The assigned reading lists of high school are packed with incredible works that move the human spirit to the highest highs and lowest lows, all while educating and inspiring and illuminating — but the method by which assigned reading lists are slapped down into a room of fussy, hormone-y, distractible kids is just ridiculous. It's an experiment practically designed to fail: Take books that are drier or more formal or more out-of-date than what high schoolers are used to reading, demand that they consume them on a fast-paced schedule where "falling behind" almost always means "never catching up," and then beat the brilliance and magic out of the books with over-analysis, a weird obsession with symbolism, and heavy-handed guidance.
Truth: The books we had to read in high school are almost universally considered great. Another truth: You can't force a Harry Potter-loving teenager to read Heart of Darkness and expect her to have the same visceral, obsessive reaction to the plot. Heart of Darkness is just a different animal. It's not as immediately compelling. The only way uninterested high schoolers are going to enjoy reading the classics is if talented teachers make the older works come alive for them, and sadly, that's not the case for so many students at so many institutions.
I've been reading through old forums on Goodreads about assigned reading, and they're full of intelligent, well-read adults bemoaning how much they hated assigned reading lists in high school. It's so sad. There's hilarity, but there's also bitterness. "I didn't like reading assigned books in school just for the simple fact that I hated being tested on them or having them dissected after every couple of pages," writes Jael ~ *~ Syhren ~* ~. "In some cases I think having a bad teacher can make even the greatest books seem like meaningless drivel," writes Karyn. And why shouldn't there be a little bitterness? It's disheartening to realize that you missed out on a lot of classics, despite the fact that you technically "completed" them, because the timing or presentation just wasn't right. These are some of the top offenders, and here's why we're giving them a second chance.
1. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Why we hated it: Once we realized Juliet was 13, we didn't "relate" to the book — we were skeeved out by it. Besides, their whirlwind marriage was kind of cheesy and they talked way too much.
Why we love it now: As adults, it's easier to appreciate the wordplay — and that's really what makes this love story so amazing, anyway. Juliet may be 13, but she knows how to flirt her way into a first kiss better than we do.
2. The Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Why we hated it: For a book all about sex, it wasn't sexy at all. Even worse, the prose sounded like this: "He hath done a wild thing ere now, this pious Mr. Dimmesdale, in the hot passion of his heart!" NOPE.
Why we love it now: OK, we appreciate it now. It's a pretty damning commentary on social hypocrisy, and a nuanced exploration of evil, which is always a cool thing to write about. Plus, we watched Easy A and realized that while the prose may be outdated, the themes are timeless.
3. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Why we hated it: We liked clean-cut love stories, and this one just wasn't very satisfying in the kissing-in-the-rain-then-getting-married way that we were used to. There was a lot of drama going on, true, but it was a long book, a slow read, and full of slippery, ungraspable characters.
Why we love it now: "I think Wuthering Heights is one of those that the more times you read it, the more you appreciate it," writes Lisa Anne from Goodreads, and that's exactly the case with so many of these books. Now that we've read it again, we appreciate both the romance and the darkness and the general lack of frothy wedding dresses.
4. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Why we hated it: We had no idea what was going on.
Why we love it now: We understand what Jake's "war wound" is and everything makes a lot more sense.
5. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Why we hated it:
Why we love it now: We can acknowledge just how relevant the book's central question is: When humankind is left to its own devices, completely unregulated, will it destroy itself?
6. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Why we hated it: The depressing setting is described for approximately three million pages, and the characters say things like, “You're bound to get idears if you go thinkin' about stuff."
Why we love it now: Because we read East of Eden and became convinced that Steinbeck is an American genius.
7. Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Why we hated it: It's preachy and slow.
Why we love it now: Because we're sick of the Internet and admire the way Thoreau actively and purposefully chose to live his life off the grid.
8. A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Why we hated it: According to Emily on Goodreads: "I swear, reading that book was torture, and then my teacher made up all this stupid symbolism that really wasn't there. ... 'The stairs represented the structured world . . .' Are you serious? No. It was a boring book about someone who pushes his very nice friend out of a tree and feels terrible about it for the rest of his life. The end. (That isn't a spoiler, it happens in the beginning of the book.)"
Why we love it now: Because reading about teenage angst isn't quite so annoying when we're no longer trapped in the muck of our own teenage angst.
9. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Why we hated it: Stream-of-conscious writing is only interesting for so long, and not much happens.
Why we love it now: We've learned that Virginia Woolf can do no wrong and we repent every day for our childish foibles.
10. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Why we hated it:
Why we love it now: The white wale. The obsessive quest. The vastness of the ocean. It's all metaphorical gold.
11. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Why we hated it: Let's just say the New York Times review of it was titled "Three Lives in Supreme Torture." So, so depressing.
Why we love it now: Because we can read it without becoming convinced that the "supreme torture" of these heinously depressing characters is definitely going to be our future. Well, we can read it like that on a good day.
12. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Why we hated it: Because it's a book full of unrealistic dude characters designed to prove Rand's philsophy, called Objectivism. Because it puts us to sleep.
Why we love it now: Because we've developed a skill — not Objectivism, but objectivism — and can pretentiously enjoy a really high-minded book even when we're not particularly convinced by it.
13. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Why we hated it: Because it's overwritten and depressing.
Why we love it now: We're better equipped to appreciate Conrad's idea of the novel, which, as he explained to his publisher, is "the criminality of inefficiency and pure selfishness when tackling the civilising work in Africa." We're also more inclined to be swept away by its hallucinatory qualities, especially because no one's telling us to read any of it.
Image: Buena Vista Pictures