My Rage Against Mandatory Reading

Rat in a Cage Lyrics

…reading the books THEY told me to read!

Sure, I’ll never forget reading Elie Wiesel’s Night or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in my sophomore honors English class in high school.  Damn shit changed my life.  Even my mopey, proto-goth, depressed sniveling brat self at the “all-knowing” and “all the world sucks” age of fifteen could see this stuff was da bomb and preaching the truth.

But, damn, the OTHER shit we were forced to read in high school scarred me for me life and left me with a counter-productive psychological aversion to anything labeled as mandatory reading…to the point that it took nearly fifteen years before I got over the mandatory reading stigma and finally devoured Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (so clearly one of the greatest novels of all time).  However, despite years of literary therapy and my successful relationship with those wrathful wine pellets, I still to this day absolutely REFUSE to read Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.  Yes, I still have the nerve to refuse to read Salinger!  S-A-L-I-N-G-E-R!!! (But I might go see that doc about him.)  These classics of mandatory reading somehow slipped through the cracks at my high school, but because they have been mandatory reading for just about every other teen in America over the past sixty odd years, I’ve avoided them unfairly in my adult years.

Why you ask?  Because the following were mandatory reading during my teenage years…and I’ll never forget the pain these books put me through.

Behold, the king of them all, the most egregious piece of mandatory reading I suffered through in my days of delicate youth, a book that almost ruined my love for reading:

Chaim Potok’s The Chosen.

Hey, Potok was by all measures a pretty cool cat and said some righteously wise things like, “All great literature arises from culture clash.”  Sure, dude, that makes sense…but, wait….hold up….YOUR idea of culture clash was a Hasidic Jewish boy trying to be friends with just a regular old Orthodox Jewish boy?  Really?  To you culture clash was THAT insular and short-sighted?  Wow.  There was absolutely nothing I could relate to in this story.  NOTHING.  I HATE HATE HATED IT.  But, Potok, you still a’right, man – just wish you had looked outside of your neighborhood a bit to see how diverse and clashing the great big wide world really is.  And it’s not all about you.  (It’s about me, duh!)

Hold up, though, because then there was Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels.  I recall this being close to 500 pages long (by far the biggest thing I had ever read at the time), but it might as well have been 5000 pages long.  The entire class was incensed over being forced to read this…I mean why waste our time on a book when there was a perfectly good and boring 4-hour film adaptation we could sleep through?  I actually was, and still am, a bit of a history buff and enjoyed learning about The Civil War back then.  But this was overkill – an overly detailed chronicle of what seemed like ever single person who fought in Gettysburg.  This was an absolute slog to get through, and there was many a bad poetry written in the book’s margins to kill my boredom and elicit laughs from my suffering comrades.

And then there was another true blue classic…Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.  For whatever reason, there was a lot of snickering going on when the class read this…as we were juvenile morons…we, for some reason, became convinced there were hot and heavy homosexual overtones in Remarque’s obsessive descriptions of nubile young men getting battered in war.  To this day, I have no idea if those over or undertones existed at all in the novel, or if it was just a bunch of ignorant kids giggling at physical descriptions of fit young men and the emotional pain they went through when coming home after battle.  I have no clue if this book was good or not – clearly its strong anti-war message has echoed over the generations – but I recall this was a major chore to get through and I was actually disappointed as I thought it would be a good book (unlike my predisposed hatred of other books I was forced to read in school).  I wanted to like this one.  I just didn’t.  In fact, I despised it.  And I still feel kinda guilty about it.

Now it’s time for your spin…so what books were you forced to read in your youth that you still hate to this day?

Don’t be scared.  There’s no shame.

You’re amongst friends here.

Come out into the light of day and share your personal truths about alleged great pieces of literature and mandatory reading in the comments form!

Wildly off-base opinions and weird psychological literary hang-ups by David H. Schleicher

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8 comments on “My Rage Against Mandatory Reading

  1. Megan O. says:

    Beowulf and it’s parallel – Grendel – which was a more modern novel. I honestly can’t recall much of either story, but the aversion to them remains etched in my memory. I also have never read “The Catcher in the Rye” or “To Kill A Mockingbird” for the same reasons you mention above.

    Freshman year of college I had to read “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe…talk about depressing!

  2. Good topic, Dave. I too had some up and down experiences with required reading. Some of my favorites were “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “The Outsiders,” and “The Diary of Anne Frank.” I also remember having one of those gigantic hardback Houghton Mifflin readers that had a Twilight Zone script in it. That was pretty cool.

    As for the bad, I have to go with my HS sophomore year experience with what I call the John Steinbeck “Trilogy of Overrated Crapola” that consisted of The Pearl, The Red Pony, and—I know I’m in the minority for hating this but I do, oh how I hate it—Of MIce and Men. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was also excruciating. And Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle—one of the most depressing books EVER and one of the strangest endings ever as well. That’s really all I remember about it.

    I do like CATCHER, though. I found that book on my own and enjoyed it. Salinger’s short stories, however, are very hit-or-miss.

    • Hey, Chris! You know, the only Steinbeck I ever read was The Grapes of Wrath – and that was magnificent. I recall having that trilogy you speak of on my bookshelf as a teenager, but if I tried to read it, I never finished or remembered it.

      Spoil it for me, I know what The Jungle was about, but what was THAT ending?

      • Basically, the grim realism that characterized the first 2/3rd’s of the book pretty much vanishes, and it becomes about how the main character embraces socialism, but it’s written in an almost Capra-esque fashion, complete with crowds of people shouting “Yay Socialism!” That’s not verbatim, but that’s how I remember it. It really threw me off.

  3. Sam Juliano says:

    I like CATCHER more than you David, but I can certainly see the problems. I also consider Remarque’s ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT is a flat out masterpiece and I have taught it with ninth graders on two occasions. I love THE GRAPES OF WRATH and of course TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, but never saw MANCHILD IN THE PROMISED LAND as the literary gem that some liken it as. BLACK BOY and NATIVE SON are quite good though.

    Three other books I have taught are supreme personal favorites:

    A SEPARATE PEACE by John Knowles
    LORD OF THE FLIES by William Golding
    BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN by Glendon Swarthout

    Great post.

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