All the crap you read in high school
Why revisiting all that school-assigned literature is worthwhile
By Annalisa Parent
Please, do not get me started on Melville’s Billy Budd.
In high school, I was an avid reader, but this book challenged my love of the printed word. I am sure that when the last page was read and the final paper written, I cast the book aside grateful never to see it again. And yet, I’ve come to see that revisiting the hate list has merit, at least where school-assigned literature is concerned.
Lives, like books, have funny plot twists, and now I am a high school English teacher. It’s my job to hand out reading assignments. No need to explain the irony here.
Though they were old news when I was in high school, the teenaged digital generation still sing Simon and Garfunkel’s lyrics loudly down the hallway.
When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school
it’s a wonder I can think at all.
Great, I’m an official salaried crap dispenser. (more irony) However, as such, I’ve got a huge responsibility to try my darndest to get kids engaged, to get them thinking and caring and loving to read– in short, to stop the crap cycle. But how to do that, when I, too, related to the 60s tune’s lament?
Before I jumped into my assigned book quest, I needed more information: What was it about the books-from-my-past that brought on dread and anxiety at the mere mention of their titles?
It was time to venture into the Books I Never Wanted to Meet Again vault. And what I found down there in the dusty, cobwebbed corners surprised me. There were books I liked down there. How had that happened?
It’s a Catch 22, if you’ll pardon the book pun. We can’t become experienced readers until we’ve read some books. And until we’ve read some books, we may often feel as adrift as The Old Man and The Sea.
It makes sense. Who among us ate caviar or oysters or camembert for the first time and said “yum?” One. Maybe. Maybe one person among thousands, but for the rest of us, such things are an acquired taste. They require repeated exposure.
That was certainly true for me and books, anyway. The greatest treasure I found in my figurative vault was Heart of Darkness. According to my curriculum, I was required to present this drudgery to high school sophomores– 15 and 16 year olds. Face palm.
I am so grateful to have read, with experienced eyes, Conrad’s prose. Without hyperbole, (which is another English teacher word) this book is one of the top ten most beautiful things I have ever experienced. (And I’ve travelled a lot. We’re talking up there with standing by myself at dawn in the Sistine Chapel and breathing-the-humid-air-of-sunrise-as-the-mists-rose-over-the-Ugandan-rainforest beautiful.)
As a mature reader, its imagery spoke to me, breathed life into the text, added a new layer to the tension. I was hooked, in love, inspired. A much different reaction to my initial reading of the text.
In the end, the problem in high school was me. I wasn’t ready for Billy Budd. I needed the experience with literature and with life to appreciate the beauty and complexity of this work.
Will we like all the books we revisit? Surely not. But I can say in my experience that I’ve gained an appreciation for them, even if I don’t like them. (Understanding the difference between the two is another gift garnered through time.)
At the risk of starting a controversy: I don’t like Hemingway. Or Melville. I skim entire passages of Tolstoy when I feel his description is gratuitous rather than plot-advancing. I met each of these authors’ work as a teen. I probably said I hated them as a teen.
My reading mind is more discerning now. I know that Hemingway and Melville aren’t going to be my first picks, but when I read them, I understand their important contribution to the literary canon. I feel unabashed at skipping pages of Tolstoy, because I’ve gained the discernment to determine what inspires me.
Time and experience can be great gift bearers. As we gain experience with reading and its subtleties, we begin to understand more of the richness language and story have to offer. Like all good things, growing into an experienced reader takes time.
So pull up a chair and start sampling the banquet. Go ahead: revisit those oldies but baddies. Hey, I’ve even warmed up a bit to Hemingway.
What books have you changed your mind about?