Unsucking the Classics

I got into yet another of those conversations about how Books Were Ruined By School. Various classics got mentioned, to universal groans or sick faces. There’s always a certain comfort in solidarity-suffering. So you had to read Of Mice and Men four times in four years? So did I, and hated it even more each time!

For some of us, it was the way the book was taught (there are very few books that hold up when there are tests on the chapters, especially multiple choice questions!) but most often, when I ask a few questions, it turns out that the teacher did the best they could, but couldn’t get around the fact that the book should have waited until the reader was ready for it.

That’s an old education back room argument: how do you ready students for more challenging literature if you don’t actually challenge them?

Well, that still hasn’t really been resolved, but anyway, we moved past the “Wow that sucked!” to what I thought a more interesting topic, which is how much those books might have changed in a later reread.

The most frequent one I’ve heard over the decades is a variation on, “I did not have any idea that Jane Austen was funny!”

I think it a vast disservice to Austen’s books to force teenagers to read them. I also have come to the conclusion that it’s a vast disservice to teens to force them to read Shakespeare.

I think Austen should be saved for later, but Shakespeare should be first experienced on stage: almost every Shakespeare hater I’ve talked to over the years has never seen the bard on stage—though they might really like theater—or else they like a single Shakespeare play, which turns out to be the single one they happened to have seen on stage. Seeing Shakespeare done well is profoundly different from struggling to decode for tests, especially when you’re fourteen or fifteen and still trying to master modern English.

Anyway, I’ve talked before about my first book rediscovery, which was Richardson’s Pamela.  Nowadays few read it outside of college classes, and for the average eighteen year old yawning through an Intro to Lit course, this story of the maid who protects her virtue despite various attempts against it until she is rewarded with love, position, wealth, and respect, seems really silly. I remember wondering why the heck it was so popular a best seller back in the 1740s—so popular it was widely merchandized from hat styles to porcelain.

Well, part of the answer lies in that silly-seeming plot. Instead of writing about yet another fragile and passive well-born heroine, Richardson chose as his protagonist a working girl from a humble background. She’s a housemaid, and she uses every weapon at her command (which were even fewer than available to teenage girls today) to keep herself to herself, until she chose.

There were a whole lot of people in ordinary walks of life who really liked this story of a humble girl making good. But for the more sophisticated readers, it was the narrative voice that was so stunning, which took me a couple of decades to appreciate.

The accepted frame of novels had been the narrator writing after the fact, and though there were epistolary novels aplenty, they too largely affected that flat distance. Richardson’s novel engaged successfully with immediacy–Pamela and the rest desperately writing letters within minutes after the exciting events they relate, and each has a distinctive voice, and different motivations within the story.

I love eighteenth century novels for their bawdy freedom, their slapstick action trading off with wit. Few are written in stylish prose, they are bumpy and jerky in construction as their authors, writing fast, explored the possibilities of narration, plot, character, and voice–they were busy inventing the novel, as there were no rules. Those novels are chock-full of real life detail that the more refined writers of the 19th century draw the veil of delicacy over, but which are most enlightening to us. The plots creak with what later became cliché, but one discovers where the clichés originated.

But when we’re forced to read them in high school (because the content is deemed safe for teen consumption) the Enlightenment-era long sentences, the old-fashioned language, make them seem dull—the equivalent of the fifth grader who, on being taught about the American Revolution, thought it was a boring story about a lot of old people. (It was those still unsmiling portraits, and the white-powdered wigs that stuck in his mind—the many names’n’dates sure didn’t.)

I’ve tried over the years to reread various assigned books that I disliked as a student. Many’s been the time I discovered a delightful read.

Sometimes a sideways read, that is, reading Frankenstein as an adult, I found the story a total mess—but the ideas interesting, and even more interesting, of course, are the circumstances surrounding its writing. I’ve since gathered copies of all the Shelley/Byron gang’s letters and journals (including Polidori’s, though they all turned on him and turfed him out), so that their story creation itself becomes a fascinating story.

But, of course, sometimes a stinker stays a stinker, such as Of Mice and Men; I think I’ve read it at least a dozen times now, four times as a student then the rest as my kids came along and had to be coaxed through it (they both loathed it, too).

At this point in my life, it’s probably safe to say I’ll never enjoy a depressing story about despicable people, but you might have more elevated taste than I.

How about you—what classics have you rediscovered and loved?

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71 Responses to Unsucking the Classics

  1. JL Merrow says:

    Anyone who’s enjoyed Richardson’s Pamela (and I realise we’re in a small minority!) should check out Henry Fielding’s two satires on it, Shamela (quick and dirty, with the heroine presented as a canny, conniving girl who’s no better than she ought to be) and Joseph Andrews, which is a more thoughtful examination of the theme, with a gender-swapped main character to better show up Richardson’s reduction of “virtue” to sexual chastity (something that I think still has relevance today, alas).

