We love books., in general. There will, however, be exceptions. That’s especially true of assigned reading from school. We delve into our pasts to remember the books that made us growl, fuss, and contemplate violent acts against Ernest Hemingway.
What required reading in school did you absolutely despise?
J. Kathleen Cheney
To be honest, practically everything. I spent most of my high school career trying to get out of reading authors like Conrad and Hemingway and Faulkner. I suppose that my second runner up was Moby Dick, which will, no doubt, meet with gasps from some people. It simply didn’t make sense to me. This was followed by Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, which I found annoying because I found the narration manipulative. (I especially disliked that we didn’t learn the guy’s name.) My crown for Worst Torture of High School Students, however, goes to Steinbeck’s “The Red Pony”, which is eighty pages of a horse dying slowly and a kid feeling miserable about it.
Essentially, I discovered early that I didn’t like what most English Majors consider ‘deep’ or ‘important’ works of fiction. They tended to be depressing, which is simply Not My Thing.
And thank heavens for my college English prof who taught Literature: Fiction who taught Tolkien and L’Amour and let me do my reports on The Mabinogion. and Gillian Bradshaw.
My math book.
People in my family are notoriously good at math and engineering. Unlike them, I knew myself to be terrible at it. I focused on art and English. Took the algebra class with the goofy word problems, not calculus. A high school teacher (a kind soul, Mr. Maas) went so far as to pull me aside to talk DaVinci and show me how an artist could also be a mathematician. He was convinced — possibly because he’d taught my sister (now a world-class naval architect and marine engineer [whoops, sorry, proud sister moment]) by then — that all he needed to do was overcome my resistance and I would happily devour numbers like a good member of my clan.
Amusingly, the minute I learned I could automate an animation in Flash using algorithms, or build something really cool in php, I was All Over the Math. And I was good at it, too, most of the time. It took programming and lots of it to help me overcome my fear. Now I love it quite a lot.
Dear Mr. Maas, thank you for trying. Sorry I was late to class.
I went to the same high school as Ernest Hemingway, and so naturally our teachers beat us half to death with Hemingway. I bore a grudge against that man for years.
Today, The Old Man and the Sea is one of my favorite books. When I teach a class on writing some day, it will be required reading. I could talk for ten minutes about the first sentence alone. He accomplishes so much with it.
But in high school, I wanted to replace the bronze bust we’d pass as we walked through the front door. Instead of a bust of ruggedly handsome middle-aged Hemingway, I wanted end-of-life Hemingway, which is to say Hemingway with his mouth open, the back of his head hollowed out, and a bunch of melted bronze splattered on the wall behind it.
Sorry, a little too much? That’s how much I hated Hemingway.
Lawrence M. Schoen
Once again, Steve Bein seems to be reading my mind. My first thought was to talk write bout Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, one of many novels forced upon the 12-year old me in Mrs. Byers 7th Grade Honors English class. To this day, all I can recall from the book is the eponymous protagonist’s fondness for Joe DeMaggio and his incessant whining about how he “wished the boy was here.”
But the more I thought about it, the more another book from that same class intruded on my awareness, blocking out all rational thought. I refer of course to George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Now, what makes this particularly ironic is that the book I have sitting on my editor’s desk at Tor right now originally had the elevator pitch of “Dune meets Animal Farm as it’s a far future adventure set in a galaxy full of anthropomorphic animals. But irony aside, I just didn’t get what Orwell was selling. I followed the power struggle. I loved that bit about “all animals are equal, and some are more equal than others,” and it probably contributed in some small way to pushing me down the road toward a fascination with language and linguistics. But — and I cannot stress this strongly enough — every fricking bit of allegory went completely over my head. Communism? Seriously?
I should add that it’s not just the book itself that put it to the #1 spot on this list, but the book report that followed in Mrs. Byers’s class. And not my book report, that was fine (so far as it went). It was the horror and confusion that followed when another kid got up to do his report on the same book, and the elaborate explanations of pigs as communists that flowed form his lips, using vocabulary that he’d never demonstrated before and wouldn’t again for years. Yeah, and I don’t doubt that his parents helped him build that working volcano for science class later in the year.
Charles E. Gannon
The required reading that I found most aversive were all “theory” tracts, and so, while they were often picayune in their objects and habits of analysis, they were also written from that fever-pitch of earnestness that typifies many of the “must read” critical works that populate masters and doctoral program lists. Specific titles and authors elude me now—for which I am thankful.
Many of these treatises were hypertrophied (not to say bloated and fatuous) explications of “critical apparatuses” so extraordinary lofty and finely nuanced that the authors had to invent whole new vocabularies to express them. And by inventing that vocabulary, the author conveniently created a special kind of unassailable authority. I’ll call out two disciplines to illustrate: social psychology and literary theory.
For every practical and empirical in social psychology, there seems to be another whose imagination and sense of utility are both moribund. So they hide their paucity of worthy content in a deep and trackless thicket of terms, taxonomies, and distinctions so fine and so unnecessary that it makes the classic debate about how many angels may dance on the head of a pin sound like white-coated lab science.
In the domain of literary criticism, something similar started increasing as the theoretical vigor of post-modernism and deconstruction began sliding down into decrepitude. Nervous doctoral candidates and untenured assistant professors began mining the far reaches (not to say howlingly obscure corners) of their fields in search of something optimally recondite/byzantine. Lacanian and Foucauldian theory in fusional critical apparatuses, for instance. The agonizingly esoteric arguments resembled those between computer code jockeys over the respective merits of different programming languages and architectures, resulting in debates that were of interest to–maybe–63 people on the face of the planet.
