Famous Novelists on Symbolism in Their Work and Whether It Was Intentional

I read this great post on John Green's Tumblr, titled Famous Novelists on Symbolism in Their Work and Whether It Was Intentional:

"Reading is not a game of Clue; books are not a mystery that you have to solve by putting all the pieces together. That’s not the point. Find the meaning you want to find in it. That’s what we do with books because that’s what we do in life."

[John adds this:] If the point of reading is merely to understand precisely what the author intended, then reading is just this miserable one-sided conversation in which an author is droning on to you page after page after page and the reader just sits there receiving a monologue.

That’s not reading. That’s listening.

Reading is the active co-creation of a story, complete with all its symbols and abstractions. 

I thought about what John said. It set a small fire in my brain, and this is what came out:

English teachers who forced me to find symbolism and meaning in books make assigned reading in high school absolutely miserable. It was bad enough that I couldn’t just enjoy the story and spend time with the characters, but they also made me go on some kind of treasure hunt where I had to find something the teacher/school/board of education/someone-who-was-not-me decided was the “correct” thing to find.

As a result, I hated many classic works of literature, and actually resented them and the people who wrote them. I'm pretty sure that's the opposite of what any teacher would want their students to take out of any class, especially an English Literature class, but it's what happened to me.

Years later, when I was in my mid-twenties, I spent the summer rereading the books I’d hated in high school, because I figured they were classics for a reason and maybe as an adult, I'd be able to see why. I read:

Great Expectations - still hated it.

A Separate Peace - liked it, didn’t love it, but that’s a big improvement over how much I despised it when I was in school.

1984 - Loved it. Loved it, loved it, loved it.

Brave New World - Read it just after 1984. Loved it.

Romeo and Juliet - Hated this when I was 14 (who, at 14, is mature enough to appreciate it? What a huge FAIL it is to teach this to 9th graders), and was moved to tears by it as an adult. Went on a bit of a Shakespeare tear as a result, and did Julius Caesar, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, and Macbeth. Still didn’t understand all of it, but loved every second of it.

All Quiet on the Western Front - When your authoritarian Cold Warrior English teacher isn’t somehow making this book all about how fucking great Reagan is, it’s just amazing.

There were others, but you get the idea, right? I even grabbed the Cliff's and Spark Notes to get some "education" from the books when I was done reading them, but I can't recall anything the notes said, just what the book gave me when it was all done… I think that says a lot.

When I was a kid, I was already an avid reader, so these (hopefully) well-intentioned teachers couldn’t turn me off from reading in general and forever, but both of my siblings still won't pick up a book if you gave them a hundred dollars to do it. I understand that educators want to encourage students to dig into stories and see what they can find in them, and that’s a great exercise, but forcing them to find what some board of education has decided is the One Right Thing To Find does those kids (and did this kid) a huge disservice.

And not that it matters, but I'm going to reread The Great Gatsby just as soon as I finish A Clash of Kings, because it feels like the right thing to do.

Afterthought: I love teachers. I'm on record stating that my heroes are teachers, and I believe that teachers do not get the salary or respect by American society that they should get. I'm not attacking teaching or teachers at all with this post; I'm just recalling the experience I had with a small number of teachers in the 80s, who I'm sure were doing their jobs they way they thought was best for their careers and their students.


163 thoughts on “Famous Novelists on Symbolism in Their Work and Whether It Was Intentional”

  1. I liked Flowers for Algernon when I was a kid and recently re-read it. Such a great and heartbreaking story that holds up incredibly well even after nearly 50 years.

  2. I was always the kid that questioned how we knew what the author was really intending to say with their words unless they explicitly stated that the meaning was x, y or z somewhere. How did we know?!?!? I couldn’t get past that. Luckily, I had teachers that didn’t try to stifle my questions and I am to this day grateful that I had teachers that would allow that type of conversation.

  3. English Teacher here!
    I teach 9th grade in an inner-city school. I do teach R&J. When I was a kid, it was presented as the most epic love story of all time. I did not approve. When I teach it, it’s presented as how “rich people have gang fights” and we go into how it’s a story about how stupid getting caught up in hate is. They connect a lot more with it. Many people don’t realize that the bard wrote the remake – not the original. The original was a lesson to kids on bad things happen to people who marry outside their family’s wishes.
    In high school, I too despised A Separate Peace. This year, I taught 1984 to a 10th grade class since most of the kids had read the Hunger Games so that they could see one of the books that had inspired a new favorite.

