Reading in High School, Part Deux
By Michael Nye
Not all sequels are bad. The Godfather, Part II is pretty fantastic, and one might even argue is superior to the original. Terminator 2: Judgment Day had Arnold at his peak and the always excellent Joe Morton as a computer engineer. There’s also … okay, sequels aren’t really better, and in fact, are usually a poor version of the original that was vastly superior. So, if you’d like to go back and read (re-read?) Alison’s excellent post from last Wednesday about her high school reading, than that’s okay with me.
There remains an American obsession with high school, probably pumped up from Hollywood movies and TV shows, along with our high school reunions and friday night football and nostalgia and all that good stuff. I’ve never felt this affinity for high school or even my undergraduate days as the “best times of our life” or any of that other nonsense. I mostly remember both periods as a time when I was socially awkward, prone to moodiness, uncertain of what I was doing in the present (let alone the future), and thinking I wasn’t good at anything. You know, pretty much how I am now.
One thing that has stuck with me about high school however is reading. Or, more accurate, a great mystery of how I ever got here from there. I remember very little of what I read from school. I remember mostly finding the classes dull and the books worse. I remember reading at home, on a pair of floor pillows in the living room, with books that I got from my parents bookshelves or the library. Like many things from my past, there’s a lack of clarity in my memories, and yet, I rather like this fuzziness, this mystery, that clouds any certain proclamations I might make that can give the past a complete meaning.
Anyway, here is, to the best of my ability, what books I can actually remember reading in my English classes. No guesses; if I had to guess, they aren’t included. I know I’m forgetting many and I’m skipping the Norton Anthologies because, hey, those suckers are not fun to talk about. Onward!
Junior High: Lord of the Flies, The Bible, The Great Gatsby, The Crucible, Animal Farm, A Separate Peace, Gulliver’s Travels, Great Expectations
Yes, The Bible! I was a private school in seventh and eighth grade, unaffiliated with any church, and so I can only imagine the teacher meetings discussing adding this to the curriculum. We read a huge book, like 8 1/2 x 11, with some pictures, and the most secularized version of the Greatest Story Ever Told that you could possibly imagine. This was in Mrs. Cartwright’s eighth grade class, which I mostly remember I took with my four closest friends, which means I got in trouble frequently. This was also the period when I read A Separate Peace for the first time, a book that I reread recently and raved about as one of the great and underappreciated novels of the last century.
Freshman: Watership Down, Julius Caesar, The Inheritors, Things Fall Apart
William Golding’s The Inheritors was my first memory of really struggling with a book. It’s about one of the last group of Neanderthals struggling to stay alive as Homo sapiens begin to cultivate civilization and take over their world. The narrative perspective is from the Neanderthals, and so it reflects their lack of clarity and sophistication with language. Class discussion was frequently “I have no idea what’s going on” and our teacher, Mr. MacIntosh (a Scotsman who looked like a pissed off Patrick Stewart) walked us through the text. It was difficult but, ultimately, satisfying to struggle through the book. There was also the book about rabbits—which I enjoyed—and only one Shakespeare play, which was exciting in its speeches and treachery.
Mr. MacIntosh was a wonderful teacher. I wouldn’t call him “kind.” He seemed mostly wryly amused by us, and would walk back and forth in front of the chalkboard swinging a yardstick as if he might smack one of us with it at any moment (he never did, never even threatened it, but I had an active imagination). He treated us, I think, like serious students, not like we (or he) was entertainment. That the work we did was serious. I think that stuck.
Sophomore: Puddn’head Wilson, Ethan Frome
No, really, that’s all I remember. I wrote a bad poem for class where I used the word “goblet” as some sort of symbol about royalty and got made fun of for it. The teacher was a lecherous man who frequently stood in front of the girl in front of me, who reeked of perfume and cigarettes, and she would talk to him, arching her back, fluffing her hair, arms over her head, and all I wanted was class to be over as soon as possible. If I learned anything in that class, I don’t know what it was. This was also my first year in a public school and the first year I don’t remember liking my English classes. There was a student teacher in the room the first half of the year, a man with curly hair and glasses, far more interested in teaching than my English teacher. Ugh.
Junior: Invisible Man, A Passage to India, Kindred, Eyes Were Watching God, Death of a Salesman
Why do students get American literature junior year and English literature senior year? Do all high schools do this? Was it just Ohio? Has this changed? I’m just wondering.
