In Defence Of The Books We Read In School

We all studied that one book in school. The seemingly endless hours spent staring out the window, waiting for the teacher to stop droning on about The Book. You learned to cultivate a hatred both for that book – whether it be The Great Gatsby, Macbeth, or a personal favourite, Sunset Song – and for your English classes in general. Well, guess what? Don’t blame it on the book – you were probably just badly taught.

Everyone, and I mean everyone, complains about their high school reading. This is seemingly emphasised when it’s a “classic” book. In school, I studied The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, The Lord of the Flies, and Hamlet. I was lucky enough to have a string of great teachers throughout high school, so I began to really enjoy English (only to have that promptly knocked out of me when I started studying English Literature at university) and reading novels and plays. But I can only imagine the torment I would have gone through studying Shakespeare with a bad teacher, let alone some of the less acclaimed and more impenetrable course material.  

When English is taught as it often is in high school – as a formula, learning simply to quote while you struggle over character notes and resort to Shmoop yet again in your hour of need – it sucks the joy out of it like nothing else. It takes the life out of the image, the artistry out of the metaphor, and the greater beauty out of the book. It’s like taking a juicy steak and slowly cooking it until it’s a solid, dry lump of flavourless flesh. Fitzgerald didn’t write The Great Gatsby so 16-year-olds could re-read it until it was hackneyed and dull, until the imagery and symbolism became obvious and predictable that it was totally unremarkable, an emerald polished into a pebble.

The trouble with English at school as a subject is that, in my experience at least, it hinges on memorising facts. Memorising facts in a subject that is inherently subjective – see the problem? It sucks the joy out of English, out of reading. All uniqueness and individuality, all the subjective ways of reading the text are erased in favour of the homogeneous, dull “how-to-get-marks” way. That’s why we loathe our school books – the books themselves have nothing to do with it. You don’t hate The Great Gatsby, or The Catcher in the Rye, or even Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry. You hate the way it was taught and the interpretation that was force-fed to you like a fois gras goose. You hate the total lack of freedom you had, the seeming randomness of the mark you were given for writing virtually the same thing as everyone else.

Now, it has to be allowed that some people just don’t like English as a subject. Fair enough. But I would say that, for the majority of people who proclaim how bad English was in high school and how they loathed the books they read or were force-fed, their real issue lies with the teaching, not with the books. Still not convinced? Go back and read your high school literature. Read it cover to cover. Then tell me I’m wrong and you still hate the books.  

[Gabriel Rutherford – @niemalsallein_]

[Image credit: Free-Photos/]

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