Recently I have been involved in conversations via the Twitters and the Facebooks about books that people were assigned in school that they hated. In particular, "The Classics." (Ominous music!) And then, of course, the usual disagreements start. Some people love Steinbeck, others (like me) would not hesitate to revile his books to his face if he weren't already dead. (If he comes back as a zombie, I will still revile THE RED PONY, I'll just do it while I run.) So I've developed a bit of a theory. It's called the, "It's All About The Presentation" theory.
Before we discuss this theory, I'm going to warn you that there will be spoilers about several books in this post. It's just too hard to talk about some of these books without discussing specific plot points. All of the books I'm about to spoil are over twenty years old, though, so if that bothers you, I'm sorry. And also: KRISTIN SHOT J.R.! ROCHESTER HAS A MAD WIFE IN THE ATTIC! THE ALAMO DOESN'T HAVE A BASEMENT! DAISY WAS DRIVING THE CAR!
In eighth grade I had a very nice English teacher we'll call Mrs. W. I liked Mrs. W. as a person, I even worked for her after school part time, checking in assignments and recording grades. Mrs. W., however, needed to rethink her syllabus, or possibly how she described the books and poems to the class.
The syllabus, and her descriptions/discussions of the books (as I remember them):
THE RED PONY by John Steinbeck - Farm animals are there to work, they're not pets you should get attached to. The pony was unsuited for ranch work, since it was from a circus, and could not survive. The mare needed to die to save its foal, which happens all the time in the real world, and using a hammer was the humane way to do it.
THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK (the play) - Everyone dies but her father, and no one knows what gave them away after they'd lived in this tiny, horrible room for years. It's a terrible tragedy and very real tragedy, and if you don't cry reading this, you have no compassion.
THE POEMS OF ROBERT FROST - Look for the images of death! Sleep, slowing down, cold, darkness, leaves dying, winter coming.
Z FOR ZACHARIAH by Robert C. O'Brien - Everyone dies in a nuclear blast but this one teenage girl, then someone finds her, but he's not very nice.
One nonfiction book of our choice.
Okay. So. There's actually some good stuff on there, right? Who doesn't love Robert Frost? And Z FOR ZACHARIAH is a post-apocalyptic YA that would fit right in with some of today's bestsellers. But by the end of that class I think we all needed a children's chewable Prozac. Basically, to Mrs. W., everything was about death, with its attendant themes of fear, betrayal, pain, and grief. And the thing about Mrs. W. was that she was a cheery lady. Always a big smile on her face. By the end of the semester, it started to seem a bit creepy. Also, Robert Frost himself has said that he was startled by people's insistence that so many of his poems are about death. "Stopping By Woods ..." is actually a pastoral piece about stopping by the woods on a snowy winter evening to watch the snow drift against the trees. I kid you not. But in eighth grade English we learned that ALL his poems were about death, regret, and even suicide. We watched the movie of THE RED PONY, but before she started it she warned us that they had "softened" the ending because people didn't want to watch the mare's head be bashed in with a hammer. (Darn Hollywood! Spoiling everything!)
Would I have liked THE RED PONY if it had been presented differently? Well, probably not. I mean, that scene where the vultures FREAKING EAT THE PONY WHILE IT'S STILL ALIVE AND THEN VOMIT ON THE KID IN SELF-DEFENSE is pretty hardcore. It'll scar a reader. But all this discussion of Z FOR ZACHARIAH makes me want to read it again. Also, it's written by the guy who wrote MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH! How about telling kids THAT, Mrs. W?! Just the words "post-apocolyptic" would have intrigued me, but that's not how she chose to play it. And what about pairing something like Steinbeck with something a little more light-hearted? EH?! Essentially, that year we studied novels, biographies, plays, and poetry, all about death. It was bleak.
I'd better talk about something else before I have a vulture-induced flashback.
Who can tell me what book starts with: "The Nellie, a cruising yawl..." ?
Why, yes! It's THE HEART OF DARKNESS by Joseph Conrad! Good for you! I was assigned to read that book not once, but twice. Once in AP English with Mr. W. (no relation to Mrs. W.), and in Humanities 201 with Prof. P. The first time I read it, I hated it! It was awful! And weird! And boring! And horrible! And what even happened?! The second time, while I didn't clasp it to my bosom and add it to my list of all time favorites, I liked it.
The first reading was part of the AP English Extension Program. Since we were on a trimester system, you only had class for trimesters 2 and 3, and during trimester 1 you read several books on your own and wrote papers on them. THOD was the first of those books. I was handed the book by a teacher and given a deadline. The end.
The second reading, in college, began with Prof. P. passing out a packet describing the different types of analytical theory. Feminist Theory. Modernist. Post-Colonialism. Marxist. All those fancy things. He then assigned us the book, saying that THOD had been analyzed by experts in each of these fields, that it was a very controversial book and that the movie APOCALYPSE NOW was based on it. After reading the book, we discussed each of the theories and how they had analyzed the book. It was fascinating! I came out of it understanding and appreciating the book so much better, knowing tons about Conrad and about the Congo. What a remarkable difference!
Now, before you all start accusing me of talking smack about public education and blaming them for my hatred of Steinbeck, there's two things you should know.
