The Worst Required Reading

It’s back to school time. According to the aisles of stores. Man, I hated that as a kid. It’s like, I KNOW we have to go back to school. You don’t have to put up a big banner about it. That’s like having a huge, enthusiastic banner at a funeral: “You’re Dead!”

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I like that comparison. Those back to school banners do signify a death: The death of summer. The death of fun. The death of reading whatever the hell you want.

Fall is all about required reading. But not all required reads are created equal. Some really provide...special opportunities for pain.

Here are some of my least favorites.


Shakespeare (All Titles)

I’m sure some people are thinking, “No way, you uncultured swine!”

To which I say, Yes, way. You asshole.

The way Shakespeare works in school makes no sense. For starters, you READ plays. That’s dumb. That’s like reading the script for Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me instead of seeing the movie. (This is something I did as a youth. A boy with stupid interests and access to unlimited printing is a terrible, terrible thing.)

Second, teachers always think it’s a great idea to have a class read an entire play out loud. Some kid plays a king, some other kid plays a precocious young lady who impersonates a lawyer. You know the drill.

Cut to 45 minutes later...

Teacher: “Greg...Greg...it’s your line, Greg.”

Greg: [sits up straight, starts reading]

Teacher: “Greg, that’s way behind where we are. We’re on…page 868.”

Greg: [flips forward a shocking number of pages, finally gets there] “Forsooth!”

Totally worth the wait. A+ performance, Greg. Electrifying.

I guess I’m not saying all Shakespeare is bad. Macbeth seems pretty metal. But as required reading goes, the delivery of Shakespeare in the classroom leaves a lot to be desired.

Buy The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, 2nd Edition from Amazon.com

 

'Anthem' by Ayn Rand

I thought this book was alright, but now I think it’s just a gateway drug to Rand’s longer work, which I’ve never read and doesn’t seem up my alley based solely on the people I’ve talked to at parties who have “really connected with” Atlas Shrugged.

It’s school where we learn that weed is a gateway drug to heroin. This lesson should be applied to the work of Ayn Rand as well. Damn this slim, easily-digestible novel about pronouns. It even has a pretty cool cover, which I now know is designed to entrap young people like myself. 

Buy Anthem from Amazon.com

 

'Catcher in the Rye' by J.D. Salinger

This is such a weird one to read in school. Holden Caulfield is total a non-conformist. And we’re all forced to read about his exploits and write papers about them. Is it perhaps the ultimate lesson in irony? I don’t think so. I think we’re being snowed by a bunch of crumbums and phonies.

Also, what the hell is up with this, the semi-standard school version of the cover?

Was someone intentionally trying to make this book seem boring? Beige, boring font, and a little splash of color in the upper corner? "Class, you're welcome to use your entire seat while reading this book, but based on what we see on the cover here, I think it's safe to assume you're only going to need the edge."

Buy The Catcher in the Rye, 1991, White from Amazon.com

 

'Frankenstein' by Mary Shelley

You know what? We get it. You read a damn book. Now stop bothering me about how a dude walking around with a big green head and bolts in his neck isn’t “Frankenstein.” Type “Frankenstein costume” into Google, hit images (safe search off. C’mon, live a little!) and see how many shambling giant green dudes you see and how many science nerds you see.

The creature's name is the least of the differences between the movie/pop culture Frankenstein and the book version. 

It's not that the book is bad. It's just that it's wielded as a weapon in a bad way.

Sort of like the way people say guns don't kill people, people kill people? Frankenstein doesn't annoy people at Halloween parties. People who read Frankenstein do. 

Buy Frankenstein (Second Edition) (Norton Critical Editions) from Amazon.com

 

'Of Mice and Men' by John Steinbeck

At least this one is kind of cool. You’ve got this big oaf, who’s sort of like a Frankenstein (fight me). And you get a good life lesson for teens, which is that it’s good to stick by your friends through thick and thin, but there’s a line. And that line comes when your friend breaks a woman’s neck, if not slightly before.

However, this one makes the list because of Curley, the book’s antagonist, and his glove:

'Well, that glove's fulla Vaseline.'
'Vaseline? What the hell for?'
'Well, I will tell ya what—Curley says he's keepin' that hand soft for his wife.'

Yeah, there’s a dude who keeps his hand in a glove full of Vaseline.