  4. Oh, I love Gatsby; I’ve re-read it every summer since my Junior year of high school (now that I’m all growed up, usually with a gin and tonic nearby – it seems fitting) – it’s (by far) my favorite of what I was required to read.
    I think I was pretty lucky throughout high school; for the most part, my English and Literature teachers didn’t care what Great Symbolic Lesson we came up with, just as long as we came up with SOMETHING and could back it up.

  5. I enjoyed nearly everything that we read in high school. I am something of an empath so the really good characters that didn’t have to spell everything out were awesome. I think that is what I liked best about parts of Moby Dick. And Animal Farm. But I often found myself so immersed in my own reading of it that I could never see what the teacher wanted. Mr. Trapp finally tripped me up with Shakespeare though…
    Much Ado About Nothing and Loves Labours Lost were the only ones I ever got. They were simple to divine the motives without all the young and the restless plotting for power.
    The best part of reading those things as an adult is that your own experience let’s you unveil another level of meaning. Although the case in animal farm is that I am always going to be the horse (idealistic with a grand work ethic) and now instead of crying my eyes out I get pissed off. Oh and I can’t NOT hear Patrick Stewart’s voice reminding me that “Some are more equal than others”. Creepy.
    But really the testing requirements are at fault. Not the teachers. It isn’t the same as an art appreciation class in which you would get to EXPLORE those strange new/old worlds. And some teachers are going to care more about their quotas and percentages than others. It will be a rare teacher who can share their passion and still get us to understand the approved meanings…
    And rarer still the teacher who through literature can help us find out barbaric yawp.

  6. I think storytelling is a multi-tiered experience. I say storytelling because the same thing that applies to reading applies to movies applies to music applies to art applies to video games applies to any other means or method we may devise.
    There’s superficial, emotional, symbolic, thematic, and author intentioned understandings and all are different facets that can enrich your experience. I love discussing books and lessons learned beyond the surface; however, anyone who presumes one “correct” interpretation, even the author, is blinded by a cloud of their own pretension. To every story we are told we use our own story as a lens to view it. It’s a beautiful and interesting thing.
    A good teacher is one who fosters discussion, and teaches you how to describe and support the views and emotions that the story conveyed to you.

  7. I don’t recall ever being assigned any Charles Dickens in school. We were assigned things like the Chronicles of Narnia, 1984, Watership Down, and The Hobbit. (I went to a Christian school.) I’ve always been an avid reader, and didn’t ‘instantly fight’ assigned reading. I always thought “Hey, now I can read this for class, and not lose my own free time over another book I already wanted to read.”
    HOWEVER, I hated reading Shakespeare. It was so dry and hard to understand. The teacher tried having us act out the plays to help us better understand them, but we were crap, and I never tried to read Shakespeare after that. (Like others, we got Shakespeare in 9th grade)
    UNTIL…I went to see the Shakespeare by the Sea troupe in San Pedro put on Romeo & Juliet (pretty good), and Twelfth Night (outstanding due to the actor cast as Malvolio — his name is Patrick Vest. Find him.) That experience alone got me interested in Shakespeare.
    http://shakespearebythesea.org – they’re doing Romeo & Juliet, and Two Gentlemen of Verona RIGHT now, until August. You should check them out if you can.

  8. I have to agree about Shakespeare. Although I understood and enjoyed reading the plays, my understanding and enjoyment increased immensely once I SAW them! In particular, “Much Ado About Nothing”, with Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh, really amazed me as to ease of understanding.

  9. I turned in the same paper on Macbeth four times. Eighth grade. Ninth grade. Twelfth grade. English lit 201 in college. Minor changes, most grammar but I did update a couple of sentences to be clearer. The result was an exemplarly grade on all.
    In the end I pretty much gave up on “symbolism in literature” and just enjoyed reading.

  10. Another English teacher checking in. And not just an English teacher, but one who’s teaching to kids whose first language is not English.
    I do talk about symbolism in my classes, but not so much as a way to unlock the “real” meaning of a book. It’s more to make them aware of one of the tools they have available as a reader/writer. Love it or hate it, symbolism is part of the creative process, and they should know how to use it.
    What I don’t do, however, is make assumptions about what the author wrote. I get the students to tell me what they think the author meant in this part or that. Are they right? Sure, if it helps them appreciate and understand the work.