    • Joseph Andrews is indeed a real eye-opener, especially for the time!

      And Shamela is a crackup, especially when several characters are all cooped up together busily writing to each other.

      • JOdel says:

        Heh. One of the younger posters on one of the forums in one of the sites I hang out at stated that she and a dozen or so 20-somethings were at some gathering or other and all ended up sitting around in a room *texting each other*. In the *same room*.

  2. Lace says:

    I have no idea why, but my folks took us to see Twelfth Night when I was in middle school, and yes, it was awesome. (So are my folks, that must have been why!) I’d certainly not read more than the odd snippet of Shakespeare before then. My high school was recombobulating its curriculum around the time I would usually have been force-fed the “R+J because the teens will relate” experience. So a couple of years on, reading Hamlet + some of the sonnets with a great teacher felt like work, sure, but completely worthwhile and worth it. I already knew Shakespeare was Good Stuff.

    I had a friend in college whose keeper shelf was half Anthony Trollope, so I always knew he had to be worthwhile. But it took me another fifteen years to appreciate and read him myself.

    • Awesome parents indeed!

      Tangential (not about reading, though it is about classics) I had a sixth grade teacher who prepped us for The Magic Flute without tests or any pressure, then took us to a production. My entire class was pretty much blown away, and I’ve been an opera fan ever since.

    • filkferengi says:

      If you’re a Trollope fan, you should try Jo Walton’s novel, _Tooth And Claw_. It’s been described as Trollope, only with dragons.

  3. Asakiyume says:

    I was very interested in Frankenstein too, when I finally read it, and yeah, I’d say I enjoyed it. There was much more to it than I had expected.

    The other classics that I’ve read late in life aren’t ones that I expected to hate–I’m afraid I’m unlikely to try something that I really think I’m going to hate–but I hadn’t expected to love them as much as I did. I had my socks knocked off by both A Tale of Two Cities and The Grapes of Wrath. Coincidentally, I read both books aloud with my youngest child–we shared out the reading. (She was in high school at the time.)

    • Sherwood Smith says:

      That’s a great way to experience those books, reading out loud. Dickens especially reads well–I think he wrote with that in mind.

  4. Anne Moore says:

    Seeing Shakespeare performed in not 100% effective. My grandmother, back in the 1980s, went to a professional production of Hamlet. It was her first encounter with Shakespeare, and she was immensely disappointed because she couldn’t understand what was going on at all. The dialogue defeated her (or, at least, the delivery of the dialogue did). She wanted so much to like it.

    I don’t know how much of it was a problem with the production because I don’t know where she saw it, just that it was a professional production that she paid a lot of money for, or who the actors, director, etc. were. Maybe it was some sort of experimental reinterpretation involving goldfish. I don’t know.

    At any rate, seeing Shakespeare done well is key rather than just seeing Shakespeare performed. Experimental reinterpretations assume basic knowledge of the original work, and there are a lot of experimental reinterpretations of Shakespeare. If Grandma was still with us (she’s been gone twenty years now), I’d want to show her something like Branagh’s movie of Much Ado About Nothing.

    • Sherwood Smith says:

      I totally agree, which is why I did mention seeing Shakespeare done well. (Though I know people are going to disagree violently about what constitutes “well” just as they can debate what is a great book.) For my purposes, “well” means the viewer is able to understand what is going on.

      I’ve seen some wooden, or tortuously obscure, performances that seemed ninety hours long, so I feel for your grandma.

      There was a nifty Canadian TV show a while back, about a company doing Shakespeare, and what it was like trying to bring the bard to life from the inside, called Slings and Arrows.

      • Anne Moore says:

        I’ve tried watching Slings and Arrows a couple of times, but the library here doesn’t have a version that’s captioned, so I haven’t been able to follow the dialogue. I can manage some things without captions, but that’s sadly not one of them. Acorn Media, generally speaking, doesn’t caption things.

        My grandmother just assumed that the problem was with her being ignorant/uncultured. She and my grandfather were the first members of their families to go to high school, and their families never understood why they would. Grandma worked her way through high school as a maid and had to move to a different state to be able to do it.

        • Sherwood Smith says:

          She sounds like a smart cookie to me. Did she enjoy more modern theater?

          • Anne Moore says:

            I’m not 100% sure. I remember going with her, when I was quite small, to high school productions that my uncle, her next to youngest, was in. I was young enough the first year that the second year I expected to see the same play as I had the last time.

            I think she’s the one who provided the tickets that my other grandmother used to take me and my sister to see Shenandoah at one of the big theaters in Detroit. (And, mainly, what I remember about that is that there was a bathroom attendant and that I didn’t know I should tip her. My grandmother took me and my sister back during a later break so that we could tip properly.)

