Metatalktail Hour: reading from school: your retrospective April 2, 2021 6:57 PM   Subscribe

What was your required reading in school? Did you have any strong opinions, good or bad experiences? Did you discover a favorite author or were you impressed by some insight in class discussion? Poetry in class: yes, no, or "please don't call on me to read aloud"? Any and all reflection on "reading for school" welcome. Bonus: as a USian, I'm really curious about what MeFites from other countries read that was considered "standard literature" for teenagers. If there's a piece of literature you could ask a roomful of strangers for their opinion on, based on time at school, what would it be? (In the US, it's Animal Farm, or To Kill a Mockingbird.)

Secret bonus: non-USians, should I give that book/author/etc a try?
posted by snerson to MetaFilter-Related at 6:57 PM (93 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

I absolutely love this question. A few years ago I started asking all my friends and relatives who grew up in other countries (than mine) this, and then seeking out English translations and reading their Novels Everyone Reads in High School. Most people found it a very quixotic* pursuit but indulged me with recommendations, and with talking about them afterwards. I was inspired by my BFF's husband, who is Norwegian and moved to the US as an adult, who found that buying a kindle opened up a whole new world to him, where he could read novels in English and just tap words and idioms to have them defined in both languages instead of having to use a Norwegian-English dictionary, which meant he could tear through novels in English instead of laboriously working through them. His first was "The Great Gatsby" because it was The Big Read that year and everyone was talking about it, and then "Huck Finn," "because everyone always talks about reading it in high school."

Anyway he gave me a Norwegian list when I began and I particularly liked En Glad Gut by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, which, not all that much HAPPENS in the book? But the protagonist just kind of Good-Lutheran-boys, wholesome-rural-values his way to happiness and it was really nice.

I'd call the standard-est American high school books "The Great Gatsby," "The Scarlet Letter," and (at least excerpts from) "On Walden Pond." (Simplify, simplify, simplify!) I think you're right about Mockingbird but I am like the one American I know who didn't read that in high school, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I always really enjoyed reading in junior high and high school, poetry or prose, I was a diligent finisher of novels, so I think I finished them all. The two I really DISliked were "Billy Budd" (Moby Dick is so much better, I get why it's not read in high school, it's very long, but stilllllll) and "A Prayer for Owen Meany," which I thought was over-obvious (if you give us a crucifixion metaphor in the first five pages, CLEARLY someone's going to Jesus it up for others' redemption, it's not a surprise) and juvenile (John Irving, in all his novels: "Hee hee, heterosexual sex is trangressive and dirty! Boobs! Hee hee!"), but to each their own.

I really liked Kate Chopin's "The Awakening" from American lit. From non-American-lit years, I was particularly fond of Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment," Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart," Par Lagerkvist's "The Dwarf," and W. Somerset Maugham's "Of Human Bondage," which I got into a passionate dispute about the ending with most of the rest of my class (I did not think it was a happy ending). My junior year English teacher (who was a real martinet!) wanted to do "The Prince of Tides" with us and told us it was the only book she'd ever had refused by the curriculum committee (so of course we all went and read it on our own, as she no doubt intended).

My book club read "The Great Gatsby" when it was The Big Read -- we had all read it in high school and not since -- and it was really interesting to re-read as adults and see how it hit us differently. We actually then went through and each picked our favorite "typical high school book" and spend several months rereading them, and it was pretty great and interesting.

*(see what I did there?)
posted by Eyebrows McGee (staff) at 7:44 PM on April 2 [4 favorites]


Did you discover a favorite author

Better still, I discovered my English teacher’s favourite author. Mr Rees was a Welshman who had grown up in Swansea, the same city as Dylan Thomas, and admired him to the point of idolatry. We learned that we could avoid a tedious examination of the themes of redemption in The Mayor of Casterbridge, let’s say, by making an inquiry as to whether the point was addressed in Under Milk Wood or Deaths and Entrances and Thomas Hardy would be forgotten.

Anyway: every year of secondary school had a different Shakespeare — in order, I recall it was Merchant of Venice, Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth(?), and King Lear. Too many short stories to recall... literally, the only title I can dredge up readily four decades later is Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. There was a mess of twentieth-century novels as well, with a curious overrepresentation of Orwell — Animal Farm was in there, and through Gen-X happenstance, we covered 1984 in 1984. Lord of the Flies was in there as well.

There were a few Canadian novels as this was Canada — The Stone Angel and Surfacing and at least one more that I have struggled for five minutes to recall title or author. Bit of mid-twentieth-century UK science fiction too: Day of the Triffids, at least, and I think The Chrysalids, which gives a possibly undue weight to John Wyndham.

