Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Golden Age of Literature: High School

Hi readers about reading! It's a pleasure to be here.

I'll begin my first post at the same place where my literature life began: high school. I was exposed to "real" books (sorry Choose-Your-Own Adventure authors) by my over-worked and under-paid English teachers. They did their best to make me appreciate the poetry of Romeo and Juliet, the social relevance of Scarlet Letter, and the faith, loss, and discovery
of Portrait of the Artist. They failed. Miserably. I hated English class in high school.

But now things are different. Now I love reading! Hooray! So what
to do about all of that great literature that I "read", was tested on, and subsequently banished from my memory?

For years I was opposed to re-reading classics. "With so many great books and so little time, how can I justify re-reading something when it means I will never read something else?" But I think re-reading has great value; especially when the re-reads weren't really read in the first place.

So, in an effort to encourage other high school literary slackers to dust off those Penguin classics, I have a few recommendations.

What? You hated being a tenth grader and being forced to read about Danish pagans hanging out in mead halls and getting eaten by Grendel's mother? Me too. But I gave the book another try a few years ago and really enjoyed it. I think it is much more enjoyable when you have a mental library of modern literature against which you can contrast the story. The new translation (which I didn't have at my rich, preppy high school) gives the story a great poetic lilt.

Again, a book that was forced down my angst-ridden teenage throat. But like a fine wine or an Ace of Base album, this book gets better with age. And by that, I mean the age of the reader. There is more emotional truth and understanding in this classic than I possibly could have recognized as a tween.

Next task: re-reading the classics from my junior high list.


  1. Dickens' Great Expectations, Heller's Catch-22 and Morrison's Song of Solomon are the only three required reading selections that I can actually claim to have read in high school.

    On the other hand, the list of classics I took in via Cliffs Notes, film adaptations and a lucky knack for turning in-class discussions into serviceable essay answers, is unfortunately and embarrasingly long.

    This site is part of my ongoing penance.

  2. Orlando has claimed to like PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST for far too long. He lives in a lie. Come clean. Don't Sandusky yourself. You're better than that.

  3. I think I have had a similar experience. I hated my English classes in high school and it took a good four years afterwards for me to really get turned on to reading. It seems I read a lot more British literature than American in high school. The required reading books that I remember reading in high school are: The Great Gatsby, Romeo and Juliet, Animal Farm, Death of a Salesman, Julius Caesar, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, The Scarlet Letter, Wuthering Heights, Hamlet, and probably a few other Shakespeare plays. Why no Steinbeck, Twain, Hemingway, or Kerouac? Maybe my experience was the exception, but I have realized the books that I now enjoy the most (especially Kerouac) teachers probably don't want to read in class due to the sometimes sketchy moral content (eg. Yab Yum). Those Victorian novels may bore away a generation of readers but they don't encourage any naughty behavior. I didn't start reading again until I discovered authors who spoke my language.

  4. Jane Eyre, P&P, Scarlet Letter AND Wuthering Heights? Your teacher must have been a chic, Kyle. :)

    But I agree with all that's been said. How cool would it have been to read Slaughterhouse-Five instead of the Scarlet Letter?

    Probably not very, actually. Because then I would have HAD to read Slaughterhouse-Five. And I didn't respond well to the force-feeding, no matter what it was.

  5. You are probably right Rich. Even though I enjoy harboring bitterness towards my teachers (yes, all female) about reading all that Shakespeare and multiple books from the Bronte menaces, the fact that I was forced to read them likely had as much to do with me disliking the books as the style and subject matter.

    However, I still believe English teachers should strive to find books that speak to students' lives. The best moments in literature are when an author gives words to some truth or perception that the reader has been feeling all along but hasn't been able to articulate.