  11. First-time commenter… you’ve baited me out of lurking. :-) I’m a doctoral student / college English lit instructor, and this post/comment thread are so depressing! Let me echo what Gregconley said, above: a good literature class will teach you how to notice and analyze the effect of details of the text. A “correct” interpretation is anything you can make a plausible argument for. Students in a class like this should come away with two general skills: (1) they should be able consciously to see/analyze the craft at work in a text (ANY text — as Gregconley notes — think about analyzing exactly HOW a particularly cool videogame subverts sexist stereotypes) … and (2) they should be better equipped to write (and generally communicate) their own ideas by deploying their own craft in a deliberate way.
    My high school teachers were pretty good at that; my college teachers were great. I believe that there is a problem out there, however — I see it in my own students’ desperate questing after the “right answer” they seem to think I am secretly withholding. I hope I can free them of that.
    I want to add, however, that no literature class is going to be pure FUN all the time, no more than any high-quality class is necessarily fun all the time. Many of my high school and college classes had stretches of exhaustion, rote memorization, uncomfortable new ideas, etc. … but also delivered rewards of significantly deepened knowledge, pride in that knowledge, and even joy. I’m a professional scholar — believe me when I say I believe learning is ultimately joyous — but it’s also hard work and certainly not always easy or fun.
    Until early/mid high school, I think it makes sense for English teachers to focus on instilling the FUN of reading and writing (though I’m also old-school enough to want some straightforward writing/grammar lessons, too, because younger kids don’t seem as terrified by rules for commas as older kids do!).
    By the time you’re in later high school, however… well, advanced literature classes are not book groups. They are not just about reading for pleasure any more than taking an astronomy course is just about stargazing for the fun of it. Instead, they require hard work — in a good way. Advanced literature courses are for people who want to study the subtexts (plural!) at work in cultural communications, for people who want to learn to use evidence rigorously to support an argument, for people who want to learn more about the CRAFT of writing (both creative and analytical). If you can analyze why one metaphor has violent overtones and one metaphor suggests “naturalness” even though neither one is explicit with those meanings, you’re better equipped, for example, (1) to analyze a subtly misleading campaign commercial and (2) to use effective metaphors in your own writing and communication (including by joining the Dark Side and making your own subtly misleading campaign commercials, sigh). This is not as easy as it may sound. You have to work and practice and slog a bit to get good at it. That’s okay. Any expertise takes work to acquire. Hard work. Proud work. Rewarding work. And any given expertise is not for everyone. It is perfectly possible to adore reading for pleasure while hating literary scholarship. This doesn’t mean that literary scholars are doing it wrong. I love stargazing. I hate calculus. :-)
    Finally, while I gladly agree that Shakespeare never INTENDED most of the meanings scholars find in his work today, I can assure you that Shakespeare had studied his craft. This is true of most successful writers: no, of COURSE they don’t strictly set out to include one top-secret coded message that only English teachers can see. But yes, they study craft. Poets know meter. Novelists experiment with dialogue and dialect. Writing is about exuberant creativity AND rigorous work, the muse AND the skilled craftsperson, the unintended awesomeness AND the foundational practice that made it possible. Studying literature is about learning and respecting this craft … and the amazing, surprising, deep places it can go.

  12. I always disliked Beowulf as well, and get hassled for it on a regular basis. I find him uninteresting for the same reason I rarely read Superman: too powerful. I prefer the desperate struggles of flawed and conflicted characters.
    PS – [1000 YEAR OLD POEM SPOILER] And yes I know that he dies in the end, but it’s as a old man, while killing a dragon and making a great heroic sacrifice. Sorry, still superman.

  13. Not all of my teachers were heroes but many of my heroes were teachers. My favorite was a guidance counselor who saw my interest in science fiction as a stepping stone to science. He was also the first adult to take me seriously. He told me to keep reading what my mother called “that space shit” and to reach for the stars because I could grasp them.
    Sadly, my interest in science was almost extinguished by a chemistry/physics teacher who was more interested in showing who was in charge rather than what he could teach us and a math teacher who pulled me aside and told me to go to art school because I had “no grasp of mathematics.” I went to art school and hated it. I was 29 before I even considered going back to school.
    Now, I have a degree in physics and I’m the director of a planetarium where I educate young people about the wonders of the universe. It’s been an amazing 15 years.
    At my 20th class reunion, I saw the guidance counselor again, told him what I was doing and thanked him for his encouragement. I gave him a hug because a handshake wouldn’t do. He said, “I always knew you’d do great things.”
    He passed away about 3 years after that. If there was someone in your life who encouraged you, whether you followed their advice or not, thank them if they’re still around. You won’t regret it if you do but you’ll regret it if you don’t.

  14. Reading aloud was a mixed bag, listening was torturous, but I loved to read myself. I would always count ahead and see which part would be mine and would get excited if it was large, but curse the heavens if I get stuck with a little one liner.