As to what you should read that you might not otherwise encounter... I don’t much recommend Mayor of Casterbridge. Surfacing was good, but Atwood went on to write several better works in my view (that was her first, but I was out of school by the time the other ones were coming out). Shirley Jackson likewise had some more solid works I found later, on my own.

Note: I am guessing you’re aiming mostly at English. We read a few things in French as well, which do not always translate well (heh) but I heartily recommend Roch Carrier’s short story Le chandail de hockey, translated by Sheila Fischman as The Hockey Sweater. It was made into a charming animated 10-minute short, read by Carrier himself — you can find it on YouTube under its title The Sweater.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:44 PM on April 2 [3 favorites]


My jr year/5th form* English teacher kicked off the year with Bruce Sterling’s “We See Things Differently” which felt (i was in his class 92/93) eerily prescient. We ended the year with a one/two punch of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude. And I have never forgotten either.

*I went to US boarding school that adopted a lot of UK terminology, sometimes kind of incorrectly.
posted by thivaia at 8:10 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]


Worst required reading: The House of the Seven Gables
Best: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

In AP English we used Sound and Sense, an absolutely wonderful book about poetry. It introduced me to some great poems I've loved ever since and helped me understand what made them great. Reading it was one of the best educational experiences of my life.

I liked Silas Marner a lot, but it wasn't actually assigned. We were given a book that had both Steinbeck's The Pearl and Silas Marner in it. (They have similar themes.) But we were only assigned The Pearl. The questions at the back of the book about Silas Marner piqued my interest so I ended up reading it and liking it a lot better than The Pearl.
posted by Redstart at 8:20 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]


My 11th grade English teacher was my favorite teacher ever. In her class we read The House of the Spirits, Native Son, The Awakening, 100 Years of Solitude, and (incredibly for a public school) The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which immediately became the favorite book of myself and most of my friends. The year before she taught The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle which I read because of her and also loved.

We also read The Scarlet Letter, which she straight-up told us was not that fun a read but had extremely obvious metaphors and symbolism, and so was a good starter text for literary analysis. I appreciated that straightforwardness!

I also remember several poems she taught. We did Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, which was amazing. Preludes by TS Elliot, which might have my favorite use of meter ever:

And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.

And then the lighting of the lamps.


But the one that sticks with me most is Any Human to Another by Countee Cullen, which I like so much I'll just go ahead and post the whole thing:

The ills I sorrow at
Not me alone
Like an arrow,
Pierce to the marrow,
Through the fat
And past the bone.

Your grief and mine
Must intertwine
Like sea and river,
Be fused and mingle,
Diverse yet single,
Forever and forever.

Let no man be so proud
And confident,
To think he is allowed
A little tent
Pitched in a meadow
Of sun and shadow
All his little own.

Joy may be shy, unique,
Friendly to a few,
Sorrow never scorned to speak
To any who
Were false or true.

Your every grief
Like a blade
Shining and unsheathed
Must strike me down.
Of bitter aloes wreathed,
My sorrow must be laid
On your head like a crown.


Ms. Joplin was the best teacher I ever had.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:23 PM on April 2 [5 favorites]


Due to some academic quirk, I ended up reading Lord Of The Flies in each of three consecutive English classes. (One was 8th grade, that’s all I know.) I confess I actually quite liked the book -unlike, it seemed, everyone else- but even then it seemed a tad excessive.
posted by Going To Maine at 10:40 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]


Hmmmm, not mentioned yet but in my high school assigned reading: Flowers for Algernon. Their Eyes Were Watching God. A Separate Peace. Ethan Frome. Beowulf. Some bits from the Canterbury Tales and the Decameron. Of Mice and Men. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello, Hamlet, ... something else that wasn’t Lear.

In middle school: The Crucible was memorable.
posted by janell at 10:41 PM on April 2


Oh, I forgot Kindred! And some Alice Walker... probably The Color Purple.
posted by janell at 10:44 PM on April 2


My UK secondary schooling "journey" defies description. Just want to log that flimsy detail here first.

At risk of 100% ID'ing myself age-wise, my English GCSE texts included On The Beach, Kes, Our Day Out, An Inspector Calls, The Merchant Of Venice and Brave New World. Maybe Gregory's Girl too. On reflection that's a surprisingly progressive selection, considering the era (class of '92, to save randos the soft-doxxing)
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 10:44 PM on April 2 [4 favorites]


Forgot to address the original question! Fallout = I now totally love variously Shakespeare, Alistair Sim, Kes and depressing sci-fi. Although tbh I was always that annoying kid who was already high on Triffids, Tripods and Very Final Brotherly Love. And Doctor Who, obvs. Append all them to the list if not assumed already!
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 10:56 PM on April 2


Shakespeare: Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, handful of sonnets. I don't much care for Shakespeare because I don't have an ear for meter-- until I read The Ode Less Traveled as an adult and could suddenly hear it, here is what happened: I would do really well on the essay and multiple choice, and fail fail fail the label-the-meter part of the exam. So an adult would sit down with me and try to explain it, but to me what I hear is a person stressing random words in an unnatural and random way. I could never figure out where they stress is (because you can put it anywhere? I'm still a little convinced that I'm right and meter is bullshit. I also still can't count musical time and survived violin lessons by listening to a recording of the piece and copying it by ear.)