Now, that sounds exactly like something I’d like to read in a book today. It’s weird and fucked-up. But it’s not the sort of thing I like reading in 8th grade English where teachers seem woefully unprepared to talk about what exactly it means. If they’re unprepared for that, they DEFINITELY aren’t prepared to discuss it with a young Pete, who remembers almost nothing of the book other than this detail and has obsessed on it since first reading it. I could have written an entire paper called “My Top 505 Questions About Curley’s Vaseline Glove.”

My advice: print a version where the lubed-up glove is excised if you’re not prepared to talk to 8th graders about the ways Curley is getting down.

Buy Vaseline Petroleum Jelly, Original 13 oz, Pack of 3 from Amazon.com

 

'The Yellow Wallpaper' by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

It’s not the story itself. The story itself is cool. It’s creepy. No, the problem is that this was my introduction to the idea of literary analysis. And what an introduction it was.

Later in life, I feel a division between useful and useless literary criticism. There’s the kind that’s about looking at how a scene functions and so on, what’s happening and how it works on the page. That I have a use for. There’s also the kind that talks about why something exists, what convinced the author to write it. That can be interesting if the initial story is interesting to you.

Then there's the other kind. The kind of literary criticism that’s just about theories that can’t be proven or disproven. If you took any college English classes, you know what I mean. Theories about this or that character and their sex life. This character being attracted to his mother. Theories that have almost no basis in the text, theories that, if they're true, don't really change the meaning of the story, but one of your classmates is happy to drag you through it anyway. I mean, sure, there’s something going on in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” but the author explicitly said what that something was.

As an illustrative example of how I feel about this, I wrote out a dozen, fully-fleshed-out theories regarding the motion picture Demolition Man. Some had to do with the titular demolition man never waking from cryosleep. Some had to do with the entirety of the movie taking place within the head of main antagonist Simon Phoenix. One had to do with the entire thing being a Total-Recall-esque fantasy of Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock).

It’s easy. Try it right now. Pick a book, pick a weird scene, and then make up some gobbledygook about it. Bonus points if it involves something standing in for a penis or penises.

Billy Collins had a great poem about this, which I’ll paraphrase in saying that school teaches students to not enjoy books and reading, but to tie a book to a chair and beat a confession out of it. "The Yellow Wallpaper," we beat it, waterboarded it, shocked it with car batteries like Stallone in Rambo: First Blood Part II. We were relentless. We tore this thing apart and went down false, invented roads when the text itself is really good and the actual reasons for its creation are also interesting, purposeful, and can create great discussion. 

Buy The Yellow Wall-Paper, Herland, and Selected Writings (Penguin Classics) from Amazon.com

 

'The Canterbury Tales' by Geoffrey Chaucer

This is like punishment Shakespeare. Like if you thought Shakespeare wasn’t impenetrable enough, good news, we have a dude who’s EVEN OLDER! Do you just glide through Shakespeare, understanding all his neologisms and metaphors? Great, check out this Chaucer dude!

This was published in 1387, ya’ll. Reading The Canterbury Tales is like watching Monty Python IN THE YEAR 2600! There isn’t a single bit of it that makes sense without an equal amount of explanatory text.

The setup is cool. A storytelling contest, the best story winning a dinner. Then we get...25 tales!? I wouldn’t listen to 25 tales for a free Wendy’s meal. I wouldn’t listen to 25 stories for a week of free Wendy’s. That's entirely too many, and very few of them involve Demolition Man or demolition men. 

I know this is an important historical document, that it tells us a lot about the social structure of the time. But...excuse me for potential blasphemy here, but maybe that means it belongs in a history class?

Buy The Canterbury Tales from Amazon.com

 

'Dracula' by Bram Stoker

Sorry, everyone. But this is nothing like Castlevania. This isn’t even like Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest.

It WAS, at one time, until Bram Stoker left out this ending:

As we looked there came a terrible convulsion of the earth so that we seemed to rock to and fro and fell to our knees. At the same moment with a roar which seemed to shake the very heavens the whole castle and the rock and even the hill on which it stood seemed to rise into the air and scatter in fragments while a mighty cloud of black and yellow smoke volume on volume in rolling grandeur was shot upwards with inconceivable rapidity.

