Little Girls and Big Books


Urgency Day: 478

500 Things Items 23-25: The Scarlet Letter, The Awakening, Jane Eyre

  • Sam’s public school fees paid for them
  • 3 more checkmarks under “cultural literacy”
  • Sam gleefully contributed them
  • Donations to Sam’s book drive

Do you have warm and fuzzy memories of reading 19th century novels in high school?

Neither does Sam.

Boy oh boy, did he love Slaughterhouse 5. That book really grabbed him. Ditto To Kill a Mockingbird, Oedipus, Twelfth Night, Ender’s Game… I could go on and on. But the 19th century workhorses of the typical bourgeois American high school English class? Having read a number of them now, Sam says a polite but firm, “Not my cup of tea, no.” And here’s a few for your book drive.

Sam’s mama was an English major and also the little sister of a voracious reader. When books such as these were assigned in classes, I was already familiar with them. Perhaps not from having read them, though occasionally from having seen a movie version, but aware at least of their titles and respected status.

When I say I was familiar even though I hadn’t read them, this does not adequately represent my level of intimacy with these titles.

My sister is a few of years older than me. She left for college far sooner than I was prepared for. In her absence, I took some comfort in hanging out in her room and sleeping in her bed. It was wondrous to lie there, on my stomach, propped up on my elbows and read, no absorb, all the titles of all the books she had lined up, in alphabetical order, along her headboard-bookshelves. This, I knew, was what it meant to be educated: Reading all these books. These books. They were the keys.

On some holiday or occasion, our parents had given her a set of books, “The One Hundred Greatest Books.” They were, to be frank, cheap paperbacks which fell apart at the first reading, but it didn’t matter. The rubber bands which held together the finished volumes were validations, check-marks on the path to worthiness and a true liberal education.

The titles are still etched on my brain. To this day, if I see a book that was in that collection, I still conjure the font, the heft, the jacket blurb from that edition. And when I come across other books that have since become accepted as part of the classical canon, I honestly deem them “Johnny-come-latelys.” Of course I have evolved. I am relieved and thrilled that the canon has expanded beyond dead white guys and a couple of Bronte sisters, and that now my son’s reading list includes Vonnegut and Lee and Card.

But in my school days, when my teachers assigned The Return of the Native, Hard Times and The Portrait of a Lady, I already knew these were classics, these were Good Books. They had the imprimatur of the rubber bands.

But what I couldn’t figure out for a long time was, once I actually read them, why didn’t I, you know, like them? These books, which were included in The One Hundred Greatest Books for heaven’s sake, these were classics! Surely that meant they had gone through some sort of official vetting process, where all subjectivity was eliminated and what you were left with was the essence, the purity of Great and therefore good Literature.

What was I missing?

I still squirm a bit with betrayal when I say I don’t like these books. I quibble and say, oh I see the artistry, or in their historic context, the freshness of their perspectives, or their influence on ideas and other writers. But that’s quite different from saying, “I like these books.”

In fact, I do still like all these books. I like about them exactly what I liked when I was a lonely eight-year old, lying on her beloved absent sister’s bed, staring at those wondrous titles and dreaming of someday being able to say I had read all the classics, all one hundred of them. Sure I like the promise they hold of stories and adventures, but also I crave the certainty of a definitive and finite path to rigorous enlightenment. A path– and a reading list– I am very much still on. But most of all,  I like their connection to my Donna.

And now I really admire that Sam has no pulls on his inner critic.

No equivocating: he just didn’t like them.

End of story.


3 Responses to “Little Girls and Big Books”

  1. I remember years ago when the nation discussed “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” a debate over why boys don’t like to read. The best argument I heard was that Johnny can read, he just doesn’t want to read what you’re assigning him.

    Oh, did I hate “Jane Eyre,” my high-school freshman lit assignment. Turned me off literature for years. It wasn’t until I discovered 20th Century American and Latin American fiction that I got turned back on. The unintended of result of my re-engagement was that I can now read “Pride and Prejudice” and absolutely adore it. BTW, read P&P on my Kindle as a free download, so it doesn’t count in the 250 book project.

  2. Donna Says:

    From another planet: “Jane Eyre” was the first one of those kind of books that I did read and love. And boy did I read it, or certain parts of it, over and over again. It was my romantic high every night, long before I was able to have a glass of wine with my husband or pop a favorite movie in the DVD player for the fifteenth time. However, while I envy those high school students who are assigned that book in English class today (which I, sadly, never was), I also recognize that many students, especially males, will not react favorably to what is a rather long chick-book. I am very happy to see current students being asked to read “current” books. They stand a much greater chance of becoming lifelong readers this way, and certainly the themes and vocabulary to be explored in more recent books are every bit as enlightening and informing (I would say more so) as what we were asked to read forty years ago.
    Truth moment: I love my sister for loving me and my 100 greatest books collection. But it needs to be said that I actually read only a small percentage of them. Staring at all of those titles and authors and reading the blurbs on the backs, however, made for great Trivial Pursuit prep.

  3. Sean Says:

    The trick is to skim, not read. [Pause for shocked gasps from the teachers in the crowd.] I was assigned a summer-crushing list between 9th and 10th grade: Tale of Two Cities, The Iliad, Les Miserables, Moby Dick, Last of the Mohicans. Trudged my way through Mohicans (great tale, impossible to read), then Les Mis, started finding myself reading whole chapters while thinking of something else. Would have been a great trick had I retained anything of them. In Two Cities, I started skipping, reading only the first few paragraphs of every chapter and the first couple of lines of each section, and the final paragraph of each chapter. It was so much less onerous that I continued thus for the rest of the list. Come the first weeks of school and comprehension tests, I invariable scored much better on the books I skimmed. Lesson learned: if the material is too thick to wade through, become Legolas.

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