Saturday, May 14, 2011

Assigned Reading

So now we’re reading tenth grade essays, in which the students are asked to write about a character in a work of literature that has to stand up for something. Thus, there are about 1,000,000 essays on To Kill a Mockingbird (set in the “sleepy, prejudiced town of Maycomb County”) and The Odyssey (“After the suitors were done mooching Odysseus’s food and drinks and servants, they started trash talking him behind his back.”) and Romeo and Juliet (who stood up for love! Love!) and Of Mice and Men (for a reason I can’t quite determine since often it’s the fact that George stood up for killing Lenny). Occasionally there are the science fiction ones, in which you are thrown directly and without warning into Middle-earth since you obviously know what they’re talking about (you don’t) or the Twilight ones (which are, without exception, terrible, and which are also, without exception, written in that big round girly handwriting).

But the essays I have liked most turn out to be the ones on The Catcher in the Rye. (Man, it always comes back to Salinger for me, doesn’t it?) Partly for the observations (the fact that Holden smokes so much is always commented on, which I find hilarious) and partly because it reminds me of what a great book it is and partly because it reminds me of my hometown. My favorite quote so far: “He makes it back to his hometown of New York City where he finds phones at every turn.” Yup, that’s exactly right.

And of course this makes me think about the books we read in high school. Despite the fact that I went to one of those sciencey high schools in New York, English was always my favorite subject, though I can’t say that any of my English teachers there were as good as my aforementioned seventh grade one. I recall Mr. Casella talking about something something transcendentalism in The Grapes of Wrath, which to this day I don’t really get, and the part in The Great Gatsby (a book I truly loved) where F. Scott Fitzgerald describes the ash heap in Flushing Meadows, which eventually became the site of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Though actually the thing I remember most about that book was the look of surprised delight on Mr. Casella’s face when, after calling on my friend Loraine, she shrugged and said, Well, like, you know the way daisies are like, white on the outside, and like, yellow on the inside, so, like Daisy was like pure on the outside, but really not on the, like, inside? Did he really fall for this? Could he not see this high-level thinking was pretty much impossible for anyone but a writer of Cliffs Notes, whose insight Loraine had sought five minutes before class? He could not. Because wouldn’t you want to believe that a student could actually come up with something like that on her own? And Loraine, smarty though she was, had a way of talking that was truly admirable in its teenagery-ness (Wait, do you, like, like him?), which also added to the appeal, I suspect.

The unfortunate thing is that some otherwise amazing books seem much less so when they are assigned by a teacher, which is why I suspect I never read another Steinbeck book or even Dickens, after slogging through the first (!) 800 pages of David Copperfield and then just giving up. It’s not that I disliked any of these books. I think it’s just the fact of being assigned books that always threw me off, which is something I’ve addressed here before. Due to some kind of gap in my education, I never developed any particular respect for authority, which was somewhat evident in high school. (My physics teacher called me “fresh” and wanted to fail me based purely on my bad attitude, but could not because I had passed the physics Regents. Rock on, state tests!) So my point is that once a book was assigned, I always read it, but there was something kind of ruined for me, which I think happens to a lot of kids. If you go back, say, years later, and read all those assigned books for the first time or even reread them, you will truly love them. Which, of course, doesn’t mean that teachers should not be assigning these books. It's just that, perhaps unfortunately, the best books we read are often ones we’ve chosen ourselves.