        • LOVED Slings and Arrows, and we own the entire series on DVD and rewatch it regularly. THeir (admittedly chaotic and flawed) Lear, in the third season, is amongst the most luminous renditions of the play even though we never see the whole thing just snatches of it – but it’s enough. I have sat through that third season of S&A – breathless – at least three times.

          I saw Shakespeare on stage in Stratford, with hte Royal Shakespeare COmpany, when I was 15 – Antony and Cleopatra. The cast boasted Alan Rickman and Patrick Stewart (although I really wsn’t aware of either at that time, which makes my older self weep with frustration – I saw them ON STAGE and I can’t remember them…) but they had Glenda Jackson as Cleopatra. She walked on stage on her first appearance with literally almost no embellishment at all – minimal make up, her own pixie-cut English ginger hair, dressed in a plain and almost colourless caftan – and within five minutes you had forgotten every ELizabeth Taylor Kohl-eyed black-bewigged lookalike ever and it was hard to imagine that Cleopatra would have ever looked, walked, or spoke in any other way. THAT was Shakespeare done well. I have never forgotten it, and that play was decades ago.

          Concerning edifying books which were required reading but which rubbed the wrong way… with me it was Dickens and David COpperfield. We had to do that at school somewhere and I don’t know if it was just badly thought or what but I was bored STUPID and it took me a long time to even LOOK at Dickens again…

          • Holy cow, what a trifecta of perfection! Alan Rickman, Patrick Stewart, Glenda Jackson . . . wow!

            I intend to buy Slings and Arrows one day, when the debt load gets below five figures. (If it ever does.) I loved it the one time I saw it, before the library got rid of its copies.

  5. A few years back, I was the one-on-one teacher in a writing program for a student who was reading for strong women characters. One of the books on her list was The Scarlet Letter. I read it in high school and hated it, but decided I should re-read it to be a good teacher. It turns out to be very funny and it’s clear that Hawthorne was mocking Puritan culture — things I totally missed as a teenager. He does slide into the romantic at the end — I think he likes his fallen preacher better than I do. But still: very worth reading once you’re past the point of assuming everyone wants you to read it to reinforce the shame of women who have sex.

  6. As for Shakespeare, I did read it first, but at home, not in school. My father loved the plays and I recall being entranced by As You Like It from an early age.

    Otherwise, I might have been harmed by reading the dreadful Charles and Mary Lamb version of Comedy of Errors in high school. Or by the boring teacher I had in college. (Hard to be boring teaching Shakespeare, but he managed.)

    But yeah: seeing it performed is the way to go. And then you go back and read it and see several productions of the same plays, etc.

    • Mary Aileen says:

      I started reading Shakespeare on my own at age ten, with a paperback collection titled Four Comedies*. I was immediately hooked, especially on As You Like It. My parents took me to a production of that a year or two later, since they knew I loved the play. I ended up doing a my senior honor’s thesis (in Literature) on Shakespeare’s comedies.

      *We were going to be away from home–and thus the library–for six weeks, so my mother gave each of us bookworm kids money to buy books to take along. I had found a stack and still had money left, so I was browsing around the shop. “Comedies–that means they’re funny. Shakespeare’s supposed to be really good. And you get four of them!”

  7. tuppenny says:

    I was given Lambs ‘Tales from Shakespeare’ when I was 8 or 9 I think. So I sort of grew up with the plots at least, and when I got a complete book of his plays in Junior High I was prepped for it.
    Macbeth I enjoyed reading. I have seen 3 times – each performance dreadful in its unique way. (One where McB. dragged out his dying for at least 5 minutes. The audience started booing it was so bad.) If that had been my initial exposure I would have consigned the Bard to the briny deep!

  8. Foxessa says:

    One of the considerations of the 18th century fictional epistolary composition is how closely its aligned with the new middle class’s access to privacy and thus, diary keeping — which does indeed like selfie stix — make the diary writer the star of her own life. With the fictional epistles, this fictional figure is able to make her self the star of the addressees’ worlds as well. I think particularly of both Pamela, and particularly Clarissa here!

    In these fictional letters the writers can be as breathless and revealing as in their diaries — whereas in ‘real life’ letters many of the matters revealed in the fictional letters would not have been included.

    I cannot help but think of Henry Miller and Anais Nin’s journals in this context too. They really do have the aroma of experiences experienced almost for the very purpose of being able to rush into solitude with pen / type writer, paper and tobacco to record every nuance, as they marvel of themselves — “:What I’ve done now!”

  9. Mary says:

    It’s the teaching. There are books I liked BEFORE reading them in class and LONG AFTER reading in class, but not DURING the reading.