So the adult would just get more and more frustrated until I pretended to hear it and failed the exam again, and then we would move on because ain't nobody got time for that. ("failing forward" is also how I learned math until college.) The only poetry I remember reading and enjoying in school were those two famous John Donne poems, the one that is basically the song Radar Love but with golden compass strings, and the one that is basically "Hey Jesus, come fuck me up." I'm not religious, and that is John Donne's whole deal, but they're still solid poems. I think they were Academic Decathlon pieces, which had overall better choices for literature.

The main problem I had is that there was a right answer and a wrong answer, and no space for interpretation. So they'd ask what I thought, and that would be wrong. Similarly, I was under orders to learn about the technique of using allusions, but not allowed to make them myself (seriously, I even tried bits of the Bible and so on that people seemed to respect, and no dice.) So I stopped having thoughts about literature, pretty much, and just got good at avoiding saying anything of substance in class. I had 3 bad English teachers and 1 good one, and stopped writing, except as a necessity until, oh, now.

Other: Ethan Frome (I remember not hating it? I don't remember what it's about), Scarlet Letter (hated it, waste of my time), A Farewell to Arms (didn't like it, shitty how he treated the girlfriend, appreciated straightforward language), A Tale of Two Cities (hated it until the last fourth, then it's a pageturner), abridged version of Great Expectations (OK), My Antonia (very good), this one memoir of a priest who quit in protest of the Vietnam War and also lost his son that I can't remember anything about but enjoying it, Jane Eyre (loved it), Wuthering Heights (garbage), Mayor of Casterbridge (pretended to read), Cry the Beloved Country (OK), Crime and Punishment (great), My Name Is Asher Lev (OK), Gift From The Sea (made me want to throw myself out a window), selected pieces of Canterbury Tales (not the dirty ones, still pretty fun), Beowulf (the 60's novelised version which, in freshman year, was the fourth time I had to read that for school), handful of romantic-era and American classic poetry (don't care for most poetry, I have very specific taste), some Thoreau (dumb) and Emerson (blowhard) and Sinners In The Hands of An Angry God (dumb, angry) and Letter from a Birmingham Jail (good), Sand County Almanac (great), Pride and Prejudice (hated everything about it, still can't read Austen), The Awakening (good), Black Boy (great, they warned us not to read the part where he becomes a communist but I did anyway and enjoyed it even more), Their Eyes Were Watching God (great), Grapes of Wrath (great), The Great Gatsby (garbage.) We were assigned Bonjour Tristesse in French and nobody could do it and the assignment was scrapped, though now I think I could get the gist. We did the gospels (it was a Catholic school) but didn't do any additional Bible reading besides Job for some reason. I'm sure I'm forgetting something. The one good English teacher gave me a signed copy of 1919 (that I lost in a move, damn!) and that was the best thing I read. Everything else good I ever read came from the library or my parents or the Internet, so ask me about that next time.

Why would you not make kids read some Wodehouse or Saki? Laughing Gas or Uneasy Money or Thank You, Jeeves or Sredni Vashtar or The Interlopers are great choices for high school kids. Fantastic use of language, c'mon, people! I would also argue that The Hound of the Baskervilles is more culturally relevant than Gift From the Sea by roughly a scale of a thousand.
posted by blnkfrnk at 11:33 PM on April 2 [3 favorites]


The ones we really spent a lot of time on in my 80s UK English class were TKAM, Romeo & Juliet and the war poems of Wilfred Owen. I think we had to know ten of his poems in depth for the new exam style they were introducing. Earlier in the syllabus we covered Of Mice & Men, Ian Seraillier's Silver Sword, Richter's Friedrich, and the Phantom Tollbooth.

I think the English national syllabus got changed to British authors only a few years ago so maybe some of those are out now.

I do remember that somehow a copy of what I think was Richard Lewis' Spiders found its way into the class library for our first year and was in demand amongst impressionable 11/12 year olds for its sex scene.
posted by biffa at 11:57 PM on April 2 [2 favorites]


I attended Catholic schools, K-12, in the US and The Merchant of Venice was required reading. For 14-year-old me, the main takeaways were: Shylock was bad; Portia was good, and the Quality of Mercy (which we had to memorize) was beautiful. Fast forward to my junior year at a public university where I decided to take a course on Shakespeare for Humanities credit. I was shocked to learn that Shakespeare was making a point about Christian hypocrisy: Shylock was the victim, Portia and her pals were smug racists, and the Q of M (which is still burned into my memory banks) was meant to mock and provoke an Old Testament dude with a New Testament prayer. It absolutely blew my mind. Talk about an Awakening.

