Friday, January 9, 2009

Speaking of Redressing Wrongs...

Anyone going back through the old book lists and rereading assigned texts? Oh, just me?

So I reread Steinbeck's The Pearl. On a whim. I'm a big Steinbeck fan, these days, and it's always bothered me that I never liked The Pearl because I couldn't have told you why it didn't jive. It came down to an emotion that shrouded my memory of it. This didn't seem like a fair way to assess a work of literature, the way it wasn't fair of me to hate Annie Hall for so many years because I saw it with Katie Taylor and our conversation afterward was supremely frustrating. But that's for another post (stay tuned, Katie, wherever you are...)

I want to propose something. Here is my revised review that I posted on

I need to do two things: one, take back my 3-star review of this book which I read in haste as a high school sophomore, and two, make sure high schools don't make kids read these books in high school. This is not censorship in the traditional sense. There is nothing objectionable in the content that should be secreted away from the innocent eyes of impressionable youth. I do not advocate hiding it from them, just so they can go to the theater, or simply pay attention in the locker room, to hear and see a lot worse. What I want to advocate is keeping the world's best books out of the classrooms. Away from idle minds when they're not ready to accept the gifts that they are.

Granted, this is a sweeping generalization and there are, undoubtedly, thousands of kids out there, soaking up the best literature through assigned reading and staged discussions on themes too large for their comprehension. They are certainly capable of appreciating the grandiosity of some of these works while they're juggling acne, adolescent social woes, and hormonal monsoons. I'm being catty, I know. Or maybe just speaking from experience.

Because I read
The Pearl in high school. And I hated it-- or at least I thought I did. I couldn't tell you why I hated it, I just did. And I hated A Farewell to Arms, and Moby Dick, and Les Miserables. I know, I'm wincing too.

I also read
The Catcher in the Rye in high school. But I read that because my brother told me to, not because my teacher did. And I never had to write an essay on it or memorize facts about the plot for multiple choice questions to come. I just read it and I freaking ate it up. Like every other 17-year-old budding misanthrope, I thought that book was written for me and I subsequently thought Salinger was the world's greatest author. And what of this pesky Steinbeck that they kept assigning us in school? I hated The Pearl and skipped The Grapes of Wrath (11th grade honors english) but my grandma always had East of Eden on her shelf. So I read that. And loved it. Every word of it.

I was criminally wrong in my assessment of
The Pearl all these years. Yes, it could be the most depressing story ever penned, but it may also be one of the best crafted. I have a sinking feeling that I need to give A Farewell to Arms another chance. And poor old Moby Dick.

So I don't think the problem is that kids can't enjoy good literature in adolescence. I think we should trick them into reading the good ones at home, and assign them the Hardy Boys in the classroom. We should save them the embarrassment of saying, over lunch one day as a self-possessed adult: Yeah, I read The Pearl (yawn). Not that great. Yeah, did
Moby Dick-- boring.

High school English teachers should be ashamed of themselves.

Maybe you were one of those kids who just loved what we read in Browny-Brown's class (I found out Jayne was, which sort of took the wind out of my sails last night-- freaking wives...). And bless you for it. But if you were anything like me and you resisted the first hint of your varied authorities' wishes, I'd suggest you go back and take another stab at some of the stuff you may have missed. It could prove to be most enlightening.


  1. I appreciate this post because unlike most of my friends and peers, I did not take English for most of High School. Combined with not getting into Honors English and somehow getting into the most deadbeat English classes possible, Journalism looked like a much better option for the credit. So, I did not read a lot of books that I always felt that I should.

    About 5 years ago I made amends to educate myself. I've been hooked ever since. I've now read most books that students read in High School and I know that I enjoy them much more now than I would have 12 or so years ago. I absolutely agree with you, Steinbeck is completely wasted on the youth.

  2. I think you're a closeted English major. I would have never guessed.

  3. I didn't mind the Pearl in high school, but it wasn't anything special to me. I did absolutely hate Great Expectations, A Farewell to Arms, and The Red Badge of Courage. But I really liked Of Mice and Men, Grapes of Wrath, Walden, and Huck Finn. But I'm pretty much experiencing the same thing as you now, except with Dickens. I'm halfway through David Copperfield and I absolutely love it. The characters are fascinating, if exaggerated as Dickens is prone to do, and his way with the English language puts a constant smile on my face. But I can see how my 9th grade self would hate this book too. It certainly does take its sweet time getting anywhere with the plot, and it's all talk with no action. Despite all the times you want david to kick someone in the nuts or stab someone in the neck, he, like all other Dickens and Austen characters, shows extraordinary restraint, which would not really satisfy a 14-16 year old boy used to Stephen King and Orson Scott Card.

