This blog is basically about how good books are nice and bad books are the pits. And then I get grumpy.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Letter to a young high school English student, letter to my former teacher

To: Mrs C
CC: any high schooler who thinks assigned reading is loathsome

Jemima here. I have a confession. Remember the time sophomore year when you assigned The Scarlett Letter to us. I read the first chapter, ie pages 1 and 2, was stricken by the image of the rose but felt much like I would normally feel in high school - like I'd rather be watching Mystery on PBS. So I did.

And remember when you assigned Bernard Malamud's The Fixer? I read it in between points at a tennis match.

And remember when you assigned To Kill a Mockingbird? I read it! This is big because most of what you assigned went unread by this particular student. You see, for a lover of books - even then a lover - I went through stages, and this stage was the Black Hole, the Bermuda Triangle, the Star Trekkian force field stage which ate up any hope of literary growth. Ah, the books I could have read and enjoyed, the progress my brain's right hemisphere might have made, the influences I missed that could have molded me at that possibly critical period of writerly development - all gone.

It is with regret that I look back on the reading non-experiences of my high school English career. All right, I wrote that great short story. All right, I learned some valuable grammar. But the books! The discussions I might have taken part in! The quizzes I would have aced!

Yes. I have regrets.

Some of the works I missed out on in virtually whole or in part: Romeo and Juliet, Hard Times, Wuthering Heights

Granted, these are not exactly what I might now call 'Good Books with a Bright Side,' but they are classics and necessary to some degree in a healthy literary diet to produce a robust, well-balanced body of reading. A reader should probably know something about these books. To speak intelligently about them, reading helps.

So, dear high schoolers of today, there are good reasons you are being asked to read certain books. And you have an opportunity now to engage in vigorous debate and interesting discussion that we adults salivate over the thought of and which we form book groups to attain. This, during hectic lives when reading is a luxury. And you get to do it for your work! How many forty-year olds would love that? Many, I can assure you.

Now, if you're reading this blog, I might just be preaching to the choir, but at least I put my unfortunate reading past into words. Whew, what a load off!

Good reading,


Shimona said...

It was interesting to compare, on reading your blog, what books/plays are considered indispensible for a high school student on our respective sides of The Pond. "Romeo and Juliet" is one we evidently had in common (in fact, I did it for O-levels, now called GCSE, which UK students take in what, I assume, would be your sophomore year). The following year, we also read "To Kill a Mockingbird". I'm glad this was one of those you did read. I hope you enjoyed it. I loved it! "Hard Times" was not on the list, (just as well, because I never liked Dickens - still don't, to tell the truth), but "A Christmas Carol", "David Copperfield" (when I was 11) and "Great Expectations" were. As was "Wuthering Heights", which is an extremely confusing book (at least, it was for a 15 year old). We also read "Jane Eyre" (I would have been about 13 or 14 then) which I greatly preferred.(Both of these two Gothic romances could be described as "chick-lit", I suppose). "Pride and Prejudice" we read twice - once in the Upper Fourth (aged 14) and then again in the Upper Sixth (ie. Senior Year) for A-levels. You are an Austen-lover. When did you first read P&P? And as for Shakespeare - well, at my school (admittedly a posh British public school - by which I mean private), we studied at least one play a year, sometimes two, ranging from well-loved fantasies such as "A Midsummer Night's Dream" to so-called "problem plays" such as "Measure for Measure".
Oh, and besides "To Kill A Mockingbird", American Literature also had its place. In the Third Form (aged 11) we read "Huckleberry Finn". Later on - I can't remember exactly when - we studied some of the plays of Thornton Wilder. I was a bookworm. I read them all - enjoyed most of them too. I am so sorry for kids who leave school without discovering these wonderful works of literature. Perhaps teachers faced with reluctant readers should use reverse psychology - forbid them to read. Ban Hardy's "The Mayor of Casterbridge" - that's sure to make them want to read it;-)

Jemima said...

I love that idea! Forbid them to read the books - that would definitely at least persuade them to dip into those works.

I think I was around the age of seventeen when I read Pride and Prejudice. Quite old, I think. Someone much younger could definitely handle it.

You know, there's a series here which I've blogged about called the Gossip Girls, probably there too. It's quite popular with teens. I sometimes see them inquiring after and buying these books in the store and I want to shout, "WHAT ABOUT P&P?" It's got everything minus the annoying minibars - that is what you should read, I think to myself.

Ah well. Again, one may not want to force feed literature if it means turning kids off the good stuff.

I apologize. I've gotten off track. Thanks for writing, Shimona!

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