    Except Shakespeare. I thought then and think now that it was a tribute to his great genius that he could be appreciated despite reading him simultaneously.

    • Mary Aileen says:

      My 9th grade English teacher had a voice that was a literal monotone. Listening to hear reading bits of Romeo and Juliet in class was excruciating. The version in our textbook was expurgated, so some of my classmates got the full version from the library, to find the racy bits that had been cut.

  10. Lydy Nickerson says:

    I would say that teaching Shakespeare to high school students is greatly enhanced by explaining the dirty jokes. Romeo and Juliet is full of them, and having your delightful English teacher explain them, sometimes blushing slightly, really engaged the attention of my freshman English class. But seeing a badly done production of “Hamlet,” later that year, was transformative.

    • Sherwood Smith says:

      Oh, that’s a good observation about translating the jokes. With sympathetic and illuminating help in the decoding, the reading experience could indeed be fun.

    • It occurs to me that my appreciation of ancient Greek comedy began when I read William Arrowsmith and Douglass Parker’s translations, which updated the dirty jokes into language modern readers could get. Earlier translations did the jokes so literally that only the scholars knew they were funny.

      Of course, you can get in trouble explaining dirty jokes — even in Shakespeare or Greek comedy — in high school, despite the fact that teenagers love dirty jokes.

  11. Eric Gjovaag says:

    Can I approach this from the teacher’s perspective? I’m a substitute teacher, and twice now I’ve been in long-term high school English assignments that called for me to teach a play: Something by Ibsen the first time (I think “A Doll’s House”), and “Macbeth” the second time. Understand, my background and certification are not in English. In both cases, my instructions were to dole out the parts and have the students read over several days, then watch a film version. Not a bad approach, but that did mean long stretches of just reading. After a couple of days of Ibsen (with the same readers, as nobody else was brave enough to try), I decided on Friday (my last day before the regular teacher was back) to give them a break and show the video, up to the point where we’d read. So when I had the same basic instructions with “Macbeth”, I thought another mixed approach would at least break up the monotony. So we’d read an act, with breaks for summaries and discussion, and then I’d show the same act from the video (this one has Ian McKellan as Macbeth and Judy Dench as Lady M, long before they were Sir and Dame). I don’t know if they got more appreciation out of the plays, but at least they didn’t get the whole thing all at once in one form, and had more time to digest and understand what was going on. And I never got any complaints from the regular teachers, so at least I didn’t mess them up terribly.

    • Sherwood Smith says:

      The teacher’s perspective is always welcome here. I struggled with these things during my teaching days, both with curriculum choices, and with how best to present a text when I could not win.

      That sounds like a similar sort of approach to what I’d do. (I mostly adopted my sixth grade teacher’s approach to introducing us to opera, which ignited a lifelong love in me.)

  12. Katharine Kerr says:

    Back when I went to high school, the classics we read were not allowed to have sexual content. How, you may ask, could we possibly read Shakespeare? In bowdlerized editions, that’s how. I could never understand why Mercutio was considered such a lively character and the nurse such an earthy one until I saw the play onstage. All their speeches had been “cleaned up.” None of that “bawdy hand of the clock” stuff for us! Instead of Scarlet Letter we read The House of Seven Gables, and most of us 14-year-olds saw no reason to ever read Hawthorne again.

  13. Marva Grossman says:

    Am I the only one who enjoyed reading Romeo and Juliet in eighth grade?

    That was my first experience with original Shakespeare (that wasn’t a retelling-of in a picture book, or a discussion of a Shakespeare play in a novel) and while it wasn’t easy, it was rewarding. I should probably mention that we got an annotated, un-expurged edition, and the annotations very helpfully pointed out all the double- and triple-entendres that I might otherwise have missed at thirteen. It’s possible that my appreciation of bawdy humor started right there. (I’m actually sorry now that I don’t remember what edition it was, because I would have liked to get a few more plays in the same format.) I didn’t get to see a Shakespeare play on stage until many years later, when I got Love’s Labour Lost at the New Globe Theater in London. Sadly I couldn’t hear all the dialogue well enough to understand it. (There’s no amplification in the New Globe…) I still enjoyed the overall experience, but I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had read the play in advance.

    I just remembered that in eighth grade we also read The Crucible, in parallel with studying that period of Colonial history. That left a strong impression on me too. Reading All My Sons in high school English in Israel, a couple of years later, was almost disappointing by comparison, although I can understand why it might be considered the best Miller play to teach to Israeli high-school students. (The language is more accessible, for one thing, which is important when the students are reading in a foreign language, and the themes might be seen as more relevant.)

