Tuesday, April 20, 2021

High School Reading

Recently somebody on Facebook posted something that talked about their high school reading assignments, and it prompted a variety of responses, with people weighing in on whether they liked or disliked most of what they were given to read in high school and on the makeup of the authors -- by race, gender, etc -- that they were given to read.  That prompted me to think about all the reading I had to do from 9th through 12th grade, primarily in English classes but also in Humanities class in 12th grade, as I remember, and I thought it'd be interesting to look at what I read for school then, recalling with honesty what I thought of the reading at the time. I'm sure I'm missing a few things we got to read, but the books and plays below comprise most of what the teachers gave us.

Animal Farm - Liked, very clear and anti-authoritarian enough to appeal to myself as a teenager

1984 - Not exactly fun, but bitterly enjoyable, and rats would make me break as they do Winston Smith so it struck a chord that way

To Kill a Mockingbird -  Liked then, liked now.

The Great Gatsby - Slow and lugubrious to a 15 or 16 year old, and when I re-read it as an adult, because it's one of the supposedly great American novels, I still found it...underwhelming. Not that I dislike everything by Fitzgerald. I very much liked The Pat Hobby Stories and The Last Tycoon, but maybe that's because those are about Hollywood and have a poignancy only someone who was on the downswing like Fitzgerald was then could write.

Lord of the Flies - Some love, some loathe.  I loved it as 10th or 11th grader since it appealed to that teenage sense of unearned jaundice about human beings as a whole.  It seems very simplistic to me now in retrospect.  

The Chosen - By Chaim Potok.  A coming of age story about two boys, one Hasidic, one a secular Jew, growing up in 1940s Brooklyn.  I remember trying to like this one, but couldn't relate in the slightest to the characters and found it interminable.  Never tempted to re-read.

The Pigman - By Paul Zindel. A YA novel really. I think we read this in 9th grade. This was one I found very readable and quite, in its ending, disturbing.  It lingered with me for decades.  Finally, about 40 years later, I read it again to see whether it would have any of the impact it had the first time. It did.  

A Tale of Two Cities - The French revolution is as bloody as human history gets and fascinating to read about in general.  But Dickens? Well, the style of course was difficult, and I've never taken to Dickens as a writer.  I'm not talking about whether he's a genius or not, etc. That goes without saying.  But I never felt tempted to go back to this book, and have read very little Dickens since. Just not my cup of tea.

The Return of the Native - To this day, I remember what I told my 12th-grade teacher, Mrs. Scalera, about this book.  It's 350 pages and the action doesn't pick up till page 300. 

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck - Endless.  

Ethan Frome - Depressing and slow, a male teenager found this book.  All the repression and needless emotional misery.  I haven't re-read it, but as an adult, I do indeed like Ethan Wharton very much as a writer. So she's one, at least with this book, I was not ready for at that age, but who I appreciate now.

Madame Bovary - Why do they even give this to high schoolers to read?  What person of that age is going to appreciate the travails of a 19th-century person, in this case a woman, disappointed in marriage?  So here's yet another one I found interminable.  However, years later, as an adult, I tried again, listening to the entire novel on an audio book version narrated by British actor Ronald Pickup. This time, in my thirties, unmarried still but more appreciative of the disappointments life can bring, I quite enjoyed it.  And to hear it read brought to life a lot of the subtle ironic humor in the book.  So, there you go.  A second try that was worth it, though my favorite Flaubert work is undoubtedly Salammbo, his blood-drenched epic set in ancient Carthage.

The Sorrows of Young Werther - Couldn't stand the character's constant romantic yearning and whining.

The Old Man and the Sea -- Short, easy to read, something of an adventure story.  I found this one palatable, though later I came to like other stuff by Hemingway, like The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast and several of his short stories, a good deal more.

Fathers and Sons - Quite liked.  The Russians.  A classic they gave us that wasn't 300-400 pages.  And when I read this one as an adult, I absolutely loved it and found the main father-son relationship quite moving.

The Death of Ivan Ilych - The Russians again.  Somehow, or so it seemed to me at the time, they get to the point of things much more succinctly and directly than the British.  And when I found out that Tolstoy foresaw the now famous five stages of grief as first modeled by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, I was impressed. Clear evidence here how the great writers are so often ahead of the social scientists and psychiatrists and the like.

Romeo and Juliet - I think we read this in 8th grade, but anyway, it was never a play I especially liked.  The language is hard of course but you get used to that.  And the characters are young.  Just all the dying for love stuff didn't appeal to me.

Julius Caeser - Enjoyed very much and found pretty thrilling.

Macbeth - Loved even then and still consider it my favorite Shakespeare play.

Hamlet - Hamlet basically is a quintessential adolescent, so it was easy to relate to his discontent, uncertainty, and psychological tension.

So there it is.  High school reading from 1976-1980 in a solid suburban school just outside New York City.  As I mentioned, there may have been other books we read, but this picture gives a good indication of what we delved into.  Nothing here is subpar literature, as it were, but obviously there were no writers of color and way more male writers than women writers.   And it's all Euro or American-centric. Not that this bothered me then; I suppose this was just a given at the time.  That high school reading now takes from a more diverse range of authors -- at least I hope it does -- is a very good thing. That’s a given. But beyond that,  the problem with much of this reading was how slow and truly boring it was, and also, how unrelatable to people 14-18 years old.  But who knows?  That was then and this is now, and I'm sure the reading in high schools now is not only more diverse but filled with assignments to read great genre fiction and stuff from all over the world and...

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