I am a “bookworm.” I’ve always really enjoyed books and reading. But when I was in school there were always two kinds of books: the ones that were assigned reading, and the ones I was allowed to choose for myself.
Assigned books come with a burden. You have to write reports about them or stand up in front of the class and discuss what you thought the green candle symbolized. Books you select on your own have no such burden. You are completely free to read as quickly as you want, and no one is going to quiz you on the big words. Assigned books were almost always “Literature,” and literature was never any fun.
But then something odd happened.
This will have been in ninth grade, I think. I was handed a book I had never heard of before, something called 1984. I started reading and pretty soon I had the sneaking suspicion that someone had just made a mistake. This couldn’t be the book they just assigned, this is just too freaking cool!
The main character lived in a dystopia and everyone was suspicious of everyone else. The government is oppressive and news are constantly being re-written (this book ruined governments and politicians for me, permanently, by the way) and I actually felt miserable reading it, but in the best way possible.
Right after that, we were assigned Brave New World. Same thing again, I can’t believe that I’m reading what I’m reading.
Now, with a few more years between assigned reading in school and the present, I can recall reading To Kill a Mockingbird and having all the good parts pointed out and made clear, but it felt like a corpse on a dissecting table.
I learned that there were, perhaps, a few works of “Literature” that were pretty good, but mostly I just wanted the stuff with the dragons.
That changed again, when I was assigned Hamlet and Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. I’d always feared and avoided Shakespeare and was not looking forward to it. I had never heard of this Ondaatje fellow. I got that sneaking feeling again though…. Hamlet, paraphrased, is as follows: ghost, plotting, stabbing, graves, duel with poisoned swords. And The English Patient was the first book I read where I actually realized that the quality of the writing itself mattered, and not just the story.
So thank you English teachers, for assigning great books, even though we don’t always appreciate them at the time.
Now, please share your favorite assigned reading book from school in the comments.