  15. I have always loved reading and honestly believe that there have been times that it has saved my life – the escapism I could find in books kept me from seeking permanent escapism from a miserable life.
    That being said, being a voracious reader was troublesome in school at times. Even from early days my reading speed and comprehension were very high – so I finished silent reading assignments during class much more quickly than my classmates. We used the SRS reading series and I managed to get through the entire year’s cards in the first six-week period. I was reading at an 11th grade level in the 3rd grade.
    My most horrible memory of English class, however, came in my senior year of high school, taking English (British) Literature. Our teacher had us read every assignment out loud in class as the students would not have done the reading at home. Since most of the students were piss-poor readers, it fell on a very few of us to do the majority of the reading.
    I will never forget the sneers I received for reading a line from “Androcles and the Lion” properly – the line is, “Aw, did um’s get a thorn in um’s tootsum-wootsum?” – meant to be read in a baby voice, which I did. Deadly thing to do.
    Also, in that class the teacher dictated notes about the reading that we were required to transcribe into our study notebooks word for word, and the notebooks were collected and graded. So, yeah, obviously someone else’s interpretation of the material ruled; there was little or no discussion about what we thought it meant.
    And that, I fear, is the great problem with education in the United States in general, not just literature or English – our school system does not teach analytical thinking, but “data in, data out”. Little wonder that there are so many people who accept as gospel the things they hear on the news without thinking about them. Sad.

  16. Like others, this perfectly describes my experience with most reading in school. The only difference was one teacher who provided us no list, simply said “Pick a book, let me approve it, then you read it and write a report on what you got from it.” For that teacher, I read The Hobbit and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Turned around my opinion of reading entirely. What was a chore became a joy.
    As for teachers themselves, I also love them and feel they don’t get the respect or paychecks they deserve, however I am often very disappointed in the business and politics of education in this country, which is usually what drives the curriculum choices forcing teachers to demand children look for the One Right Thing To Find in the books chosen for them to read.

  17. I was in a parochial school where the only thing more awesome to the faculty than a vengeful God who was going to send you to Hell was Saint Ronald Reagan.

  18. I remember so many incidences of this happening at school. I loved the teacher, she was strong, forthright, intelligent, and fantastic at teaching. She had this real knack of opening eyes to new possibilities.
    I never got over the material though. Two particular pieces spring to mind for different reasons.
    1) Lord of the Flies. We started this one day and were set as homework to read the next 2 chapters. My curiosity had been sparked by what we’d read in class so when I got home from school I started reading, and didn’t stop until I got to the end. It was such a great book. Interesting concepts, a fascinating look at tribal nature.
    I got in trouble the next day for having read on too far when I unthinkingly offered an opinion on the passage based on something later in the story.
    By the time we’d spent a month or so dissecting the novel I hated it with a passion. I haven’t picked it up since, probably 16-17 years later.
    2) Macbeth, the Scottish Play. We ripped this apart for ages, it was one of the texts on the exam syllabus, which meant during our finals we’d have to write an essay about it. We had to be sure that we knew it front to back, left to right. I never once gained any glimmer of interest in the material.
    About 5 years ago I was working in London and saw that Patrick Stewart was performing as Macbeth in a critically acclaimed version that was running in the West End. I’d heard from a few friends that he was one of the best Shakespearean actors of his generation, so I bought a ticket.
    Wow. Kate Fleetwood as Lady Macbeth was chilling, shivers ran down my spine as she performed her monologue when she decided she would encourage her husband to do anything, even murder, to make the predictions come true.
    Patrick Stewart was beyond belief, exquisite, a complete master at work. Words fail me and still do :)
    The dull, lifeless and boring work became transformed in their hands into a great tragedy that enthralled and enrapt the audience.

  19. I really appreciate your perspective, and I thank you for taking the time to share it. I wish I'd had more teachers like you!

  20. And she was probably a great “Teacher.” A decade ago I was enraptured by a beautiful woman. She was such a “Fancy Lady.” I went over to her house to get to know her better.
    During that experience I discovered that she didn’t know how to read. She was at least 50 years old, drop dead gorgeous and she didn’t know how to read. So I, being the supercilious jackass that I am, decided that there must be something else going on. She told me that she memorized everything, forever. She had a high school diploma, she had a great Professional career, but she couldn’t read.
    So we did an experiment because I decided (in the quagmire that is my mind,) that someone punished her when she was very young and because of that she didn’t learn to read. We did an experiment. I handed her a book, upside down, and asked her to read it out loud to me for thirty minutes.
    Since all of the letters and words were in a whole new configuration, it was the same as learning to read all over again, but this time with an audience that was appreciative… We stumbled through the first night, then the second, then the third… At about a week I noticed that she was turning the book over (right side up) for the hard words… She graduated from University of Phoenix a couple of years later. I never got closer to her than that first night.
    Your teacher was evaluating whether the other students were “reading.” There’s almost no other way to do it… And I have used that trick to get three other people to learn to read since then. (I also gave my illiterate brother-in-law a dirty book with no pictures and that did it for him.)
    Really Wil, isn’t that probably what your teacher was doing? The ones who can’t read well spend 50 years faking it unless there is some method to get the problem acknowledged.