For me, the presentation of this play by the nuns stood out as a prime example of how the Catholic church was indoctrinating me into believing something that is so obviously wrong. To this day, I’ll sometimes pick up my Riverside Shakespeare just to make sure it wasn’t the college professor who wrongly influenced me, and the hypocrisy of the Christian characters just leaps off the page.

I would love to discuss the Merchant of Venice with a room full of strangers – but even more, I’d love to discuss it with my former HS classmates. I’m assuming they remember it as a dark comedy about Shylock getting his comeuppance for wanting to hurt the good guys. It would be so great to be wrong about that.
posted by kbar1 at 12:33 AM on April 3 [7 favorites]


Growing up in Denmark in the 1980s, a lot of my school reading seemed to focus on Danish social realism from the late 1960s and 1970s: Anders Bodelsen ("Think of a number"), Dan Turèll, Bjarne Reuter. Tove Ditlevsen's "Barndommens gade" is - in my mind - firmly placed in that period too, even though it was written in 1943 about the 1930s.

I loved reading, I realised that I hated social realism. So retrospectively, I credit my school reading with turning me away from Danish books and even Danish movies for a long, long time. Which is really my loss.

I also credit it with turning me on to books in English (and the mind-blowing concept of borrowing whatever book your heart desires through the magic of inter-library loans).
posted by rawrberry at 12:52 AM on April 3 [2 favorites]


UK, 90s, GCSE (exams for 16-year-olds) - we did Lord of the Flies, Romeo & Juliet (I think at least one Shakespeare play was compulsory) and WWI poets. Pretty standard I think, and Lord of the Flies especially was a book that most would have read/studied.

I don't have any strong memories either way, though I have an abiding love of Shakespeare and still read a lot of fiction (but I'd have done that regardless of school). I didn't end up studying English, though I did do a literature-based degree in a different language. Our English teacher was later fired for having a relationship with a student.
posted by altolinguistic at 2:35 AM on April 3


We were assigned Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and Achebe's "Things Fall Apart" in, I think, the same or consecutive school years, which was an interesting backdrop for much later happening upon Achebe's An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'.
posted by busted_crayons at 3:02 AM on April 3 [3 favorites]


In the UK in the early 00s, TKAM and Lord of the Flies were still on the syllabus. We also did The Cay at some point; I'm not sure why being stranded on a desert island was such a strong theme. Romeo & Juliet was the first entire Shakespeare they made us do, followed by Twelfth Night (which I still love enduringly), followed I think by Macbeth for GCSE (TKAM was definitely the prose text at GCSE) and then Hamlet for A Level. I remember being unreasonably annoyed when the university I went to (where I also studied English) had historically chosen Hamlet at its key text for the Shakespeare paper (which I had in the bag, as far as I was concerned) for something like twenty years, except they decided that my year would be the first year to do Troilus & Cressida instead. Which, well, fuck Troilus. For some reason I find classical myth retold by medieval/early modern writers profoundly tedious compared to people from those periods telling contemporaneous stories.

Other A Level texts I remember were First World War poetry and The Miller's Tale as our obligatory Chaucer. A Level was also the last time I was paying attention, I think, as I remember my school texts much better than anything I read at university. My sister got to do Oryx & Crake for A Level and hated it, and I remember also being annoyed by that because I mostly enjoyed that trilogy apart from the bits where Atwood is trying to be too clever and it shows.

Four of our six A Level History modules were about fascism (one on the rise of Mussolini, one on Weimar Germany & the rise of Hitler and I think two about Hitler's Germany), which felt excessive at the time and then...didn't...about ten years later.

In retrospect I wish I'd studied History rather than English for undergrad; my secondary school English teachers were considerably more encouraging than my History teacher, and on top of that I made the classic error of mistaking a love of reading and writing for a love of literary criticism, when they are absolutely not the same thing. I still enjoy reading and writing a lot, but the world of academic literary criticism holds zero sparkle for me as an adult and I mostly just avoid it.
posted by terretu at 3:05 AM on April 3 [2 favorites]


A large proportion of what we had to read in my (US) high school was, I thought, incredibly boring. "The Great Gatsby", "All the King's Men", endless Mark Twain, endless Dickens. Literally endless: I have certainly seen no firsthand evidence that "Bleak House" actually ends.
posted by busted_crayons at 3:12 AM on April 3 [4 favorites]


Also, yes, George Orwell was obligatory, but none of the good stuff and certainly not the essay about Dickens. Orwell can be meh and even his more excellent essay-writing betrays some really bright-line limitations in his world-view, but I'm with him on Dickens.

