The ones that got away

Sometimes it’s easy to predict Future Success Stories–like the determined teen scanning the shelves for AP reading list titles a couple of days ago.  She was heading out with only one; I asked whether she wouldn’t like to consider taking another choice or two.  That way, she’d have a backup plan in the unlikely event that she didn’t bond with book #1.

“That’s OK”, she said.  “This one is under 300 pages, so I know I can force myself to read it whether I’m enjoying it or not.”

She will likely congratulate herself on having picked The Life of Pi, but the encounter got me thinking about other mandated titles that failed to score with individuals. 

I spend my days among library staffers and book club members–exactly the sort of folks who would have appreciated Julius Caesar, Silas Marner, Beowulf, David Copperfield, The Scarlet Letter, and all the other greats commonly assigned in high school.  Even these readers, I suspected, harbored a grudge or two about that rare volume of literary canon fodder that left them cold or that they just couldn’t finish.    

So I asked.   Predictably, the extremely literate types I polled unanimously reported overall enjoyment of those high school standbys.   Our English teachers obviously knew what they were about–with a few notable misses.    Because the mini-rants listed below were contributed by literature lovers who view most classics as life-enriching and wonderful, they are all the more amusing:

  • “I hated Charles Dickens. I thought Great Expectations was extremely boring (8th grade). A Tale of Two Cities was incomprehensible.”

  • “It can be charming to dig through all that Victorian-speak to find something likable, but in the case of Great Expectations--more like opening thoroughly wrapped birthday presents to find them filled with fire ants.”

  • “I think the entire Jane Austen body of work is a snore.”

  • The Grapes of Wrath: “dustily depressing”, “pretty tedious”

  • Don Quixote: “Meh.”

  • Catcher in the Rye: “I must be missing something. Does anyone else think this book is highly overrated?”

  • “Totally agree about Catcher in the Rye. Dialog was horrible. Plot okay by standards back then. Characters had little or no appeal and were certainly nothing like anyone I knew even before their ‘situation’ appeared.”

  • The Old Man and the Sea: “BORING.”

  • Little Women: “Stupid.”

  • “I was never able to get through Moby Dick.”

  • A Separate Peace: “The sub-plots were a muddle to my mind, and I had no interest in the coming of age of snotty, preppy teenage boys–a sentiment I carry to this day.”

  • “The book I liked the least (actually hated) was The Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne. I found it boring and too detailed.”

  • Silas Marner: “…very depressing.”

I’m a fan of ornate prose, myself.  I love Henry James and consider George Eliot’s Middlemarch to be a page-turner.  The title that I alone seem to loathe is The Hobbit, and you can forget about Lord of the Rings.  Thinking that the first LOTR movie might change my mind, I accompanied my family to the film.  Listening to my mutterings in the vein of “couldn’t someone just buy them a ring?”, they must have wished they’d left me at home with a large volume of Dickens.

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