  21. The English teacher I hated more than any other teacher in my entire life told me, "you will never do well in English because you're a stupid actor."
    She also told me that I should just focus on being an actor, because I wasn't smart enough to write well.
    I thank her in every single one of my books.

  22. I think it is more a flaw in the education system, and the general attitude of high school students, that both work together to make High school english classes very hard to swallow. I myself found myself hating a lot of books as soon as I was supposed to find the curriculum delagated meanings, and most notably I would say that I despised “Lord of the Flies” because I was forced to do that. It was a summer book, and I read it and thought it was pretty alright, but as soon as we got to class and we began to do my first touch of “close reading” I was very apprehensive and turned off by that.
    I think that with the way that a curriculum is set up stifles the freeness at which high school students are able to interpret books, and I believe that it in coordination with the general high school student’s nature, makes it hard to give them the idea that a books meaning is endlessly subjective. I think that for those High school students, like myself, had I known that I was not looking for one thing in specific, but rather all things in their own particulars, I could have easily dished out some of the good old fashioned “bullshit” and gotten away with it under the pretense of it being my subjective opinion.
    I think that the laziness and disrespect that high school students have for things like subjective meanings makes it very difficult for teachers to allow them that freedom without coming off as being seen as a loosey floozy teacher. Some sort of crazy hippy teacher. That and the curriculum, I believe, is sort of meant to homogenize the education received by the high school students, so a subjective teaching of it would be against that grain.
    I think this is a good post though. I think that you have done a good thing by going back and giving these novels the benefit of the doubt and reading them upon your own time. I found that once I got into university, though, that the professors do a much better job of being open minded, so there is still a chance for some people to get that freedom to argue for what they themselves believe. I went into university thinking that I might do something like Fine Art or Science, and ended up majoring in Literature simply because my english courses were so much more engaging and free than High School ever was.

  23. There was nothing more futile than having students taking turns reading lines aloud from Romeo and Juliet. Elizabethian english does not easily roll off a 9th grader’s tongue.
    I liken reading Shakespeare when too young to really appreciate it to being forced to try new food when too young to really appreciate it. I hated Shakespeare in school but love it now. Wish I could say the same thing about brussel sprouts… Ok, bad analogy.

  24. A trick I learned a long time ago for Shakespeare was to read it as fast as you can. Don’t hyper focus on words you don’t understand, or let line breaks dictate the flow of how you read. The rhythm will automatically come by reading it.
    Here is the same passage from King Lear (A2S2).. one in it’s original form, and one mucked up for readability.
    A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a
    base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited,
    hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a
    lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson,
    glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue;
    one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a
    bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but
    the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar,
    and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I
    will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deniest
    the least syllable of thy addition.
    Edited for smooth readability.
    A knave. A rascal. An eater of broken meats. A base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave.
    A lily-livered, action-taking knave. A whoreson,glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue.
    One-trunk-inheriting slave.
    One that wouldst be a bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch.
    One whom I will beat into clamorous whining if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition.
    If I read a full speed, it makes so much more sense. I’m re-reading Coriolanus right now. It makes such a difference.

  25. Luckily I did have a great English teacher and I went on to get a Journalism degree – I liked being able to write well. I struggled with some of the books in school, but read them over and over in my 20s. Some I loved, some not – but 1984, Brave New World, anything by Kurt Vonnegut… Ray Bradbury… some great stuff. Some great comments here too.

  26. Lovely post! I had a similar experience, also in the 80s. I had struggled in most of my English classes in both analytical and creative writing, but always tested extremely high in comprehension evaluations. I took this in stride; I figured I just wasn’t so great at writing. My grades were great otherwise, until 11th grade I had an English teacher who was of the “find the symbolism in this book and there is only one right answer” variety. I would submit my essays and have them returned to me with not many comments besides “Nope, that’s wrong.” Luckily I didn’t really end up hating the books themselves (okay, I will probably never ever re-read “Lord of the Flies”), just the instructor. All I managed to take away from that class was “okay–I really, REALLY suck at writing, and apparently critical thinking, too.” I somehow managed to pull a C and thus would have qualified to take AP English the next year. Only problem was, same instructor taught AP English. I declined to enroll in that class and instead took a really basic Brit Lit and some other class that was basically a remedial English class of the “pick a book and write a book report” type. I liked both of those classes just fine, but of course not having taken AP English, had to enroll in an English class the next year in college. I dreaded it; however, this instructor was amazing. Long story short, he helped me learn how to not be so terrified of writing. In fact, the creative writing paper I did for his class, he liked so much he read it in front of the class. (Yeah, kind of embarrassing but secretly I was very pleased.) Also got to read Brave New World in his class and was blown away. My first A in English!