(In general, the focus on the novel form in school was weird and in retrospect I would have enjoyed assigned reading a lot more if there'd been more of a focus on what's called, I think, "creative nonfiction", and essays/argumentation/polemic. It seems weird that almost everything we were asked to write in English classes, every year, was basically amateur literary criticism.)
posted by busted_crayons at 3:23 AM on April 3


The only book I recall reading for school was Great Expectations. This was in the UK and for the exams we all took at age 16. This would be 1980 for me. Loved it.

I have vague recollections of Shakespeare, including Romeo and Juliet, but I don't know if I ever read it or just listened to the teacher in class droning on about sonnets, what words meant, structure, etc.
posted by I shot a fox in Skyrim and it made me sad at 3:27 AM on April 3


Thankfully my school never bothered with classical reading or I would've been driven insane. No set books either, but per language (Dutch was obligatory, one other language out of English, French, German was also required) a list of allowed works you could read. Each of them had eithr 1, 2 or 3 points depending on percieved difficulty and length and you had to read for a certain number of points. Final results of this depended on your oral examinations.

For English I basically went through all the science fiction and fantasy (like 1984, Brave New World etc) they had on the list as well as Hamlet, because you had to read at least one Shakespeare and the ghost made it fantasy as well.

For Dutch I learned that Harry Mulisch was a rather good writer even if he droned on about the War a bit too much (like every other Dutch writer at the time), Loved Multatuli's attack on colonialism and the Dutch oppression of Indonesia in Max Havelaar as well as Huberty Lampo's De Komst van Joachim Stiller, a magical realist novel set in Antwerp.

Willem Elsschot was a school discovery as well, a Belgian writer from between the wars who wrote a short duology about a swindler who sells expensive advertorials to failing companies and his attempts to atone for his latest victim. He was fairly popular because these were such short books, but also because they were funny and not so pious as a lot of Dutch literature.
posted by MartinWisse at 4:20 AM on April 3 [2 favorites]


Growing up in the US, the only reading in school that I remember fondly was the illicit reading I did in class when I was supposed to be doing other things. English and literature class selections ranged from pointless garbage to the least interesting thing written by an interesting author. Shakespeare could have been great, if not for the quality of the discussion that followed. I remember actually getting something worthwhile from The Jungle, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Bluest Eye, Gulliver's Travels. . . and that's about it. Everything else left me wishing I could have spent time read something else instead. Not because they were challenging (I think), but because they were so universally timid. I love reading and talking about things I've read, but I worked hard to avoid ever taking an English or Literature class after high-school. It's taken twenty years to learn to respect people working in those fields without resenting them unfairly based upon my tedious classes in school.

Poetry in class was great. The average was just as dull as the novels. But, perhaps because nobody except the teacher paid attention to the details or because of the quantity that could be covered, the highlights were truly engaging and memorable.

My most frustrating school reading experience involved a very kind junior-high teacher who went out of his way after class to introduce me to Dune. He gave it to me as though it was a holy relic. I hated it. At the time, I couldn't explain why. But, I also didn't understand that you can like and respect someone while disagreeing about things they like. (A lesson many people on the internet would benefit from.) So, I lied and told him I liked it. Then he gave me the second one, and I lied and said I'd read it. Then he gave me the third. I spent the year pretending I cared about a series of novels that I hated.

I don't often interact with young people between reading age and college these days, but I try hard to remember that awkwardness when introducing things to people. Especially when I'm in a position of authority. I'm sure I fail often.
posted by eotvos at 4:28 AM on April 3 [4 favorites]


I graduated from high school in 1993.

I'm having a hard time remembering which years in high school I read most of the books I read. I do remember the summer before senior year, the required reading for AP English was William Faulkner's Light in August and then we had to select at least one other book from a list of a few choices. I chose John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. One other guy in my class chose that one, too, and we laughed about it all summer.

Oh, and freshman year was my introduction to Flannery O'Connor's short stories, among others. We also read Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and Jack London's Martin Eden, the latter of which I hated.

