--that I stopped actually reading the books. I learned very quickly how to dissect a book's "literary value" (characters, symbolism, general plot arc, etc) and spit it back out on a test. Did this make me love the story, the author, the actual literature? No, of course not. It made me hate it. Because I had to waste my time over the course of four hours tediously writing down what is available in Cliff's Notes in five minutes' time. Then I had to memorize it for a test. Balderdash. The system is fatally flawed.

What I picture is a bunch of kids, sitting behind desks in classroom 101, with cages locked in place about their heads, and when the door is lifted in front of their face, they see not a rat, but another door-stop 19th century novel that has been hacked to death by one too many a "literary expert". And they throw the only thing in front of it that they can--their desire to learn.

Sorry for the doorstop.. cliff's notes available soon.. ;)

Kyle said...

Bringing up The Great Gatsby raises an interesting point. I had to read that book my sophomore year in high school and I hated it. I had to read it AGAIN my senior year (the AP English teacher my senior year was pretty much given free reign to do what he wanted, which was actually a very good thing) and I LOVED it.
Which brings me to this: I don't think there's a lot of consideration given to how a particular age group will respond to a particular book. It seems like "here's a list of things they HAVE to read, put the slightly naughty ones later."
As this entry does a good job in illustrating, though, even the absolute worst book for the wrong person can still be made somewhat interesting by the right teacher.

Taira Ivins said...

I love books, even "snob" books, and yes, even some "slob" books (covers face in shame). Like Jenny, I learned to read early, Mom was a writer, and books were our gig, so to speak. I love Crime and Punishment (hides head in shame, again), but I also love a good Evanovich and *shock* Harry Potter. Tolkein is one of my favorite authors, and so is Tom Clancy.


I, like Jenny, was encouraged at an early age. My Mom took us to our public library ALL the time, and by the time I was nine, I was on a mission to read all of the books in the entire library (still working on that).

And for the kids without this encouragement: Let them read what they want! If you try to shove something down their throats, only one thing can happen: they will gag.

Chris Redding said...

What a great article and a great post. I'm finding that my two boys cannot connect with the books that they are making them read. I think it would be more bearable for them if they knew that part of the time they were allowed to choose thier own books to read. And we aren't even to the classics yet, just depressing YA books that they are supposed to make personal connections with. Ugh

Jeff Lyman said...

My parents were magazine readers, so they didn't have any classic books around the house. Or any other books for that matter. They read to me all the time as a kid from kids books, and I turned into a reader on my own, and read science fiction and fantasy almost exclusively. So without high school english, I would never have read any classics (since I went into engineering in college and didn't have time for English classes). I'm reading some now, but I'm woefully behind other writers in what classics I've read.

I disliked many of the selections we read for 8th-10th grade English, but 11th grade English focused on Moby Dick and Heart of Darkness by a man who was passionate about the books and could read passages in thundering oration. He also taught 12th Grade English, which was Tragedy (The Greeks through Shakespeare through Ibsen).

The only residual loathing I have is for "Of Human Bondage". I'm sure it's a nice book, but in 8th Grade, I just didn't get sexual obsession and therefore didn't get the book.

Anonymous said...

There are plenty of books I was assigned in school that I liked, or even loved.

My dislikes are so categorizable, that it's obviously the category, not school, that makes me hate them.

I hate 19th century literature, with the exception of Twain and Dumas. (Possibly isolated others I can't remember offhand.)

Yes, that includes everyone else's beloved Jane Austen. I keep thinking to give her another try; I may have been suffering PTSD after being so abused by the Bronte sisters.

Anonymous said...

With you on the Scarlet Letter--couldn't get through it and had to fake it in class. Luckily California public schools were too hot and crowded for teachers to take much notice of someone who was actually acing their classes.

The Chronicles of Narnia still give me chills, and every Christmas since about the age of nine or so I read Louisa May Alcott (especially Little Women) and Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Whenever I need to get my writing head on straight, I read Shakespeare, or as we drama geeks called him, The Big Cheese Playwright Guy. Much Ado is still a favorite of mine.

Needless to say, I was constantly getting kicked out of the adult section of the library for the insidious crime of being Too Young.

Mim said...

I think that both approaches have merit. I think the higher thinking skills of analyzing literature are best taught in a group setting, and the classics are often the easiest way to pull these things out of. That said, some classics aren't worth reading or doing this to.

But ultimately I think it is important to introduce the love of reading to kids. This will get them reading as adults, talking critically about books, learning about life. This is done by finding books that appeal to the kids whether it is horror, fantasy, classics, mysteries, whatever as long as they are reading.

I think most nonreaders just haven't found their style of books yet.

So for me I'd say give the kids the option to find their books, give them free reading assignments. But don't stop teaching some of the classics as well. (Although I still think The Scarlet Letter could be removed from the curriculum. I like his short stories much better.)

kittent said...

I got here from Eva Gale's site and I got to her site from Moriah Jovan's site and I want to say AMEN!