Hating the Great Books

I was subbing a few days ago in a local high school. The students were working on assignments, and talking, but not terribly loudly. At one point, several students were discussing The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Several students stated, to my shock, “It’s a very good book.”

I remember not liking The Scarlet Letter. I was in Honors English, and while I don’t regret taking Honors English, I have to admit that it did make it more difficult for me to read for pleasure. This lasted for years.

See, I go through periods in my life when I simply cannot read. By this I mean that no book seems to interest me. This isn’t about my mood. I’ve had prolific reading periods in times of great mirth and times of depression. I cannot explain it, but there are times when reading a book is not a passion but a duty chore. When I would go through those times, after taking honors English, I would be unable to put a book down if I did not like it. I felt guilty, thinking to myself, “I have to finish it.” I would trudge along, unable to read anything else because I had to finish whatever book I was reading. When I first started to stop reading books, especially a book recognized as part of the Canon of Great Literature, I felt so guilty. Now, I can stop reading books quite easily.
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I don’t think that we are obligated to like any book that is part of the Canon. There are books and authors that I respect and admire far more than I love, many of them. But in a way, I think that the emotional response to a book is one of the most fascinating thing about how we read. It tells us far more about ourselves (and each other) than it does about the books.

I think one thing we have to consider is the role of age as we read a book. I had a high school teacher who told us (repeatedly) that he did not like The Catcher in the Rye. For most of us, that was shocking. Catcher in the Rye was one of my favorite books in high school, and Holden Caulfield was one of the most vivid characters we had encountered. I remember being torn between wanting to date Holden and wanting to smack him upside the head. But most of all, I wanted to give him a hug and tell him that it would all be ok. My teacher admitted that he did not read The Catcher in the Rye in his teenage years. Is this why he did not take to the book? We will never know, but I am fairly confident that this was part of the reason for his reaction. We saw Holden as someone who spoke for us, he probably saw Holden as a self-absorbed whiner.

I think the difficult aspect of confronting the Great Books, or books from the Canon, is that we are forced to read them when we are teenagers. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t oppose that at all. A large part of growing up and developing maturity and critical thinking skills is to expose young people to a variety of ideas and perspectives. However, I think it is sad that it is abandoned, in our society, after high school.

A few months ago, after The Great Gatsby came out, I reread the book again for the first time in ten years. The Great Gatsby is not my favorite book, but I enjoyed seeing how my perspective and understanding had changed in ten years. A couple of weeks later, I took a walk with other people in their 20’s and 30’s. We discussed how sad it is that we do not have to reread books like The Great Gatsby at different points in our lives, because it would allow us to grow with the books, in some cases growing into the books, and in some cases growing out of the books. there are books that I may not have appreciated as a teenager but I may well appreciate now. We almost longed for the opportunity to go back and reread some of the books we were forced to read in high school and discuss them again, with new and different insights than we had in high school. It’s a shame that our society has totally turned against this kind of activity.

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In summation, I have decided to reread The Scarlet Letter. I have no idea whether or not I am going to be able to finish, since I am in one of my non-reading phases. However, I cannot allow a bunch of silly immature teenagers to outdo me. I have read the first four chapters, so far so good, much better than I remember. However, I had to skip the Custom House introduction. I didn’t have the patience for it and wanted to get right to the heart of the public shaming. Some things haven’t changed since junior year. But, perhaps, this time I will be ready for The Scarlet Letter. The readiness is all.

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