No wonder I forgot the names and titles of the specific assignments—or maybe I suppressed them to get past the resentment of having to act as if all these emperors of theory were, in fact, wearing new clothes.
Dr. Charles E. Gannon’s current Nebula-nominated novel, Fire with Fire, was a best-seller and is also a finalist for the Compton Crook Award for best first novel. It is the first volume of an interstellar epic that continues in the forthcoming sequel, Trial by Fire (August 2014). Gannon is coauthor with Steve White of Extremis, the latest entry in the Starfire series created by David Weber, and 1635: The Papal Stakes, a Wall Street Journal Best-Seller in Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire universe. He has numerous shorter publications in shared world series, anthologies, and Analog. As part of his ongoing work with various defense and intelligence organizations (Pentagon, Air Force, NATO, others), Gannon was invited to present sections of Fire with Fireat the NRO, as well as highlights from his non-fiction book Rumors of War and Infernal Machines(winner of the 2006 ALA Choice award, Best Book of 2006). A multiple Fulbright scholar, Gannon is also Distinguished Professor of American Literature at St. Bonaventure University.
James L. Cambias
I had the advantage of going to one of New Orleans’s better schools, Isidore Newman School, and now that I can see what my own kids are reading in school I realize how good the reading list at Newman was. But there was one exception.
In my freshman year of high school, back in 1981, the theme of the English class was “coming of age.” We read Lord of the Flies and Romeo and Juliet and Henry IV, Part II. All excellent stories of young people finding their place and role in the world. I learned a lot in that class; that was my first real exposure to Shakespeare’s works.
But for some reason, among all those classics, we were also handed a little paperback collection of short stories about “youth in rebellion” or something like that. I forget the title, but it had groovy early-Seventies cover art and featured stories like “The Bike” by Alan Sillitoe and John Updike’s “A&P,” and I’m pretty sure there were some excerpts from S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders in it as well.
I’m not entirely sure why someone thought that stories of young people struggling with authority figures would resonate with a bunch of affluent, brainy kids in a private prep school in New Orleans. My classmates were authority figures in training — one of them became a city councilwoman, a couple of others now run some of the city’s big businesses. A lot of them became lawyers. Not a hotbed of angry youth. Our brushes with rebellion mostly consisted of trying to sneak into the college bars around Tulane despite being underage.
Now, the stories in that little paperback were fine. Whoever put the collection together obviously picked excellent selections. It was the purpose of the anthology, and the reason for assigning it which I despised. Apparently some editor decided that “today’s youth” circa 1978 couldn’t relate to fiction which wasn’t about contemporary teenagers. And my teachers, though they put Shakespeare and Golding on the lesson plan, apparently bought into that notion.
It irritated me, and it irritates me still, because I couldn’t avoid the impression that my teachers were trying to apply their Baby Boomer-era template of “youth rebellion” to my own Generation X cohort. We weren’t rebels; when my friends watched The Graduate our universal reaction was “take the plastics job, you idiot!” In their painstaking effort to reach out to “today’s youth” the teachers only demonstrated how little they understood our actual concerns.
The result was a paradox. If my teachers were trying to encourage myself and my fellow students to be rebels, as they liked to imagine themselves to have been, then we defied them by refusing to do so.
James L. Cambias writes SF and designs games. Originally from New Orleans, he lives in western Massachusetts. His stories have appeared in F&SF, Shimmer, Nature, and several original anthologies. A Darkling Sea, his first novel, came out in January 2014. Mr. Cambias has written for GURPS, Hero Games, and other roleplaying systems, and is a partner in Zygote Games. He is a member of the notorious Cambridge SF Workshop. Read his blog at www.jamescambias.com.
High school freshmen reading material is very depressing. My class read through Romeo and Juliet, Antigone, and the William Golding book Lord of the Flies. In case you haven’t read that novel of doom and gloom, it’s about English school boys on a desert isle who lose all their civilized senses and descend into their primitive, baser selves. Rather like going to high school, just without the profanity and innuendo. One of the boys–the most sane of the lot–is dubbed Piggy. He’s fat, and has glasses, and is treated like dirt… and I related to him strongly. I felt like the female equivalent of Piggy at my school.
I won’t say what happens to Piggy.
I enjoyed my social studies class–I had a great teacher, Mr. McCaw–and loved reading. But wow, did I hate that book. Lord of the Flies mirrored what I saw around me, and it was neither pretty or hopeful. It’s the first book I remember reading where I thought, “Wow. I hate all of these characters. Rocks need to fall and kill all of them… except Piggy.” Then I kept reading.
I had my share of less-than-favorite authors in school. Any unit on the Romantic poets was always especially tough to stomach, though eventually I learned to get through it with mental MST3K. (“Dad, I had a feeling today!” “Well, don’t, son.”)
But it wasn’t until I was in college that I met a Liberal Art that I absolutely could not master. I’m not ashamed to say that Aristotle punched me in the breadbasket, Descartes kicked out the back of my knees, and Nietzsche smashed a chair over my back. I was used to sobbing in frustration over differential equations and stoichiometry, but it was AMAZING to me how completely my powers of “reading words on a page and having an MLA-format Deep Thought about them” failed me in philosophy. Kierkegaard, you are my Kryptonite.
I would like to end with some Eye of the Tiger stuff here, but the short story is that I buckled like a belt, took Mexican Politics instead, and can converse at length about the damaging effects of “toallagate” on the Fox administration. Let’s call that a win.