    What really annoyed me in high school literature class was having to read English-language literature translated into Hebrew. I would frequently either find fault with the translation, or find fault with the teacher’s interpretation when I knew said interpretation hinged on an artifact of the translation. In hindsight, it may not have been entirely fair of me to deliberately read the original and make these comparisons. Fortunately this didn’t come into play when we read A Doll’s House or Antigone; I couldn’t and still can’t read Norwegian or Classical Greek, though I’m working on the latter.

    This really only leaves two books in the category of Assigned Classics I Did Not Enjoy, and those would be Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies. The former was not that bad, once I got an English copy from the library, although I don’t have the least desire to read it again. The latter is, I suspect, the kind of story that’s not meant to be enjoyed by anyone. I originally read it back in the US on my own time, and disliked it very much even then; having to read it again for class and write essays about it was very distasteful, but it hardly ruined a good read.

    • Sherwood Smith says:

      When I was young Catcher in the Rye was still on the forbidden list. I checked it out of the library after I got a note from my mom to let me on the adult side, and absolutely loathed it. I remember I took it to the beach, expecting to enjoy it, and when I’d had a surfeit of Holden Caulfield’s put-upon whining I recollect staring at the glare bright light reflecting off the sea, and the fact that I had an entire afternoon ahead of me without a better book to read.

      Lord of the Flies I read at twelve years old, and was terrified but gripped. It was so very vivid.

      • Having spent a miserable eight years of primary and middle school being ruthlessly bullied by popular kids who magically never seemed to get in trouble for it, I was 100% on board with LORD OF THE FLIES when I had to study it in high school. I’d never call it a fun read, and parts of it upset me greatly (never mind Piggy, I’m still not over Simon) but it rang very true to my experience of human nature in general and schoolchildren in particular.

        I’ve since heard it argued that the events of LotF are really a statement about toxic masculinity, and a story about a group of choir girls stranded on an island would be very different — but seeing as a lot of the bullying I received was from girls and I noticed no difference in the degree of violence or cruelty from when a boy was doing it, I can’t say I buy into that view of the book myself…

        • Sherwood Smith says:

          Yup! The cruelty of those boys–their progression to savagery–was very realistic to me, too, after half a year of junior high bullying.

      • Marva Grossman says:

        I had heard of Catcher in the Rye being banned or challenged. Can anyone tell me why? I don’t recall any Language, although I certainly don’t remember it in enough detail to be certain. Was it because of the brief appearance of a prostitute? That’s the only part I can recall that would set off the Moral Guardians, but I may not remember all the relevant bits and I may not understand what Moral Guardians find objectionable to begin with.

        Personally, what I learned from Catcher in the Rye was that I don’t much like anti-heroes. I prefer protagonists who at least try to do something, anything, even if they fail and even if they try to do the wrong thing to begin with.

        I have some more thoughts about Lord of the Flies, but I think I’ll consolidate those in a different reply to Nancy Jane Moore’s comment below.

        • It was banned for language and content both, my mom told me. (It was an instant hit when she was in high school.) I checked it out, and though the language was there, the whininess of the protag put me off immediately. I was in my mid teens at that point.

    • I loved Catcher in the Rye at 13, but loathed it when I re-read it again at 16, and found it unreadable as an adult. Which, to me, explains the level it was written on. I still adore Franny and Zooey>, which to my mind is the best thing Salinger wrote. It got at being different from everyone else on a mature level, instead of the whiny one in Catcher.

      I remember being profoundly affected by Lord of the Flies when I read it as a teenager and certainly I’m aware of the bullying that underlies it. It is about a culture of toxic masculinity imposed on children, which they take to extremes when unsupervised. (They take it to lesser extremes when supervised.) I don’t think it’s about human nature, but that’s the argument that was made when I read it and I think it’s what a lot of people took from the book. (And may be what William Golding thought when he wrote it.) Rather, I think it’s about how our culture affects us even when we’re living in a different environment.

  14. Msb says:

    Having been both student and teacher, I formed the theory that the English curriculum was designed to vaccinate students against literature: expose them to enough classics so that they’d never read any again. It worked with me on George Eliot. After Silas Marner, and my urge to drown Little Eppie, I have never been able to read another word of Eliot, failing twice to read Middlemarch. And it took Ursula Le Guin’s advocacy of Dickens in an essay to get me back to him, only 20 years after hoping that sweet Lucie Manette would be guillotined.
    But Shakespeare took immediately and forever, partly because my teachers had the wisdom to start me with Dream, and R&J, the latter of which had my students sniffling in class and weeping audibly during the movie. But no high school student (except me, apparently) likes Julius Caesar, though most of my students liked Macbeth (thanks to the RSC). Having failed with JC twice, possibly owing to the lack of good film versions, I switched to Much Ado, which went much better. (And I loved Of Mice and Men, and so did my students.)
    I think there are three problems with high-school English curricula: the urge to avoid sex, the urge to throw classics at kids without the necessary emotional or intellectual maturity to deal with them, and the inability to let a student who bounces off a book switch to something else (what we all do in reading for pleasure). Until all three are tackled, English class is likely to keep immunizing kids against literature, which is an awful shame.

    • Sherwood Smith says:

      Your big three at the end jive completely with my experience.

      I regret that you can’t enjoy Middlemarch. I, too, loathed Silas Marner with such an intensity that it was decades before I read her, but now Middlemarch is one of my favorite books, and I think the last paragraph the best novel ending ever written.

      • Msb says:

        You inspire me to try again. After all, I’ve now failed to read War and Peace three times! Luckily, Virginia Woolf’s essay, How to Read a Novel, gave me permission to quit, if I find a book is not for me.

        • Sherwood Smith says:

          Yepityyep–no more grading, no teacher frowning if you don’t complete the assignment.

  15. If you get a chance, see OF MICE AND MEN on the stage. It was John Steinbeck himself who turned his novel into the stage play, and so it is perfect. Profoundly moving when well staged. I went to the Arena Stage production in Washington DC, and when they shot the dog (it was a real dog! but the shooting took place off stage) we were all in tears and some people had to leave their seats.

    • Sherwood Smith says:

      You couldn’t pay me enough to sit in a theater and pretend to see a dog shot. The very thought of that story on stage gives me the grues.

  16. Lucy Kemnitzer says:

    I hate Of Mice and Men too but I was shocked to find that my at-risk students, who generally did not like fiction at all, enjoyed and remembered the book. Well, parts of it. We were in Watsonville, 25 miles or so from Salinas, and they related to the landscape, the poverty of the characters, the agricultural work. They didn’t care too much about the plot, though they also appreciated the fact that it was sad. Other stories they objected to, holding the authors responsible for the bad behavior of the characters, assuming that the stories were advocating for every bad thing done in them: but that one, they loved because their people and their country were in it.

    • Sherwood Smith says:

      I’m glad to discover that it spoke to them! After all it is a classic, so many feel it’s great. It’s just that I don’t.

  17. Pamela Dean says:

    My problem with Shakespeare in junior high was that we were told off to read it out loud, with no training or preparation at all. This was generally true of reading aloud. You were supposed just to magically know how to do it, and if you didn’t, teachers were generally sarcastic and denigrating without giving any instruction. It felt as if they thought, even in the third grade, that somebody earlier was supposed to have taught it, and you were remiss for not learning. But nobody did teach it to us. So it was agony hearing Shakespeare mangled — not that I knew how it was supposed to sound any better than anybody else, but I was fortunate to know most of the words at least, while some of my unfortunate classmates had probably never even been read to by parents, let alone given the least advice about how to use their voices.

    When I was in the ninth grade, the senior play was “Twelfth Night.” I was astonished to find that Shakespeare was funny. We’d done “Twelfth Night” in eighth grade and it was incomprehensible and boring. I thought they must have cut the play or there was a special form for doing in a theater. But they only cut it lightly, and of course it WAS the special form for doing in a theater. They used a lot of body language and gestures to footnote the bawdy bits, which was also all a complete revelation.

    So I certainly concur with your conclusion that students should see Shakespeare performed. But it’s also really not that hard to provide half a dozen tenets for reading Shakespeare aloud competently, if not magnificently. Cecily Berry’s Voice and the Actor encompasses most of them. Not that that was available when I was a kid, but it is now.

    • Sherwood Smith says:

      So very, very true about helping kids to learn to read Shakespeare. But then, I suspect many teachers couldn’t read him properly.

      Shakespeare on stage was an eye-opener for me when a smart teacher took us to see a UCLA production of Macbeth. These were advanced acting students, and they were terrific. (I also remember some of my classmates being shocked, shocked, that Lady Macbeth was a woman of color.)

      That same teacher took us to a high school somewhere around Beverly Hills, to see the seniors do Antigone. It was another terrific production.

  18. I’ve taught ninth grade for 22 years now. Early in my career, I tried teaching Shakespeare three ways: by seeing the play first and reading it second; by reading a little, then watching what we read, then reading, then watching; and by reading the whole thing and watching it at the end.

    I only tried the second two ways once. They were awful. Now I always show the play first and read it second, and I always ALWAYS read it aloud in class with recorded professional actors. (Nothing is worse than a bunch of freshmen stumbling through Shakespeare aloud for hours on end.)

    And yes, you absolutely must point out the dirty jokes, and by the time you get to “the blond bow-boy’s butt-shaft,” the class is getting them on their own.