10th grade, I don't remember much of what we read. We might have done more creative writing in that class, 11th grade, I was really disappointed not to get into Honors English. I remember slogging through Wuthering Heights.
posted by emelenjr at 5:18 AM on April 3


I graduated from high school in 1984, having moved to the US two years earlier. In tenth grade my English teacher went rogue and assigned Golding's The Inheritors instead of Lord of the Flies. I loved it; it made me cry. I probably read Lord of the Flies later in life but it's the film version that stays with me, all soprano singing and limpid b/w imagery. In fact, just thinking about it has me singing Kyrie Elaison in a tiny little voice.
posted by Morpeth at 5:48 AM on April 3


Australian (WA to be specific, the states have independent education systems), graduated mid 90s, and I have a natural aversion to reading anything “assigned”, though I love reading otherwise. I have a strong memory of hate-reading Wuthering heights, waiting for Catherine to die.

Mix of English and US authors mostly, though I have a vague memory of an Australian play and a poet, but can’t reveal their names at all. There was always a mix of books, plays and poetry. In no particular order, the ones I remember: the crucible, Macbeth, Wuthering Heights, William Blake, WW1 poets, Hedda Gabler (pretty much the only one I didn't detest), The Great Gatsby, Merchant of Venice.

Even within my school, classes were assigned completely different texts. I think the only constant was some sort of Shakespeare. Quite a lot of people were assigned Tim Winton, as he’s a local author, but I did the literature stream, so missed that one. We read a lot of Colin thiele in primary school - I remember quite liking some of his books (the ones that weren’t assigned), but have no idea how they aged.
posted by kjs4 at 5:55 AM on April 3 [1 favorite]


At an unusual, somewhat experimental grade school near Philadelphia in the 60s my Social Studies teacher, Mrs. Ward, got us to pay attention and behave by concluding each class with a chapter of Roald Dahl’s brand-new book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” What motivation! We could not have been better students—and when she started to read, a pin dropping would have been loud. I begged for a copy of the book for my birthday that year. I’d always treasured books but that one really felt like special magic.

Years later an eighth grade English teacher read James Joyce’s “Dubliners” aloud to the class with so much obvious pleasure and intensity that it blew my mind. She savored each word and really drew us in. Have loved and enjoyed Joyce ever since.
posted by kinnakeet at 6:09 AM on April 3 [2 favorites]


I went to boarding school for a while and there was an English teacher who had one class at night every week, reading a play out loud. She said her idea was to make sure everyone did at least that small amount of reading. People would show up high and stuff, but they did show up and mostly enjoyed it. I loved the semester we did Irish plays and was on a roll reading Irish literature for ages after that. When I started teaching, I duplicated that nighttime reading plan for my classes, just once a month or something.

I am a USian but my experiences with canonical reading were more about the "Western Civ" kind of authors like Homer, Sophocles and Vergil. For some reason, I related instantly to Homer and Greek tragedy. One of my friends said reading Antigone was "like walking through fire" and that is how I felt too. Funny how many people I knew in high school/early college who really got into some kind of literature that was not US and was not written in English.
posted by BibiRose at 6:23 AM on April 3


Graduated HS in the US in 1981. I’ve always loved to read and always had a book in my bag in case there was extra time to read during the school day.

All the required reading I remember was by dead white males with a smattering of dead white females. The only ones I remember are To Kill A Mockingbird (loved), My Antonia (hated, but I also couldn’t stand the teacher), Catcher in the Rye (loved), Of Mice and Men (okay), Scarlet Letter (okay), and A Farewell To Arms and The Sun Also Rises(loved them both).

I was obsessed with Hemingway for a long time and read lots of his other works on my own. I realize now how problematic his work is, but at the time I was fascinated with his writing style and his books and short stories really opened up my mind in terms of saying more by saying less.
posted by bookmammal at 6:28 AM on April 3 [2 favorites]


You all went to way better schools than I did. We only read ~3 books in their entirety; everything else from middle school through high school was excerpts from the textbook/reader. The three books were Great Expectations (hated it), Flowers for Algernon (liked it but thought it was too heavy handed), and Lord of the Flies (liked it and had already read it a couple of years before). We did most of Mice and Men, too, but the teacher botched the timing so most people didn't finish it before the end of the year.

I think we also read the entirety of a Shakespeare play at one point but I'm not sure which. Henry V maybe?

There was probably a track where people did real reading in their english classes, but I sure wasn't on it.

I was a constant reader, but never associated school with reading until I got to college.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:48 AM on April 3


Lots of hate for Wuthering Heights in here. I enjoyed it so much in high school that I made a tribute post for Emily Brontë's 200th birthday. I can remember like 35 other texts I was assigned, and my other favorites were Frankenstein, Madame Bovary, "Silent Snow, Secret Snow," The Metamorphosis & "A Hunger Artist." Why yes I did have a lonely childhood on a gray windswept broken-down farm, and I kind of liked it.
posted by Wobbuffet at 6:53 AM on April 3 [4 favorites]