Anyway, this is when I first read Octavia Butler, and Kindred is the novel that stands out most to me out of all the other books I read in high school. It’s a science fiction novel about race, history, and love, and it’s creepy and strange and so much is unexplained. As with The Inheritors, I remember struggling through this book and then having a teacher guide me through it. I’m not sure this is entirely correct, but Butler doesn’t mention, until about fifty pages into the book, that Dana (the African-American protagonist) is married to a white man. This is pretty important since, in the novel, she keeps inexplicably going back in time to her ancestors slave plantation. And Butler doesn’t hit you over the head with Dana’s husband’s race, just sorta mentions it casually (though, of course, there’s nothing causal about it). We didn’t talk about it in class but I brought it up to my teacher, who guided me through the possible Why. This year was also my introduction to Ellison and Steinback. It was a very good year.
Look. I had a pretty nasty case of senioritis. I cannot emphasis enough what a mediocre student I was in high school (and, frankly, in college, too) and all I wanted to do was graduate and leave Cincinnati. But my English teacher this year was also checked out, much like my sophomore year English teacher. I wrote a terrible paper on Hamlet. I frequently skipped class. I was often bored. I got nothing from this year. Nothing.
Undergraduate: Pride and Prejudice, Waiting for the Barbarians, So Long See You Tomorrow, The Souls of Black Folks, The Bluest Eye, Madame Bovary, The Bell Jar, The Mezzanine, Mrs. Dalloway, Emma, The Women of Brewster Place, Dracula, Where I’m Calling From, Dubliners, several Best American Short Story collections
In my four years at Ohio State, I was assigned Pride and Prejudice three times, Emma once, and never William Faulkner. This seems important to mention.
I read quite a bit of African American fiction, too. One of our options for English 367 – our junior year literature sequence – was African American, and that’s where I first read The Souls of Black Folks, which should be required reading for all American students. Two other books really stand out to me. Madame Bovary, which was stunning in its language and characterization, a book I remember reading very slowly because it was so good. The other is The Mezzanine, Nicholson Baker’s delightful book about one man’s lunch break and his errand to buy shoelaces. There is so much joy and discovery and curiosity in the book, a book many of my classmates hated that I couldn’t get enough of.
Graduate: Frankenstein, Nightwood, Bridget Jones’ Diary, England England, The Natural, Wise Blood, Rock Springs, The Things They Carried
Frankenstein is one of those foundational texts that you can’t fully appreciate until you’ve read it. The entire time I thought “oh, this is where so-and-so got that idea from” because the novel is chock full of those nuggets. It’s an amazing novel. Also, yes, I was assigned Bridget Jones’ Diary. Listen. In graduate school, it’s nice to occasionally get a book assigned to you that you can read in one afternoon. I believe the point was something to do with modern perceptions, daily life, something like that. I liked England, England much better.
Since I earned an MFA not a MA, most of my graduate school experience was reading short stories or submissions for Natural Bridge rather than focused on literature. The last decade or so I can recall novels I’ve read with better clarity, both why I read them and what I recall from them, and often I wonder (and sometimes fear) that a book I loved, say, five years ago I wouldn’t particularly enjoy now.
Most of the contemporary novels I love – White Teeth, Cloud Atlas, Song of Solomon, The Privileges, to name a few – I stumbled upon on my own. Most of the canonical books that I love – Wuthering Heights, Frankenstein, The Great Gatsby – were taught to me, with deadlines to meet, papers to write, critical analysis supplementing my reading, and teachers who were engaged and demanding.
My sophomore and senior years of high school might not have been any better with teachers that had both feet in the door rather than one foot out. Tough to say what, if anything, would have interested me in those years. But, someone did get through to me junior year. There were trends happening in college that as an undergraduate I would not have been aware of, such as the Ohio State English Department’s interest in Austen and disinterest in Faulkner.
In my classes, I’m never surprised when my students have not read a particular text. Why should I be? Knowing what I know now about how the year is structured and taught, why courses are designed the way they are, how many things are out of the control of the teachers, students shouldn’t be blamed for not having read Steinbeck. Nor should they be blamed for not discovering them on their own. Yes, Google exists, but a search engine is not a replacement for a mentor guiding your reading experience.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye