Sometimes, I develop an unsavory connection with certain books through no fault of the book itself. I’m talking mainly about books that have been forced down my throat by teachers until my gag reflex activated, metaphorically. That’s a pretty hard thing to pull off with a book lover like me. Still, there are some books I refuse to speak to after a bad experience like that. Some, though, I’ve learned to love again. I’ll share a couple of those titles with you so you can learn from my harrowing journey from hate to love, or at least tolerance, in the world of required texts.
The Scarlet Letter
Everyone gets forced to read this for American lit in high school, and I’ve never heard one person say they were happy about it. Your English teacher just shoves this pilgrim book down your throat because they want to pretend there were real American authors before Mark Twain, (not that I know lots of high school kids who loved Mark Twain either.)
For me, it was especially bad, because I had that book taught to me by one of the most wretched and foul English teachers I’d ever had in my life. I remember one day, when she was absent and we had a sub, I happily doodled her flying around a village like an evil specter, sucking the souls out of virgins to stay young, which is what I imagined she was doing with her day off.
Really, though, when I don’t have an evil demon teaching it to me, I can say Nathaniel Hawthorne isn’t a bad writer. I later had to read a short story by him, Young Goodman Brown, and I felt his work really gave deep emotional insight into the lives of our weird and almost kinkily prudish ancestors. Yeah, you wear that red letter. You’ve been a bad girl, haven’t you, you dirty puritan you. I heard you showed someone your ankles in the woods last night, you slut! We Americans need to remember our very sexually confused and repressed roots.
The first time I read this long-ass poem, (what the ancients called an “epic,” I believe,) I had no problem with it. I mean, there’s some cultural and historical divides you have to work through when reading the oldest know English language text known to man, but it was nothing I wasn’t up for, especially when the protagonist gets to fight weird troll monsters and dragons.
Then, I had to read it again, and again, and again. I think, all told, I’ve had four different teachers assign and teach Beowulf to me, in high school and college. I guess being the first known written story in the English language, (not that you could recognize it as English; it’s so flipping old,) makes it important, but come on. Four freaking times?
The more I read it, the more I felt sorry for the first bad guy Beowulf kills, Grendel. It says right in the text itself that Grendel just didn’t like how much noise the crazy partying Danish guys were making in their new Hall, partying like some Skyrim frat pledges. “Hey guys, could you keep it down? It’s after quiet hours” was basically my catchphrase during my freshman year of college. I like it quiet. Granted, I’ve yet to go on a murder spree to quiet dastardly partying college students, but until I go through my last midterm and finals week, I’m not ruling anything out.
Neil Gaiman saved me from hating this admittedly thrilling poem forever with his short story, The Monarch of the Glen. It was a really good, slightly skewed retelling of Beowulf, because retelling classic legends on, but telling them slant, is what God put Gaiman’s beautifully messy head on this green earth to do.
Pride and Prejudice:
This one I haven’t even ever had to read for a class. Maybe if I was British I would have, but I guess Scarlet Letter or Catcher in the Rye got shoved in its place instead. No, it wasn’t a teacher that ruined it, it was the people who presented the book to me.
I’m still pretty convinced that, if they find out you are a female English major who hasn’t read and looooooooved Pride and Prejudice, they will put you to death. Don’t ask me who, just, they. The judgers, the same ones who will only give me another year or so before they put me down for not reading Ulysses.
That, plus the way girls like to geek out over Austen books nauseates me sometimes.
Specifically, I’m talking about a very specific form 0f Austen geek out that always reminded me too strongly of my Twilight phase. Basically, how some women idolize the romantic interest and giggle while buying up all the “Team Darcy” paraphernalia always made me want to gag. I knew, realistically, a book that had been read for hundreds of years would have more going for it than a lead man who simply must be portrayed by Colin Firth, from now and forever unto the end of time, but I just really didn’t want to read a book it seemed most people only liked for the totes dreamy lead, especially after I realized how truly infantile Twilight was. That association just left a bad taste in my mouth, especially when they did that weird thing when the reprinted classic romances, like P&P, Jane Eyre, and even Romeo and Juliet, to have Twilight-like covers, with same font and everything. That made me feel like I was watching a parent trying to feed their kid broccoli and spinach chopped up into brownies.
Then, I made myself actually read the book, and found out it was, in fact, a better love story than Twilight, and not just in the sad and pathetic meme way that phrase implies. There are some genuinely well rounded characters, and relationships that explore issues of willful ignorance put up in a person’s head by the two title elements. I guess “Team Darcy” fits better on a t-shirt better than “Team in-depth exploration of willful biases involving, gender, class, and other preconceived notions about a person.” You’d use up all your rhinestones trying to bedazzle that.
Hopefully these three success stories will help you learn to love some classics you’ve been to hard on, especially the ones you haven’t spoken to since high school. Go on, try them again with an open mind and heart. You might be glad you did.