Romeo and Juliet, Animal Farm, Great Expectations (the Lost of the 1860's)
Hobbit, Julius Caesar, 1984, Lord of the Flies
Huckleberry Finn, Scarlet Letter (terrible), Twelve Angry Men
Hamlet (some classes got Macbeth), Death of a Salesman, Tale of Two Cities (opposite of Great Expectations). Plus we had to read some things on our own from a list, so I read The Red Badge of Courage.
There were also various short stories and excerpts of things: Sinners in the Hands..., The Speckled Band, some stuff by O. Henry and Saki, a story about people who melt when they get rained on, Flowers for Algernon. Also poems; Shakespeare and Donne, plus the ride of Paul Revere, Emily Dickinson. We went to see Our Town, which wasn't any good. And I'm pretty sure I'm forgetting some things. I did reports on James Joyce and Karl Marx; tried and failed to read some Joyce (would return later), but fortunately the Communist Manifesto is short.

I will say that my high school education gave me the distinct impression that almost all literature (except Twain) in the 1800's was terrible, way too long, and with stupid contrived endings. I've since read some stuff that's better, but we sure didn't read it in school. Thanks for nothing, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charles Dickens.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:54 AM on April 3 [1 favorite]


I was a voracious reader until sophomore year of high school, when the required reading assignments stamped out all of my joy of reading. Reading was my escape from awkwardness and boys who didn't like me back and fighty parents, but then I had to sacrifice that precious time to read ... Moby Dick? Flowers for Algernon? The Great Gatsby? The Canterbury Tales? The Red Badge of Courage?! One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich? (twice!) Gee, thanks!

I didn't get back into reading for pleasure until my early 30s. I never do online book challenges (example: This month, we'll read books with a color in the title!), have never joined a book club, and grumble when publishers put a page of book club questions at the end of a perfectly fine book.
posted by kimberussell at 6:58 AM on April 3 [1 favorite]


At a DoD school - 11th grade at an overseas military base - I took a science fiction class as my "English" component for that semester. We read Canticle for Liebowitz, Stranger in a Strange Land, Foundation, The Hobbit, and probably a couple more that I'm forgetting, along with a bunch of short stories. We also played Gamma World every week in class, then maintained a journal for our character to make it educational. It was a great class.

I also remember reading In Cold Blood by Truman Capote at that same school, but I don't remember the context or class it was tied too.
posted by COD at 6:59 AM on April 3 [1 favorite]


Okay I love this question. My high school started in grade 7, so a longer list.

But before that I will shout out to some grade-school reading: Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Judy Blume, Gordon Korman, John Christoper's Triffids books, Guy de Maupessant short stories, Le Petit Nicholas series which is still hilarious, it's like Diary of a Wimpy Kid in 1950s France, Le Petit Prince, Owls in the Family, Anne of Green Gables, Aligator Pie, the Booky books. I adored Julie of the Wolves which we read in grade 4 and remembered it fondly...started to read it to my after school program and it starts with a forced child marriage and rape, what.

I am in the generation that was forced to memorize The Cremation of Sam McGee (and of course as well as sing The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

My own child read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian a couple of years ago and it blew me away in the direct sparseness of its language, poetic of course. Also have to add from his reading list The Hate U Give.

Canadian books we read not listed already: Roughing it in the Bush by Susannah Moodie, We actually read Handmaid's Tale the year after it came out. The Wars by Timothy Findlay - had a huge argument with an idiot teacher about the main character's sexuality, met Findlay in university and he laughed. Robertson Davies' Fifth Business, Alice Munro's Who Do You Think You Are?

Our annual trip to Stratford made all the Shakespeare great.

I had a teacher assign us Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave and The Sword In The Stone. This kicked off an Arthurian retelling fest that still decorates my shelves. In grade 7 we did A Wrinkle in Time, Walkabout.

Our school did some overkill groupings (we also had insane amounts of reading) that I still remember as follows:

One term my friends and I still label the Term That Makes You Want To Kill Humanity: The Chocolate War, A Separate Peace, Lord of the Flies, A Brave New World, Anthem, A Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich, Gallipoli, The Wars. If I remember correctly, this was followed by a term that included 1984, Flowers for Algernon, The Great Gatsby, and Othello, and a unit on war poetry (Dulce et Decorum est...)

