Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Books you read too young

Allison Peters at Book Riot has a post up about getting turned off by books because you read them before you were able to appreciate them.

I’ve never read Tess of the D’Ubervilles, which is one of the titles specifically mentioned. Or The Color Purple, which is another.

In the same post, Becky mentions The Great Gatsby and how she didn’t “get it” when it was assigned, but loved it when she read it much later on her own. Well, this kind of post always makes me think about WHY I have spent my life mostly avoiding classics.

Books that I was forced to read in high school: Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men. And plays: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear.

Books that I was never assigned: Anything by Jane Austen, A Tale of Two Cities, Jane Eyre, any Shakespearian comedies.

If I ever, ever saw an optimistic ending in an assigned book, I don’t remember it. The implicit belief of my lit teachers that tragedy automatically confers depth and that happy endings are automatically suspect turned me off classics SO HARD. It’s a miracle I ever got into Austen — or actually, it’s solely because of the movie version of “Sense and Sensibility,” which a friend dragged me off to see over my strenuous objections.

I finally read Jane Eyre in order to appreciate Sharon Shinn’s Jenna Starborn. I didn’t particularly like it, but at least its overall message isn’t grim and despairing.

I’ll never know whether I would now be able to appreciate Lord of the Flies, because I do not plan to re-read it. Or anything else I loathed in high school. Maybe I would love those books now; we’ll never know.

So, yeah. Tip for teachers: if you want to encourage a love of the classics, maybe lighten up the curriculum a bit?

I realize it would be impossible to choose great stories that would appeal to all young readers. Hah hah hah. Naturally plenty of students would be bored to tears by Pride and Prejudice. I don’t know what I would actually choose to assign if I were teaching high school lit classes. But if I wanted to assign 1984, I would warn students that the book’s overall message is dark, dark, dark. And then I would also assign a dystopia with a more hopeful ending. That would even allow a discussion of hopeless endings vs hopeful endings. Wouldn’t that be better than assigning nothing but All Is Despair books from front to back of the curriculum?

My most loathed book ever: Madame Bovary, which was not assigned in high school, but which was assigned twice in college. I can’t imagine why I didn’t just glance at the Cliff Notes for the second time through, but no, I actually suffered through the book twice. OH THE TRAUMA.

The single book I most wish had been assigned: Pride and Prejudice. I would have discovered Austen much sooner and perhaps not be so thoroughly put off classics in the first place.

The one classic I would most like to read but probably won’t: War and Peace. My TBR pile is so huge, and there are so many books I really want to read, and I still have to overcome a good deal of fear-of-classics to reach for one. But that’s too bad, because I’d sort of like to have read War and Peace.

How about you? Did you enjoy the books you were assigned to read in high school (or college) lit classes?

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17 Comments Books you read too young

  1. Robert+Massey

    I’m trying to remember what assigned reading I had in high school. I don’t remember any of Shakespeare’s plays, though I’m sure there must have been some. I never read Lord of the Flies (fortunately, it appears). I do remember being bored by The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Old Man and the Sea.

    I read 1984, but I can’t remember if it was assigned. Unrelentingly grim, of course.

    The assigned poetry was also hit-and-miss, but it did introduce me to William Blake, and that was awesome.

    ‘m glad I discovered SF/Fantasy or I probably would never have enjoyed reading.

  2. SarahZ

    The worst was senior year of high school, when we did our “adulteresses who kill themselves” unit, with Anna Karenina, The Awakening, and Madame Bovary. That was a joyless slog.

    A couple times, we read a book that I started out liking, but the teacher killed it for me with endless overanalysis and examination. I mean, yes, talk about themes and symbols and all the stuff we’re in there to talk about, but can’t you do so while preserving some enthusiasm for the subject?

    I almost think that’s worse, when they take a book we might enjoy, and turn it into nothing but work. Don’t English teachers want their students to enjoy reading? On the other hand, my teacher sophomore year was the best. I loved her, and will be ever grateful that I got at least one who still remembered why we were all there.

    In elementary school, there were a couple truly awful books that were assigned. (Most memorably, Slake’s Limbo and The Incident on Hawks Hill). The first time I told my mom, “This book is terrible. I don’t want to read it,” she was skeptical, but she read the book herself that weekend, and told me that I was right, the book was awful, but if the teacher assigned it, I’d just have to slog through it. I was so grateful that she believed me, though, and respected my opinion.

  3. SarahZ

    Oh, and, if you’re going to make people read Lord of the Flies, follow it up with Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens. That would produce some fun discussions.

    Also, to give credit where it’s due, my teacher freshman year started things off with Twelfth Night and then Tale of Two Cities, so she was pretty cool. She had to leave suddenly late in the fall though, and they never found anyone decent to fill in for her.

  4. pete mack

    I liked some and hated some. I liked Animal Farm and Brave New World. I hated Red Badge of Courage and really hated Gone With the Wind. I liked all the Shakespeare plays we read, too.