  27. I also had a teacher inform me that a poem had a specific symbolic meaning – I had written it and when I stated that the origin and meaning of the poem was completely different, I was told that the teacher’s meaning was what I really felt subconsciously when I wrote it.
    That was one of the most important lessons I learned in high school. [This teacher was actually great – just a few incidents made me realize that the teacher was human.]
    Even though it is work for me to read Shakespeare, I love the plays – I thank my parents who took me to see Midsummer Night’s Dream at the festival in Stratford, CT when I was about 12. It was magical! In 9th grade when I had to read R&J I hated the work to read it but appreciated it. Then the class saw the Zeffirelli version and it was great again for me. [having to parse the language and look up archaic words is too distracting for me (even when they are footnoted)- not looking up the words and just relying on context bothers me.]

  28. This is exactly how I feel about “Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer”, forced to read those in 10th grade and HATED it. When you spend an hour over the correct pronunciation of “victuals” you know all joy has left the room. Funny thing, in 11th grade we just read “To kill a mocking bird” and not analyze the crap out of it, and it has become my all time favorite.

  29. I’m 47 and I’ve been on this soapbox my whole life. And the reading out loud in class thing hits close to home as well. I’m the youngest of five, my mom was a teacher and for various reasons I could read in first grade. Remember those Dick and Jane books? It was excruciating to me to listen to those easy words being mangled, and the first time I got to read I just started flipping pages and read several before the teacher stopped me. I wasn’t allowed to read again until third grade, and even then and forever after it was extremely rare. As an adult, I understand that the teachers had some good reasons for that: why try to teach something to a student who has already mastered it, and don’t embarrass the other kids. But they should have taken me aside and explained that to me. The way they handled it was extremely insensitive and damaging. (At one point they actually banned me from the school library because I refused to read the books in the kiddie section and was reading everything that looked interesting in the adult section! Way to do your job, folks!) Later on, I usually had read the assigned books from cover to cover before they had a chance to get into the symbolism hogwash, so it didn’t ruin the reading experience for me but did convince my that they didn’t have a clue what the stories were really about. Now more than ever I’m mystified/mortified by their interpretations of Samuel Clemens’ works. But I’m very glad that I read those works, and also Poe. Dickens was too dry, too tiresomely descriptive and too depressing for me, and to this day I just can’t bring myself to appreciate Shakespeare at all. To me Shakespeare is too much like bad horror films: why on earth would a real person act that way, and the whole time I’m silently screaming, “You idiot! Don’t do that!” Beowulf I read on my own in grade school along with The Odyssey and The Illiad and mythology from around the world. I’m sure I didn’t understand everything at that age, but I understood enough to thoroughly enjoy the process and experience of reading. I think that’s the springboard that led me to Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury Poul Anderson, Jerry Pournelle, and all the rest.

  30. I’ve had so many great experiences reading.
    At 10 I read all the Science Fiction in the library at Walker Air Force Base. ( 1953, Roswell, New Mexico) I revered Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clark.
    During High School I read what was assigned. I never, to this day, liked F. Scott Fitzgerald, Shakespeare, most of those writers.
    During college I was kicked out of The Honors Program because I said that Freud was stupid and not worth studying. On the side I read Kant, Schopenhauer, Spinoza, and Alfred Korzybsky for enjoyment.
    There has to be something worth listening to in a book that was published in 1939, is still in print, and a used hardcover copy sells for $250.00.
    and the most famous quotation is “The map is not the territory”.
    Reading can take you everywhere. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Korzybski
    And the important thing to hear is “The Map Is Not The Territory.” What you read in a book is not what is real. You must use words that have the same meaning for you as they do for me or there is no communication. Thus all of your high school teachers were wrong. Many lied. The liars were mostly doing it out of ignorance, but they were still lies.

  31. There were some books in high school that I didn’t get — Scarlet Letter, for instance, which I was too naive to understand at the time we read it, and I got bored as a result. But the only book that I recall flatly HATING was Crime and Punishment. I recall once doing my assigned 30 pages and coming in the next day to ask my teacher if anything was ever going to happen in that book, because I’d just read 30 pages of nothing happening at all.
    She was not amused.
    It’s OK, though, because that’s the same teacher who told us that the curriculum picked the least interesting Canterbury Tale, and so we were going to read it, but we were also going to read a couple of her favorites. She probably could have gotten into big trouble if we’d squealed, but we were having too much fun.
    My eighth-grade English teacher, however, is to blame for my love of SF; she lent me her son’s copies of a couple of Heinlein books (including Starship Troopers, which was REALLY ballsy of her), and I was off.