    Eventually I'll have to revisit Great Expectations, and I do recommend high school english teachers stay away from Dickens and Austen because they're too good to be spoiled too early. Although I'm probably doing the same thing in my intro to film classes by showing all the ninth graders "2001: A Space Odyssey." 3/4 of them absolutely hate it, think it is the worst movie they've ever seen. But I still have to show it for the 1/4 of them who are born into new worlds where 2001 is the key.

  4. brando, i keep hearing about dickens and how i need to pick him up again, but i have been dogged by my loathing of great expectations. but he sounds like tolstoy (the meandering plotless dialogue and all, and i've often thought he was the russian austen) and i'm crazy about that old man. so i'll give it a go if i can ever finish war and peace.

    tone, i'm a closeted a lot of things. english major is the gentlest of them.

  5. Have you tried any Graham Greene yet, Wells? Start with "The Power and the Glory." I think it's exactly what you're looking for.

  6. I think that some of the books they had us read were beyond our age. Others were good, and others were for torture purposes. Seriously, you have a book with a woman nursing an old man and you let teens read it. Is that a good idea? There are some authors who I've come to appreciate more since I've gotten older, but Dostoevsky is not necessarily one of them. Crime and Punishment was a tightly plotted yarn compared to his meandering Brothers Karamazov. It's not that I didn't like Crime, it's just that I think he could have tightened it up. That's why the "good parts" edition of Les Miserables was so good, because you didn't have to hear Hugo yammer on about something or other for 50 pages. Of course, it's the meandering that makes a good book from some perspectives. One book that I haven't changed my opinion on is Walden. Thoreau and his existential waltz through the woods are as good as dead to me.

  7. oh , sorro. you've gone out on so many limbs here... can't decide if i should sit back and let you tarnish the good name of the big D (meandering karamzof?! tighten-up crime and punishment!?! the gall!) or chalk it up to your apparent impatience in reading.

    by the way, Thoreau was a transcendentalist, not necessarily an existentialist.

  8. Thoreau struck all the right notes with me. Still does. I read most of Walden during scout camp the summer before Brownie Brown's class. There's a part of me that still really wants to go live in the woods for two years like he did. But then I'd like to see him do it with a wife and three kids. Who could ever possibly do that? Oh, yeah, pretty much everyone born before the last 100 years...

  9. What is this? This blog is turning into Nerdfest 2009.

    Didn't somebody quote Salinger in his mission farewell?

    I like Thoreau and I really enjoyed Elder Perry's talk this last conference that included some of the Walden Pond ideas. Sorro, you should read his Civil Disobedience essay. He seems like quite the libertarian actually.

    Dickens--he's on my short list to get to next. Did anybody see the recent Nicholas Nickleby or Oliver Twist films? I thought they were great. I'll probably choose one of those--maybe Twist first.

    Any George Eliot fans out there? I love her stuff. I've read Middlemarch and Mill on the Floss in the last several years. Middlemarch is LONG but her writing is just heaven to this mind.

    I haven't stabbed at any Russian lit. since high school. I read a bunch of Chekhov and I read 2/3 of Anna Karenina and about 1/2 of F.D's House of the Dead. Never tried Bros. Karamazov or War and Peace. If you were to recommend one what would it be?

  10. I mean, if you were to recommend one Russian novel, what would it be?

  11. i love every word dostoyevsky ever wrote (how do you like them apples, sorro?). he's my freaking avatar, for crying out loud. i liked anna karenina a lot, but not nearly as much as war and peace. i think, though, that i like the idiot the most, when it comes to what i took away from any of them.

    george eliot is on my list. where do you start with her?

  12. WOO NERDFEST '09! WOO!

    You guys and your 'free time' reading. All my reading time is(or, at least should be) devoted to studying for my comp. exams (six finals in one BRING IT ON!)

    Wells, if you can handle Dostoyevsky then you can handle managing a fantasy football team. I promise you. If Holmes and Brandie can somehow manage teams into the finals, you can too.