1. That's not what I'm saying.
2. My sister is an AP English teacher at a public high school. A darn good AP English teacher.
Let's talk about Mrs. M. Mrs. M. also taught at my high school, I had her in 9th and 10th grades. Mrs. M. could not understand why her classes seemed, in her words, traumatized and afraid of books. She told me that she was regularly asked "How many people die in this book?"and said that most of her students would blurt out, "Death!" when asked what the theme of any book or poem was. Mrs. M. undid all the trauma. She taught with exuberance and panache. (She also did vocabulary words like exuberance and panache. I also learned how to pronounce "chic" from her.) I remember reading THE ODYSSEY and A DAY NO PIGS WOULD DIE, and having fun. (Except for the part with the pig rape in that second one. Yeesh. Nobody could lighten that up.) We didn't talk about death. We talked about characterization. Setting. The language of the books. We made travel brochures for a Land of the Lotus Eaters Resort, and talked about the Shaker religion and how much meat could be on a squirrel. In 10th grade we read THE GREAT GATSBY and talked about flappers and the Jazz Age and the metaphor of the shirts. Then we watched the movie and talked about how Mia Farrow's quavery voice was both irritating and kinda perfect. We were engaged in the material and we could tell her our ideas and opinions. She didn't announce, "This book is about THIS, children," and we all had to accept that answer no matter how we might disagree.
Mr. W. turned out to be another great teacher, once the extension program was over. We read THE SCARLET LETTER and WUTHERING HEIGHTS with him. He pointed out the various dialects in WUTHERING HEIGHTS and how they indicated class, talked about the servants as comic relief, and let us call Rev. Dimmesdale a wuss when we read THE SCARLET LETTER. He gave us poems from a variety of time periods, and encouraged us to read as many books off the AP list as we wanted, not just the two outside reading books required. He had a bookcase full of books from the list for us to borrow, so we didn't even have to walk across the hall to the library, and he didn't care which ones we read, or whether we picked books because they were short. I read THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE because it was short and right there on the bookcase, and I loved it. My friend Cade read MOBY-DICK because he wanted to read the biggest book on the shelf, and he quite liked it.
I read MOBY-DICK in college, with a professor who called himself "a Melville scholar." You were not allowed to disagree with anything he said. Every paper that we wrote had to reference MOBY-DICK in some way, because according to him it's the greatest book ever written, and all literature and aspects of one's life can be compared to it. If you made a grammar mistake in a paper, he made you type the sentence out correctly twenty times and turn it back in. The edition of the book that we were required to buy and read had the title as MOBY DICK. No hyphen. You can guess what happened to everyone in the class after they turned in their first paper. Uh huh. Yep. Ask me how I feel about MOBYhyphenDick sometime if you've got an hour to kill and are sick of my RED PONY whining.
It's all in the presentation, kids.
I hated THE LORD OF THE RINGS the first time I read it. Hated. It. My sister, noted LOTR enthusiast, was shocked and appalled. But here's the deal. Mrs. J., my Honors English teacher in 11th grade, was not a fan of fantasy. She had LOTR on her list of outside reading books, with all three volumes listed as one book. You couldn't just read FELLOWSHIP. You had to read them all. Over 1,000 pages. If you expressed any interest in fantasy whatsoever, she would assign it to you, and you would have the same amount of time to read it as someone who was reading THE GLASS MENAGERIE. I'm entirely convinced that she did it to suck the fun out of fantasy books. Nothing else on her list was even slightly fantasy or sci fi, and she only allowed non-list books if they weren't sci fi/fantasy. I read LOTR in one weekend, took the quiz on Monday, didn't remember anything else about it except that they walked and walked and walked and sang songs and did they even kill the bad guy? Who was the bad guy? I had no idea!
Mrs. J. was also fond of saying things like, "This next chapter is the key to the entire book." She said it about the used car salesman chapter of THE GRAPES OF WRATH (and sealed my hatred of Steinbeck), but didn't explain any further. Didn't discuss the chapter at all. Didn't answer any questions. Just nodded knowingly and moved on, leaving us scrambling to highlight the whole chapter and try to figure out why. My friend Marshall read THE CATCHER IN THE RYE for one of his outside reading books, and Mrs. J. told him the chapter where Holden visits his teacher was the key to the entire book. Marshall, who hated the book and had no idea what was going on, frantically asked me to read the chapter and tell him what it meant. I read it. No freakin' clue. If memory serves, Marshall hated every book he read in that class. I can hardly blame him.
Teachers, parents, librarians: I beg of you! Talk to your readers!
Tell them about the book they're going to read. Don't spoil the ending, but tell them why. Why is this book still around after so many years? Why are you giving it to them? Why do you like it? Why do you hate it but want them to read it anyway?
Listen to what they think about it. Listen to what they think it's about. Listen to their questions and try to answer them, or help them find the answers. That's how you get someone to like a book. Or at least not loathe it.
Just do me a favor and don't assign them THE RED PONY. No one needs that.
Note to Rachel6: Who is your brother to command you to read Improving Books? Is he your legal guardian? Are you prone to Lightmindedness after leaving the seminary at Bath? Did you run off with a handsome officer billeted in your village last year? And why does he appear to believe that Improving Books must be written by men and over fifty years old?