  32. I think its awesome that you’re re-visiting and re-evaluating “the classics”.
    I think there’s an element of personal maturity needed to get into older works that are not easily accessible to the modern reader. When we read for enjoyment, especially as kids, we want the medium and the message to be easy for us to consume. What is difficult for us to understand was often pop culture in its day. “Great Expectations” was first published as a series in a magazine — “Lost” for Victorian England, if you will. Shakespeare wrote for the stage when language evoked the wonder what we now depend on elaborate sets and special effects for. It takes more work for us to establish context for what was once easy for everyone.
    I have always loved “Brave New World” and “1984”, but they require a dark world perspective that most kids living in an optimistic American culture don’t possess during their teenage years. I re-read “Brave New World” every couple of years and marvel at how frightening close it’s come to the unfolding present.
    And I am glad you have a balanced perspective on teachers. As a junior high teacher myself, I try to break through the scripted nature of the curriculum. I don’t always succeed, and it is disappointing. My consolation lies in meeting students years later and finding that maturity has given them perspective to understand and value what I was trying to teach them so many years ago.

  33. It’s so funny that you posted this as I’m getting ready to reread the majority of the books I was forced to wade through as an English major. My husband is deploying for a year and in an effort to not wind up face first in a bag of peanut m&ms while watching Real Housewives marathons, I thought I’d try to do something a little more constructive with my nights/weekends alone. First reread up for me is Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I had to read that senior year of high school and hated it but now I can’t really remember why.

  34. My son is going into 8th grade in the fall and I just was flipping through his summer reading list. Many of these books are on there.
    As for me, I avoided reading the assigned reading. I read and still do read avidly, but once someone recs something to me, I avoid it. Dunno why. So when I was in my early 20s, I finally read all the books which I should have already read instead of faking my way to A’s.
    “Catcher in the Rye” was one I had read before I had it in class. I loved it read it every year for about 10 or 11 years. I revisited this one when I turned 35 (I’m only a couple years older than you) and had two kids. I was astonished that I just wanted to slap Holden Caufield in the face. Caufield, who was a hero to me since I was 11! Has this ever happened to you with a favorite work? I’m going to revisit this one soon and see how it looks in yet another phase of my life.
    Romeo and Juliet was an incredible piece, but Hamlet is my favorite play by Shakespeare. Predictable? Yes, but a damn fine play. If you enjoyed his lighter side, I highly recommend “Much Ado About Nothing”.

  35. This didn’t ruin me till college. And it lasted till only a couple of years ago. I still suffer from over-analyzing my own work, which can *sometimes* be helpful, but usually isn’t. Finding those moments of pure writing bliss are as wonderful as realizing how lost you were in someone else’s work. I wish to Science someone had told me this as a 21-year-old film major.
    Also, I agree cubed with everything you said about teachers. They’ve been the sparks for so much of my creative and intellectual being. Probably why I’m engaged to one.
    Wil, thanks for this and all of the nerd-boners.

  36. As an English teacher, I have to say I think it’s imperative to connect literature to contemporary life- especially when it’s old literature. 1984 is an easier sell when you start talking about the Patriot Act and NDAA and SOPA/PIPA, for example. If you can’t make some sorts of connections, there is little reason for students to invest in reading that is often boring to them compared to Facebook, music, friends, life in general. In terms of the symbolism stuff, I generally talk about the big symbols first- the stuff everyone recognizes- colors, weather, seasons- the big archetypes that they’ve seen so many times that it gets the “Duh” factor. Once they see those, it’s easier to recognize and appreciate the more detailed stuff. And movies. I LOVE movies. I love to show them seeing the same techniques used in a film. I love reading a complicated essay on something like singularity and then drop The Measure of a Man on them and watch their little brains light up with the realization that their truly is nothing new under the sun. It is painful to watch when some teachers kill the love of reading in kids- even accidentally. I’m glad you came back to it.

  37. Oh, and on a totally surface level, we have to do that stuff because all the standards upon which those glorious multiple choice test that hold us all “accountable” for your learning these days are based. If we don’t, you fail said test, the school looks bad, it loses money from the government, and my teacher evaluation is low and I lose my job. Stupidity at its highest level. I can try to make it more engaging, but at it basest level, that’s the ugly, political reality too. Even if I wanted to, I could just give you a book, have you read it, and react to it and move on. That was the 60s and 70s. We don’t get to do that anymore.