Then there was a stillness in nature as the echoes of that thunderous report seemed to come as with the hollow boom of a thunder-clap - the long reverberating roll which seems as though the floors of heaven shook. Then down in a mighty ruin falling whence they rose came the fragments that had been tossed skywards in the cataclysm.

From where we stood it seemed as though the one fierce volcano burst had satisfied the need of nature and that the castle and the structure of the hill had sunk again into the void. We were so appalled with the suddenness and the grandeur that we forgot to think of ourselves.

I’m not even kidding. That’s a deleted portion from the ending. Stoker deleted the explosion at the end. What the hell was he thinking? Which story has been improved by REMOVING an explosion? That’s ridiculous. One of the bigger miscarriages of literary justice.

Buy Dracula from Amazon.com

 

'The Scarlet Letter' by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I swear, people who tell me they love this book must not remember it.

Presented here is an example of how the prose in this book sounds to me:

A man—who was born in a small town, which bore no resemblance to the town his parents imagined for him when they settled in the area over 40 years ago with every intention of starting a small business selling gift baskets online that sort of petered out after bigger companies like FTD caught onto the whole thing and ran the little guys out with predatory pricing—decided to go for a walk one day.

A man decided to go for a walk. THAT’S ALL YOU NEED TO SAY! I got it. Man on a walk. Check.

And the story? I’ll sum it up: Havin’ sex ain’t so bad, everyone. Relax a little, eh?

There. I just saved you a couple hundred pages of text offset with dashes, commas wherever the hell Hawthorne felt like putting them, and the expectation that you can buy into the idea of letter A’s showing up all over the place like it’s Sesame Street.

Also, this was a confusing message as a young person. I went from a class where we saw a slideshow of diseased penises and vaginas (school in the 90’s was weird), and then we get another message about sex ain’t so bad. It’s like PE class was always preventing me from having sex, both through godawful slideshows and putting on full display that I was no physical specimen, and English class was always telling me the opposite: Eh, go for it. Why not?

Well, school, which one is it?

Buy The Scarlet Letter (AmazonClassics Edition) from Amazon.com

 

'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I liked this one. But I was 26. This has to be impossible to relate to as a kid. It's difficult as an adult, but as a kid? Forget it. 

There’s something to like about the classics, about most classics, but maybe we’re doing this backwards. Maybe we should be getting students interested in reading before we try to get them onto classics. Sort of like how young kids learn to like mac and cheese before they appreciate fine wine. Kids shouldn’t drink fine wine until they’re like 11, minimum.

Buy The Great Gatsby from Amazon.com

 

'To Kill A Mockingbird' by Harper Lee

I was like 30 when I read this! And it was really fun! But if I’d read it in 7th grade, I would have hated it.

I can’t speak for all students, but I’ll speak for a type of student I represented. Which is a student that really likes reading and books, but they don’t know it yet. They don’t know it because the only things they’ve read are the things teachers put into their hands, and the only things teachers put into their hands are classics. There's not enough action. Not enough incident. There aren't enough explosions (and the explosions that were there are removed, Bram Stoker!). 

Scout is a lovable character, as is Atticus. Being dressed as a ham during the book’s climax is awesome. And all of that is wasted on a young Pete.

I think that you can show a kid Citizen Kane in 8th grade. But they're not going to like it the way they might if they came to it later, on their own, through an interest in film. Kids who are really interested in movies will be interested to take a dive into different kinds of movies, including those movies that set the foundation for modern movies. 

Same deal with books. Those kids who end up liking classics...I think they'll find them. Meanwhile, we're pushing every kid through these same books, which are hard to relate to, overly long, and hard to enjoy if you don't care about the history of books and writing. 

Buy To Kill a Mockingbird from Amazon.com

 

'Beowulf'

This tale of a dude who fights a sea monster, then a land monster, then the land monster’s mom...is actually pretty awesome. Beowulf is the first superhero. Get yourself a copy that doesn’t rhyme, read it, and brag about reading a total classic that’s like 50 pages long.

Buy Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (Bilingual Edition) from Amazon.com


What are your thoughts on required reading? Share your horror stories below.

Column by Peter Derk

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado.  He's a master of library science (which is a real thing) and considers himself a master of picking out the one functional treadmill in any gymnasium (which is not a real thing).  Buy him a drink sometime and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public library's restroom.

