Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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The best and the worst books you read . . . or didn’t read . . . in school

I got the idea for this post from the blog Good Books and Good Wine — specifically from a post on The Top Ten Books I was Forced To Read. Which is actually a list of Allison’s six favorite books she was assigned in school, and her five least favorite. Not just high school, let me add, but school period, so that opens up the field a bit.

As it happens, I have read precisely two of the books on Allison’s list. (She liked both, I sorta-kinda-liked one and thoroughly disliked the other.) (To Kill A Mockingbird and Heart of Darkness, if you wondered.)

My lists are of course completely different, but hey, why stop at the five you liked most (or disliked least) and the five you truly loathed? How about the five you wish you had been assigned but weren’t?

Okay, so:

I actually rather liked* a surprising number of books, once I started thinking about putting together a list. On the other hand, there aren’t many assigned books I would ever read again voluntarily. So I cheat a bit with the final item, including some non-books that I really, really loved.

1. The Old Man and the Sea (Hemingway) — tragic, but elemental, and maybe because of that, it’s not tragic in the way that repulses me.

2. The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank) — because, I mean, what a story.

3. The Bear (Faulkner) — I know it is, strictly speaking, a novella, but I don’t care because it stands out as a classic I actually did enjoy. The fantastic dog didn’t hurt.

4. The Black Pearl (Scott O’Dell) — I think even as a kid I was more drawn to a story with a great setting, and actually there’s a very fantastic tone (as opposed to realistic) to this story.

5. And, as I said, I’m cheating here, but most poetry. I actually memorized not only “The Walrus and the Carpenter” but also Poe’s “The Bells” — I mean, voluntarily, no one was forced to memorize any poetry. I just did anyway. The tintinnabulation of the bells, yay! I loved the grim iron bells, too — the rolling, rolling, rolling on the human heart a stone. Whoa.

I totally loathed —

1. Animal Farm (Orwell) — you could not design a book to appeal to me less. An ugly, grim tragedy the reader can clearly watch unfolding AND with animal characters.

2. Lord of the Flies (Golding) — I hardly think it’s true that a group of stranded people will necessarily devolve into savagery, and if they do, I don’t want to read about it, thanks.

3. Heart of Darkness (Conrad) — Allison’s reaction aside, no. Just, no. The heart of the story was too dark for me.

4. “A Streetcar Named Desire” (Williams) — I despised Blanche and actually disliked all the other characters, too, so at that point, the story doesn’t even matter.

5. And . . . the book I hated the very, very most . . . Madame Bovary (Flaubert). Which I was assigned to read TWICE. To this day, I can’t imagine why I didn’t just pick up the cliff notes the second time around. I can’t even tell you how tooth-grittingly horrible this reading experience was for me. Talk about loathing all the characters. Words fail me.

So! What books do I really, really wish had been assigned rather than the awful Madame Bovary? In no particular order:

1. Why, why, why, did I never take a class that required Crime and Punishment? I will probably never read it now, and I wish I had.

2. Why did OTHER people luck out and have Pride and Prejudice assigned? Why not me? That is so unfair. Thankfully, I discovered Austen on my own.

3. I have A Tale of Genji on the shelf in my house, but if I haven’t picked it up yet, when will I ever? I wish some teacher had assigned it. In college, preferably, so I would have been a little older and more likely to appreciate it.

4. I have always loved The Count of Monte Christo. It would have been fun to have covered that one in class. I think? It would be a shame if I liked it less after having it taken apart in class discussion.

5. Every now and then, I read a bit of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. It’s a pity I was never assigned this book, because I don’t know that I will ever sit down and just read it straight through, and I would like to.

* Yes, I very much enjoyed Shakespeare’s plays, when I saw them on stage, at least the comedies — but not when read. So I’m discounting them for this list.

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3 Comments The best and the worst books you read . . . or didn’t read . . . in school

  1. Elaine T

    I don’t remember most of the books I had assigned through the years. I wish I’d had Dosteoyevsky (sp?) though. Didn’t care much for WAR & PEACE but it might have been the translation.

    PERELANDRA was a bore. So was PORTRAIT OF A LADY, although if I tried it now I might enjoy it. LORD OF THE FLIES was a crock.

    TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, which wasn’t assigned, but I read it when it was assigned for our girl, was strange. Something about the prose set my teeth on edge and I couldn’t figure out what.

    Managed to miss all Salinger (yay!)

    In 8th grade… I was maybe 11? 12? we read ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, which I am amazed I loved.

    Could never read plays comprehensibly, have to see them acted. This was a problem back when I was going to school with no easy in home video technology.

    I remember translating a Flaubert story in French class – it wasn’t Bovary, but it was unpleasant. The only thing I remember besides that is that I was the only one who translated whatever the word was that meant foxglove, as it was cognate to digitalis, which comes from foxglove.

    Austen was good – I remember arguing with a classmate whose take was ‘I’m on page 300 AND NOTHING HAS HAPPENED’ A lot happened, it was just quiet. Don’t think I convinced him, though.

  2. Rachel

    I, too, am grateful for having avoided Salinger. Both my brothers gave him a vehement thumb’s down.

    I think I felt I should be interested in Peralandra, but it was a snooze for me. I can’t say I either liked it or disliked it, I just slept through it.

    Never read ALL QUIET — perhaps I should add that to my list of regrets, since I probably won’t. Though you never know. If everyone else chimes in with a YOU MUST, then maybe I will.

  3. Craig

    I don’t remember many of the books was assigned (no doubt mercifully in many cases), so I’ll largely restrict myself to those mentioned.

    I *was* assigned PRIDE AND PREJUDICE in high school. I missed the class that read THE HOBBIT, though.

    I read CRIME AND PUNISHMENT for some class or other — I think it was in college, not high school, but could not say for sure. I was favorably impressed, which was a special trick because I’d previously read Dostoevsky’s NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND (definitely in high school) and hated with a passion.

    In junior high school we read both OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET and PERELANDRA: I liked the first one better. PERELANDRA has probably improved in retrospect, since I’ve read it since then.

    I also liked THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA.

    I hated CATCHER IN THE RYE.

    On the other hand, at least in memory I am surprisingly neutral toward a number of bleak works I would have thought I’d dislike, including ANIMAL FARM *and* 1984, plus LORD OF THE FLIES.

    I’m unenthused about THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, too, but I’m more embarrassed about that.

    The college class I most regret missing to this day was a team-taught literature class comparing the ILIAD (which I did read for the humanities intro class, and liked) and WAR AND PEACE (which I still haven’t read).

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