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?