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Comments

JohnPaulJones's picture
JohnPaulJones from San Diego is reading American Gods September 19, 2017 - 11:30am

I don't know if required reading did anything for me. Call of the Wild; I think there was a wolf. Catcher in the Rye; it was really awkward reading about molestation in the 8th grade. Brave New World; all I could think about was how impractical it would be for everyone to own a helicopter. Grapes of Wrath; what's an effective way to stop someone from stealing toilet paper?

I use the classics as a punishment for my oldest daughter. Act up and get stuck reading Anne of Green Gables. Maybe my kids go to a progressive school because they were required to read Harry Potter and Twilight. I would have killed to sit in middle school english and read R.A Salvatore books. 

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list September 19, 2017 - 9:01pm

I agree with your view on most of the books on this list. However, I'm an English teacher, and we are required to teach classics. It is Common Core for 11th and 12th grade. I've been told that YA isn't "rigorous" enough and to avoid teaching it. My kids don't always love The Great Gatsby, but it is one of the more popular books that I teach every year. My AP Literature kids have been laughing at the jokes in Much Ado About Nothing this year. They don't fully understand either of those texts by any means. World experience is a huge factor in their understanding, and most of the kids aren't there yet.

My biggest issue in my school district is showing recorded versions (which is also a standard). My district has deemed PG-13 and R to be inappropriate for high school students, even with parent permission. This means pretty much every recorded version of Shakespeare is out. Teching in some districts is like swimming with both arms tied behind your back. It's bonkers.

 
Here are the standards we have to cover in 11th & 12th Grade:

Reading Literature standard RL.11-12.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful (Include Shakespeare as well as other authors).

RL.11-12.7 Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.)

RL.11-12.9 Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics.

 

helpfulsnowman's picture
Community Manager
helpfulsnowman from Colorado is reading But What If We're Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman September 19, 2017 - 11:34pm

I hear that. I'm related to more than one person working in education and work with some others pretty closely. Like it is with most things (wages, general level of sanity) I think teachers, who SHOULD be setting the tone, are given a bunch of impossible stuff to do in too short a time with unrealistic materials and standards set by someone who doesn't know what they're talking about.

Felipe Forero Pulido's picture
Felipe Forero Pulido September 20, 2017 - 2:08am

This was amazing, made me laugh al the way through. I had to check who wrote it and then there it was, Peter Derk. Of course, great as usual.

I read The Great Gatsby at university; it's one of the most boring books I've ever read. I never cared for what happened, and it was a relief when it was over. I did love To Kill a Mockingbird. I cannot explain why, I just love that damned novel.

Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Everything He Gets His Hands On September 20, 2017 - 8:28am

I wonder if there's some hybrid way of doing this, like maybe have students read a classic, and then follow it up with a modern novel that tackles the same themes or subject matter as a way to see the evolution of the written word. It might actually help the student to respect and understand better where the older, often duller book was coming from and attempting to do, while also illustrating its influence to future writers. Maybe Dracula is followed by Interview with a Vampire, or Huckleberry Finn is followed by The Underground Railroad.

SharonRitchey's picture
SharonRitchey from Northern Virginia is reading Dancing at the Shame Prom, Don Quixote September 20, 2017 - 2:36pm

Thanks for the good laugh. As I walk the library aisles with my middle schooler and high schooler, I've had similar discussion about some of these titles. However, you missed two on my personal book hit list: Lord of the Flies and 1984

The difference between suffering through one of these titles and actually getting through it is of course the teacher. Great teachers have always and will always inspire students. 

erikbbergstrom's picture
erikbbergstrom from Minneapolis, MN is reading When We Were Animals by Joshua Gaylord September 21, 2017 - 10:19am

My favorite parts of this article were the links to buy each book.

T.D. Brooking's picture
T.D. Brooking from California is reading Short Story Collections (Everything here is the best thing ever & Kissing in Manhattan) September 24, 2017 - 9:40am

So clever....Laughed Out Loud, several times.  Thanks!

Sheri Attani Rohrbacher's picture
Sheri Attani Ro... from San Jose, CA is reading The Blindfold by Siri Hustvedt September 24, 2017 - 11:15am

Chaucer was torture for me. Absolutely godawful. It took me so long to get through one page that I finally gave up.