    I’ve gotten so good at it that one year in the middle of ROMEO AND JULIET, I happened to mention that R&J is a piker for deaths on stage when compared to HAMLET. I gave them a thumbnail description of the plot for HAMLET, and both my English 9 sections asked if they could read it when they were done with ROMEO AND JULIET. I was going to say no? And so my ninth graders were the first freshmen in the history of the school district to read HAMLET. They loved it. (For the video, I used the version with David Tennant and Patrick Stewart, incidentally.)

    OF MICE AND MEN is one of my favorite books to teach. I usually teach classes filled with special ed students who don’t like reading, and OMAM is an excellent choice for such students. I usually read the first half of each chapter aloud to them and have them finish at home. (I also post audio files of me reading the entire chapter aloud on-line so they can listen to that, if they like.) The class gets terribly upset when the other men push Candy into shooting his dog, but after a short discussion, you can also see the understanding come over them about why it had to happen–and why Candy should have done it himself, and how it parallels George shooting Lenny. The last chapter is so short, I usually get through the entire thing in class, and half the students are trying not to cry during the parts when George is talking to clueless Lenny about how great the farm is going to be while he puts the gun to the back of Lenny’s head.

    After they’ve read it, I can show them the themes and symbols in the book: the importance of hands, the significance of names (and the letter C), animals (dogs, puppies, chickens, horses, Lenny) standing for dreams, how poverty keeps people from the American dream, and so on. The symbolism is blatant and straightforward, which is what makes this book a great choice for their first foray into symbolism.

    But, I always tell them, this is first and foremost a great story. We want to know what happens next to Lenny and George. All the other stuff makes the story even better once we see it, but the most important thing is that it’s a good story.

    You said you don’t like it, Sherwood, but you didn’t say why. Is it because of Lenny’s death and the dog’s death? Or did you find it poorly written? I’m curious. (We can’t all like the same thing–imagine what a haggis shortage there would be.)

    On my own end, I’m being forced to teach for the first time TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I’m one of five teachers in the entire country who DOES NOT LIKE that book, and I’ve managed to avoid teaching it for 22 years. Now I have to teach it for the first time, and I’m not happy about it. I found it dull. I didn’t like the setting. (Seriously, how many books must we read that are set in the old South?) I especially hated the drug addict bit–completely and unforgivably inaccurate. The first time I read it, I saw the ending coming. It wrote, called, telegraphed, and hired a town crier to tell us. Do not like. And now I have to teach it.

    • That’s a great approach to Shakespeare, and wow, re Hamlet!

      I find Of Mice and Men mingy and cruel and pointless, especially toward the innocents. There’s enough of that in real life. I want fiction that gives such people agency. It’s also far too male gaze for my own tastes. I was glad I was never told to teach it. Horrible enough to have to read, and then to coax my kids through page by grueling page as both the boy and the girl loathed it.

      I did teach To Kill a Mockingbird (which I read at twelve, and was fascinated, though much of the trial whizzed over my head). The year I was required to teach it, I showed the kids the Gregory Peck movie first, and we approached the book from the POV of kids, and trying to make sense of the adult world. I won’t say it was a favorite, but they were into it. But then the curriculum changed and it was yanked as too controversial.

    • Msb says:

      I’m delighted you had such success with OMAM. I watched the classic film version with my sophomores and the room was so silent at the end, that the whole class heard the plop when A big tear rolled down my face and hit my gradebook. They were very sweet about it.
      I had some success with giving some of my book haters A Day No Pigs Would Die.
      I tried hard with Mockingbird but my frosh just didn’t have the vocabulary for the jokes, or, I suspected, enough distance from their own childhoods to appreciate the ironic viewpoint.

  19. Kayote says:

    Edgar Allen Poe was what I was not ready for in school. We read The Cask of Amontillado and The Black Cat in jr high grade. I had nightmares for YEARS. I didn’t touch Poe for decades. I can’t say I really like him now either, but a lot of his other work would have been more appropriate–or at least less scarring–for the 6th grade me.

    I did have the opposite reaction to one book. I read The Awakening by Kate Chopin for high school–it was short, so I read the entire thing before we discussed it. Didn’t like it one bit. Then I went to class and the teacher walked us through it, introducing us to the expectations of the times and what some scenes (which seemed pointless) actually demonstrated about the main character. I loved it by the time we got done. I really should find a copy and reread it. I wonder if I’ll remember enough to still enjoy it.

    I am hesitant to solo read some classics that may require knowledge of the times to really enjoy them after that experience.

    • I first read The Awakening as amiddle-aged adult–Chopin didn’t come back into fashion until the seventies or so, and by then I was mostly reading history, not lit. The writing is stunning, but as a close examination of utter selfishness, it can hardly be beat. (I wrote a very long review over on Goodreads.)

