Friday, January 9, 2009
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 Goodreads.com:
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.
Posted by J Wells at 8:33 AM