  5. Macsbrains

    I am still turned off to classics. It started with My Brother Sam is Dead (cheerful!) and Black Beauty in 2nd grade (I know lots of kids like horse books, but I have zero emotional tolerance for people being mean to animals, even if it turns out ok in the end. Watership Down and <The Velveteen Rabbit haunt me to this day.

    In 4th grade we moved on to Steinbeck. JOY! The Pearl and Of Mice and Men (the latter I would end up having assigned to me every 2 years or so up through high school). I remember a lot about those because they were my first full-force critical readings. I still have my copies with all my notes in them written in the shaky hand of a 9-year-old.

    I was later assigned Wuthering Heights, To Kill a Mockingbird, Ethan Frome, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Color Purple, FLowers for Algernon, The Joy Luck Club, The Good Earth, Invisible Man and numerous others, all wonderfully uplifting. I remember little of any of them except how much I felt my soul escaping out of my eyeballs. I hated almost every book I was ever assigned throughout all my schooling and English was always my most loathed class. No one could ever understand why. “But you like reading! You read so well!” Hah! I spent most of my youth reading the encyclopedia, non-fiction science magazines, and my mother’s medical textbooks and I fully believed that no fiction existed of the kinds I would want to read since books were supposed to be srs bzns and not fun or exciting.

    I wanted something good to read SO BADLY. The dystopias piqued my interest because of what I eventually discovered were my strong sf/f preferences. But only the regular classes were assigned those so I had to read them on my own. I wanted to discuss Beowulf and Gilgamesh and the Iliad, which I had learned about through other channels, but again, no, nothing but great depressing tomes for the honors kids.

    Eventually, in high school, I found a reader friend who knew the secrets of the world of books that don’t suck, and throughout my 20s I went on to re-discover how to enjoy fiction and comics the way I used to before school got in the way. I appreciate the critical reading skills I learned, but It makes me angry to know how many wonderful books I could have read when I was young and impressionable if I’d only known about them.

  6. Mary Anne

    My kids and I were just talking today about books they were assigned in high school (my youngest is a HS senior and the other is a college junior.) They were comparing the books they finished to the books they didn’t. It was pretty appalling. And also amazing how much they figured out from class discussions and test questions,so they didn’t have to finish more than half the books.

    Many were very different from what I read in high school. A few overlaps, (Lord of the Flies – ughh. My most hated book ever.) Shakespeare…you’re right, mostly tragedies. No Dickens for the kids. Yes Harper Lee – though I think my mom talked me into reading that one, not school. Yes Nathaniel Hawthorne (again with the ughh.) Yes Joseph Conrad. But they had some that I don’t think were even written when I was a kid. Bless Me Ultima. The Tiger Mother one whose full name I can’t remember. The Hot Zone. They had done a bit of Mark Twain but I don’t think a lot.

    Actually, thinking back, I read more classics due to of my parents’ influence. My high school teacher was a hippie holdout, and I remember he made us all read The Hobbit. And analyze The Moody Blues’ album Days of Future Past with consideration given to all the Arthurian elements. Though he was the one who stuck us with Lord of the Flies.

    Classics I liked – Captains Courageous. The Three Musketeers. Tom Sawyer. The Prince and the Pauper. Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales (though I never got past the 3rd book.) All of Louisa May Alcott. I read a lot of others, but those were the ones I read over and over. And they were all given to me or suggested by my parents. Though to this day I know my dad is grumbling in Heaven because I wouldn’t touch the Russian authors. Mostly because I was a teen by then and that was my nerdy rebellion. Someday I will crack open War and Peace. Maybe.

  7. pete mack

    Oh yeah, Scarlet Letter. What an overwrought book! Did not like. Most of the books I read in HS were so eminently forgettable that I can’t remember them now. But yeah Tess. Bleaghh. Why not have us read EMMA instead??

  8. Mary Anne

    Hah! I didn’t even get the dubious pleasure of The Scarlet Letter. (Which I still haven’t read.) We were assigned The House of the Seven Gables. I think I found it even more tedious and disappointing because while reading the title, my mind made an immediate connection to Anne of Green Gables. I thought it would be similar. Because…gables, you know? I’d take green gables over seven gables any day.

    Going back to the original point of the blog entry – the one book I like so much better now than I did when we had to read it in 8th grade is A Christmas Carol. I liked it then – parts of it seemed to exemplify the sounds and sights and smells and feel of Christmas. But I feel like I have a much deeper appreciation of the characters and humor and occasional whimsy. And the writing! I can sink into it and just wallow.

  9. Rachel

    Robert, good point about the poetry. I forgot about that, but I know I really enjoyed some of the assigned poetry. Not . . . that long one by Frost . . . Oh, “The Death of the Handyman.” For me that kinda fell into the tl;dr category. Also, of course, it is sad. But I liked most of Frost, and Emily Dickenson, and, oh, I don’t know, lots of others. I memorized “The Bells.” I mean, it wasn’t assigned, I just liked the way the words roll off your tongue. Not that I could recite it now or anything. Poetry was definitely better than prose, at the time.

