Thursday, 29 September 2011

School Reading Lists Suck (aka Childhood Torture Through Books)

I know it's been all quiet on this Western Front for a while. I think my brain is still in holiday mode and is taking a while to get back into gear. But I am slowly returning to my writing schedule. Slowly.

Today I saw an article about books that deserved to be banned. Swallowing my automatic reaction of "How dare they!? No books deserve to be banned" I read on to find that it was a discussion about the books that would be better to not include in classrooms and schools as mandatory reading. And not due to any religious, moral, or ethical concerns but purely because the books are no fun to read when you're a kid. I can definitely relate to that. I recall being inflicted with tortuous books in High School and College. I've purged the books before that from my mind so have no idea what they were anymore. So here is my list of books I was forced to study, and why I hated them, as well as the ones I loved (y'know, for comparison's sake):

Silas Marner - How I hated this book. I used to dread being forced to follow the words as others read aloud, in case my name was called out to carry on after them. Dulll, dull, dull. The funny thing is I later saw a film starring Steve Martin that was based on this book and I really liked the modern adaptation. But the book... a torturous experience for any teenager.

Julius Caesar - This is an odd one. On one hand the text bore me more than a Vogon's poetry recital, but I was fascinated with the history of Caesar and what happened to him. I also got really good marks on a piece of homework where we had to do our own newspaper front page around the events in Shakespeare's play. But it's definitely not one of his best and it still puzzles me that this was ever considered to be a good way to get kids to read Shakespeare. This is why teenagers and adults hate his plays; they get the wrong ones to study in school!

Imagine the absolute horror of this guy reading Julius Caesar aloud. The horror!

Of Mice and Men - I loved Of Mice and Men. It was colourful, fast paced, and the story, as well as characters, were great. But I should state that my class was taught this book by a brilliant teacher who really made the text come alive. I tip my hat to you Mr. Osbourne. And thank you for letting us watch the film version, starring John Malkovich, in class. Best. Lesson. Ever.

Sense and Sensibility - Urgh. I love Pride and Prejudice, so when I learned we'd be doing Sense and Sensibility for A-Level Literature I thought it would be good. I was wrong. The two characters are annoying, whiny, and neither had the balls of Elizabeth from P.P. But I did enjoy learning about the thematic elements, and the way the two characters swap some of their characteristics as the book goes on. Still bloody boring though.

Thomas Hardy poetry - Why they gave this to teenagers studying their A-Levels I will never know; "what poetry should we give the teenagers struggling with their own identities and life issues?" Answer: some of the most depressing poetry ever written. I hastily add I love Hardy's works now, but I really didn't at the time. And I still say it's not good stuff to read if you're feeling depressed in the slightest. Unless you're one of those terribly tortured souls who simply must increase your agony, in the hopes of appearing smart and troubled to everyone else. Not that I'm judging.

The Time Machine - Fantastic story, and I really like this book - but the language is a bit much for the average teenager. Not because it was difficult, just that it was so formal. Doesn't detract from a thoroughly fun book. And the original 1960's film wasn't bad either. Let's not speak of the Guy Pearce one though?

The Merchant of Venice - I know this wasn't very popular with my peers in High School, but there was something about the story of Merchant of Venice that kept me interested. I think the sheer brutality and antisemitism it contains are compelling, especially if you think about whether Shakespeare was for or against Shylock. I also enjoy the whole girls dressing as boys thing, as the original enactments of the play must have been interesting, with the boys playing the girls, then dressing up as girls dressed as boys. That doesn't make a lot of sense unless you've read it. Or listened to Blur's song.

"Not more Silas Marner, please!"

I know we studied other books but I can't for the life of me remember what they were. So they obviously left a huge impression on me... I'm not sure how they choose which books to include in the School Curriculum, and at times it seems totally random and arbitrary. Another problem is this insistence on making the students read sections, one after the other, which is enough to ruin even the best of stories. I wonder if they still do that?

What about you, which books did you loathe/love in school? Any you would "ban" from classrooms, for the sake of the student's sanity? All answers, ramblings, and fiery branded opinions welcome.


  1. Well, I do recall the 4 books we studied for English Literature 'O' level, and they were "variable" shall we say?

    The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins. I think this we were supposed to read over the summer holiday, but it's a huge a dense novel, not particularly interesting, and I had just read the similar yet more interesting, Moonstone. So I never really got that into it, and we only found interest by heavily suggesting (at the teacher's behest) that Mariam Holcombe(?) was a lesbian. Ah ... those were the days ...

    The Crucible. Which was both good and interesting. I think it's theme will always find traction in the modern world, so ought to be a firm favourite. I've since seen both the film and a stage version, of which the latter of course sticks closer to the text.

    My Family and Other Animals. This is obvious fare for youngsters, but I never found it compelling. Although the main protagonist is the right sort of age, I never really felt any connection to any family members, and found it dry and tedious. Education likes to steer clear of 'genre' favourites, but I think something like 'Dune' would pack more punch, although not be easy to read out aloud. Kids are tricky to please.

    Four Modern Story-Tellers. Being Somerset Maugham, Scott-Fitzgerald, Doris Lessing, and William Sansom. Of the four, I only liked Sansom and parts of Maugham. The others were either too remote, or overly sentimental.

    So, not the worse 4 in the world, but I'd only really recommend The Crucible to current generations.

    I also recall our Shakespeare was 'The Scottish Play' which *is* a good entry to Billy. Action, sex and violence - what a teen wants to read about.

    Oh school. It was the best of times it was the worst of times. We did no Dickens. None.

  2. Ha! No, we didn't get any Dickens either. And yes, Macbeth is a brilliant introduction to the Bard - I think we read that at some point, but it never came up in the exams. Probably too "feart"* of the curse...