      Yeah, Poe. I never liked him–and the older I got, the more I felt sorry for what seemed to be a thoroughly depressed and messed-up emotional landscape.

  20. K. Harris says:

    For me and most of my class it was The Scarlet Letter nobody appreciated. I think we were just too young. Many of my classmates also hated Moby Dick, but I enjoyed it, perhaps because my mother was an English teacher and it was one of her favorite books. One note about Pamela (which I hated because it was so unrealistic and she was a prig) – as far as I know, Richardson only wrote it because of people’s reactions to Clarissa (which I rather liked).

    • I believe Pamela was work for hire, and when it turned out to be super popular, he wrote Clarissa–which got three editions, each time he made her even more priggish and Lovelace more evil when he got word that people liked Lovelace.

      • Msb says:

        Well, Richardson was a bit unnerved that people liked a sadistic rapist so much because he was charming and lively. Probably the moralist in me, but I agree with him. I have a lot of sympathy for Clarissa; what other escape could she make from Lovelace than death? You see from the book that he needed to own, dominate, vanquish her, even to the point of controlling her corpse.

  21. JohnSherck says:

    In a former life as a high school English teacher, although we did teach Shakespeare every year, we made sure our students saw it acted out. In fact, that’s often how we selected the play for any given year, which ones were being staged locally (this was in Providence, RI). I would also purchase DVDs of a couple different productions and show scenes from them in class to both help the students understand what was going on and also help the understand something of the range of interpretations that are possible.

    I think there’s a great value, particularly for younger students, in teaching more recent works, because it removes some of the barriers and allows them to develop greater fluency both as readers and as interpreters and analyzers. If you develop those tools, you’re better able to deal with works from an earlier time, whether that’s later in high school or waiting until college.

  22. Janeheiress says:

    I had the benefit of an older sister who was majoring in English during my last two years of high school. She always told what books to read–I self-introduced to Austen, the Brontes, and Hugo in high school, and Dickens, Eliot (although I don’t like Silas Marner, either), and Gaskell a little later.

    I read The Scarlet Letter for 9th grade English and hated it, but loved it when we read it again in 11th grade–possibly because of the soulful illustrations in the copy I had. I also loathed The Great Gatsby as a 16 year old, but when I read it again at 20-something, Fitzgerald’s prose made me go so weak in the knees that I didn’t care how depressing the story was.

    It’s been 20 years since I read Lord of the Flies, but I still remember it vividly–that’s definitely a story that resonates with teenagers. I need to read it again to figure out how Golding imprinted those images so well on my brain!

    Sad to say, although I enjoyed Shakespeare well enough in high school (as well as a kid with an aversion to tragedy can, because of course that’s all you read in school), I’ve never read him since. It may be because I’ve always struggled with verse. I just couldn’t seem to grasp what poetry was trying to say a lot of the time, or how to read it out loud. Anyway, my senior English teacher had us read the entirety of Othello, King Lear, and Hamlet out loud in class, which helped immensely. I still remember the finale of Hamlet–the girl who played Gertrude read ahead and toppled over in her desk before anyone else was expecting it. My teacher, who played Hamlet, had brought a fancy goblet for the scene. When Hamlet drank the poison, my teacher dropped the goblet (which he thought was plastic) and it shattered over the entire classroom floor!

  23. Zena says:

    I think I must be the only weird person in the world who never hated anything we were made to read in class (okay, I’ll admit that I didn’t care for Margaret Laurence’s Stone Angel, or Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles overly much). Mind, with the exception of Shakespeare, by the time we got to whatever was on the class reading list, I had usually already read it (probably several times, because that’s just my reading style).

    I always enjoyed dissecting the texts to find out how they were constructed, and that never really impeded me from enjoying the books in their own right. It usually just enhanced my own insights. We never read truncated versions of Shakespeare, either—in fact, at least one of our teachers revelled in explaining all the bawdy humour therein. I mean, how else is one supposed to enjoy The Taming of the Shrew?!

    I guess I was just a nerd—or mostly fortunate in my English teachers. My offspring, on the other hand, have often complained about how being required to read stuff “ruins” it for them. I suspect that has something to to with the fact that in-depth study is becoming a foreign activity amongst the “instant gratification” generation.

    Either that, or I was just a nerd.

  24. Jess Christiansen says:

    I read ‘Of Mice And Men’ when I was 10 – my elder sisters had gone off to college, leaving their bookshelves for my plundering – and I loved it, even though it was so sad. When I was 12, I read most of Shakespeare’s plays after seeing the movie ‘Romeo and Juliet’, and loved them too. Neither Steinbeck nor Shakespeare are intrinsically inaccessible to the young reader – it’s the way classic lit is taught in school that makes students hate them. They’d hate ice cream too, if it were forced down their throats the same way.