    SarahZ, good God, did the teacher deliberately put together a set of adulteresses-kill-themselves books? Also, ugh, what a shame you were assigned grim stories in elementary school. I don’t remember that happening at all, though I guess it might have blurred into the high school experience. Also, I’m glad your mother was there to say both “Ugh, you’re right.” and “But if it’s assigned, you must read it.” As someone who constantly assures students that Math Is Like Lifting Weights, You Must Do The Lifting Yourself Or You Won’t Get Anywhere, I do appreciate a “Do the homework even if you don’t want to” message.

    ALSO, assigning BEAUTY QUEENS would be awesome. I think. I haven’t read it, yet, but the beginning is AWESOME and it’s definitely something I’m looking forward to.

    Pete, you have a lot more tolerance for grim despair and the triumph of evil than I do. ANIMAL FARM scarred me for life. THE SCARLET LETTER turned me off, too, but not like that!

    Macsbrains, I can’t imagine actually assigning all those to little kids in elementary school. OF MICE AND MEN in the 4th grade, seriously? I can’t even. INVISIBLE MAN! Yeah, I remember that one. Way too clearly. What a dreadful shame your parents didn’t hook you into the wider world of fiction when you were just a tot. I grew up with my mother reading mysteries and my dad reading SF, not to mention a quite good public library a few blocks away. I always knew books were great — just assigned books were terrible.

    Mary Anne, there are times I regret being such a dutiful student that I actually read all the assigned books. Your kids’ strategy has a lot to recommend it. And, okay, I remember TOM SAWYER, so that must have been assigned, and it was all right. I read THE THREE MUSKETEERS on my own because I loved THE COUNT OF MONTE CHRISTO so much. My mother gave me LITTLE WOMEN, I’m pretty sure. I read it a bunch of times.

    I don’t think I’ve ever read A CHRISTMAS CAROL — just seen it. Maybe I should actually try reading it. Eventually.

    Even though some of you mention exceptions, it’s too bad to hear that your basic experience with assigned books was pretty similar to mine.

  10. Maureen E

    I have the complete opposite experience: I discovered classics on my own, outside of school, and LOVED them. I read Dickens all through my early teens, and Austen of course. And I discovered Elizabeth Gaskell in high school (she’s had some very good adaptations of her books). Plus Alcott, Dumas, and a lot of more obscure classic kidlit. And I had some very good teachers for Shakespeare, which I think helps quite a bit as well as being familiar with Elizabethan English from growing up using the KJV. I will say that I was FURIOUS when I had a terrible teacher sophomore year of high school who was the one to teach A Tale of Two Cities (which absolutely changed my life when I first read it at 13) and I could see all my classmates being turned off by the way she taught it.

    Now, I don’t love the realists or a lot of the more modern classics, but there’s definitely a reason half of my usual username is “janeite”. I haven’t managed to get through many recently–too busy & too many new books–but I will always have a soft spot for the ones I loved.

  11. Rachel

    Maureen, I’m so jealous. If I had kids, I guess I’d be leaving (some) classics around for them to just stumble across when they were ready. I’ve never actually read A TALE OF TWO CITIES, though I’ve heard it’s good. Maybe . . . I don’t know, but MAYBE I should try reading it? What would you compare it to in SFF, if anything?

    I loved “North And South” when I saw the Richard Armitage movie version. I didn’t like the book all that well, though that was partly because I have an edition with MANY MANY typos in it, and that’s so annoying.

  12. SarahZ

    Rachel, she never explicitly said that that was the theme, but it just doesn’t seem like you could line up those 3 books as the first assignments of the year by accident. I mean, if she wasn’t aiming to do a suicidal adulteresses unit, then you’d think she’d realize her mistake & pick something else for us to read before we got to the third one.

  13. Rachel

    SarahZ, you sure would. Three is definitely a trend. One that ought to come with a warning label.

  14. Maureen E

    A Tale of Two Cities, ummm…not SFF but I know you’ve read it–I actually found myself thinking of it several times while reading Code Name Verity. Be warned that part of the reason I remember it so vividly is sobbing my eyes out! Also, the standard warnings that Dickens couldn’t write women definitely apply. That being said, it’s still amazing.

    North & South as a book is interesting because I think she flubbed the ending quite badly (the train scene is SO MUCH BETTER) but as a whole, I love the book and ended up appreciating it even more than Pride & Prejudice.

  15. Macsbrains

    Rachel, reading Steinbeck at 9 is not something I would wish on anyone. Sometimes I think it was a really bad dream, except I have the evidence on my shelf. Reading went straight from minor children’s adventure stories into ‘life sucks and then you die’ stories.

    My dad did have a small golden age science fiction collection which I did pick at every once in a while, but they were more food for thought than something I could emotionally get behind. Mom was no help at all. On her shelves were non-fiction or nothing since she’d hated English class too.

  16. Rachel

    Macsbrains, that is terrible. Terrible! I’m flinching just to think of it. At least if you have a kid in that situation — or run across someone else’s kid in that situation — you will know how to intervene.

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