  38. I think I was catching on to this already in highschool. I mean, why else would Shakespeare be great with my parents and their friend’s yearly Shakespeare’s birthday party, but deadly boring in school? Why would other kids read the CliffNotes instead of enjoying the whole book? Oh, because there always has to be deep MEANING and SYMBOLISM. Blech. (To be fair, I had pretty good English teachers, but any time we had to look for deep meaning in a book, I was toast.)
    Honestly, a few friends of mine (and a friendly English teacher) started a book club in our senior year – using “textbook” paperbacks! They were much more fun to read on our own and then simply get together and discuss. And in a book club situation, you’re free to say “I didn’t like this book and so I didn’t get past page 35.” Then the response is “Oh, you missed this great scene on page 120 where…” rather than “Well, you’re not going to pass this test if you can’t tell me what happened on page 120.”

  39. Oh, and this is why I never wanted to take another English class once I got out of highschool. So I didn’t. (For college, I went to an engineering school that lets you do your “humanities” work in whatever field you want – so I took 6 music classes!)

  40. deeply resented shakespeare at school, mum tried to tempt me by giving me a copy of his complete works which sat on my bookshelf for a decade, then my brother gave me a copy of asimov’s guide to shakespeare so i reread the lot with the good doctor beside me helping me through … now i read them again on a semi-regular basis just for the sheer joy of it.

  41. Have you seen the fairly recent made-for-TV “Hamlet” with David Tennant as Hamlet and Patrick Stewart as Claudius? Gives me chills. And unlike other versions I’ve seen, the director really thought about how to extend the imagery to be accessible through a TV camera, not just setting it as a stage show that happens to have cameras filming.

  42. That’s a tragedy, that your teacher said that. I’m so grateful you moved past that in your life. Because honestly? Some of the things you have written moved me to tears. You are articulate and insightful in ways that go to the heart of things.
    I recently went back and found what you wrote about River Phoenix around the 25th anniversary of the film; I’d remembered it from when you wrote it and was contemplating a friend of mine who died in a similar fashion four years ago. What you wrote helped a great deal in my own processing of Ryan’s life – and his death. So thank you for being open enough to share that with us.

  43. The Shakespeare in the curriculum I was saddled with was almost entirely JULIUS CAESAR, simply because the school board loved WEST SIDE STORY more than ROMEO AND JULIET. Luckily the BBC’s COMPLETE SHAKESPEARE series was on TV then, and often that was the best thing on TV during Summer Vacation.
    We had THE ILLIAD and THE ODYSSEY, GATSBY, some of Ray Bradbury’s awful short stories, the shortened and dramatized version of 1984 that Scholastic put in their High School English weekly magazine, that short story about the Irish Civil War with two snipers fighting (and you know what the denoument is already), and a lot of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickenson poetry.
    Luckily I didn’t have to read RED BADGE OF COURAGE like apparently everybody else. But ask me how I feel about Ambrose BIERCE’s IN THE MIDST OF LIFE? Yeah. You think?

  44. Wil, I’ve actually been doing this very thing for the last few years.
    1984 – Agree with you.
    Brave New World – Also agree.
    Great Expectations – This book turned me off to reading in high school. I haven’t re-tried it yet. I am dreading it. (And they’ve found a THIRD Bronte sister who wrote a book? Say it isn’t so.)
    A couple others of note…
    To Kill a Mockingbird – Probably my all-time favorite. It’s fantastic.
    Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank) – What a difference it is reading this as an adult and father. It’s a great book.
    The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – It’s interesting reading this book as an adult. And keeping in mind that Mark Twain was an adult when he wrote it. It’s pretty great.
    I have gained (regained) an appreciation for Steinbeck and Faulkner and discovered an appreciation for Don Delillo and Cormac Mccarthy.

  45. Fortunately, my high school English teacher helped me appreciate the classics rather than dread reading them. He got me into reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ or Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch-22.’ I don’t remember others hating the books we read either.
    Then again, I was very lucky, my HS English teacher was a writer as well, and had his own book published just before my senior year.

  46. Oh man. Even when I was in grade school (fourth grade or so onwards) I never liked the structured reading that we were all required to do, but ALWAYS read ahead for the sheer joy of it. I’ve always read at an advanced level, though. While my peers were reading those basic books, I was reading Hardy Boys. When they were getting into Hardy Boys, I was already (again, around fourth grade) getting into things like Chrichton, Grishom, and others that really, I had no business reading at my age.
    As far as the educationally required reading went, I still read what I wanted. At the same time, I was still reading the books that the AP classes were reading, but I was reading them for pleasure.

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