Another term a little grouping on "nutso family dynamics": Tess of the d'Ubervilles (we also watched the Roman Polanski film, ugh), Sons and Lovers, The Glass Menagerie, Alberto Manguel's Evening Games anthology, Pride and Prejudice, Macbeth (not The Tempest, missed opportunity!), Wuthering Heights, and this was the Atwood/Laurence/Munro year. I am a bit surprised we didn't read The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:27 AM on April 3 [3 favorites]


I had great English teachers from grade school into college. Many more good teachers than bad. Even the 7th grade teacher who had the "grammar" year was OK. The best advice I ever got was from a Professor in sophomore year at college: "Look at your syllabi and guesstimate how much time it would take to read all of that. Then, spend that amount of time reading whatever you want."
posted by chavenet at 7:44 AM on April 3


"I'm not sure why being stranded on a desert island was such a strong theme"

Makes a nice contrast to being stranded on a rainy island?
posted by Eyebrows McGee (staff) at 8:08 AM on April 3 [3 favorites]


I’m an old, so it’s hard to remember high school reading assignments, partly because it was so long ago, and partly because I was a prodigious reader, and had read most/all of our assignments years before.
My most striking memory is of a teacher who claimed that Macbeth was not a *real* tragic hero because...I forget, but it was his stupid way of “rebelling” (for context this was late 60’s/early ‘70’s). I finally got sick of it one day and argued with him for the whole period about how his interpretation had gaping holes in it, basically a badly constructed straw man. Jeez, I hated that teacher.
posted by dbmcd at 9:09 AM on April 3 [1 favorite]


Anyone else whose HS Mellville novel was The Confidence Man? Or was that just the (rather odd) choice of my AP teacher?

(Also, I don't care what modern critical reevaluation thinks of the novel, it's a terrible book, not least because the allegory and metaphysical ruminations are punch-you-in-the-face obvious - hell, most of the "characters" don't have names. It's less subtle than Pilgrim's Progress, for crying out loud.)
posted by soundguy99 at 9:43 AM on April 3


I loved reading the Diary of Anne Frank in 7th grade. I think it was an assignment that we all keep a diary during that term, and I kept with it until I graduated from high school.

I have no clear memories of what I read in high school other than being forced to read Kafka's Metamorphosis. My teacher was a rather jittery, nervous man whose mannerisms kind of reminded me of the skittering of a cockroach. Between his uncomfortable, nervous energy and really hating the book, I can honestly say that English was my least favorite class of my sophomore year. I was a voracious reader at the time (still am) so I got plenty of non-assigned reading done.

At my job (librarian) I see what kids are reading these days and I feel relieved and hopeful for them. Lots of variety and I have not seen one cockroach-related book.
posted by Gray Duck at 9:50 AM on April 3


I graduated 6th form in the UK in 1984 so I did the usual books you would expect - 1984, Lord of the Flies etc.
At my school there was a general assembly every morning and once a week a member of the Upper 6th (final year) would read something improving and relevant. A friend of mine got tapped to do this and was very cagey about what he was going to read. Come the day, April 4th 1984, he stood up and read:
"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."
Best morning reading ever.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 9:52 AM on April 3 [5 favorites]


Class of '72, high school in the DC suburbs.

Required reading: The Pearl by John Steinbeck. Again and again, it seems -- like at least three times, 9th, 10th and 11th grade. Why? I think because maybe, although it's Steinbeck and therefore holy, it's a shorter Steinbeck, and therefore palatable? I don't know, but I hate it now (unlike, for example, Tortilla Flat, Of Mice and Men, or The Grapes of Wrath). But why no Hemingway, ever?

The Scarlet Letter. Not an entire waste of time, but a struggle when I was 17. Later, in college, I actually took a Poe and Hawthorne class. And got an "A"! Hawthorne's good.

The Return of the Native. Hardy's good, too! My same reaction when I read Far From The Madding Crowd, decades later. I got an A- on my final high school term paper about it ("Egdon Heath as the Protagonist in Return of the Native").

Shakespeare: Romeo/Juliet, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Macbeth. Reading them aloud, in class. Interminable. Can't stand him to this day. Like reading Beowulf - some classmates and teachers dig that archaic stuff, but not me.

Crime and Punishment. Another endless reading assignment. Thankfully, unlike some, wasn't forced to read The Brothers Karamozov, as well. Maybe it was the translation?


The main problem I had is that there was a right answer and a wrong answer, and no space for interpretation.

I thought this was the problem English majors had with Math, not Shakespeare.
posted by Rash at 10:05 AM on April 3


We also read The Scarlet Letter, which she straight-up told us was not that fun a read but had extremely obvious metaphors and symbolism, and so was a good starter text for literary analysis. I appreciated that straightforwardness!

Yes! I remember reading that book, which was not great but was easy to see the "bones of the story" kinda, in 7th grade with a teacher who hated me and the feeling was mutual. I read all the time as a kind (and still do) and I disliked having to read things I didn't want to read. So I often--dumb gifted child me--just didn't read assigned reading and had middling grades in a lot of things I would otherwise have done fine in because I just skipped things. A few titles I remember being formative (I graduated high school in 1986)

- Z is for Zachariah - this was a trippy post-apocalyptic book we read in 7th or 8th grade that was only borderline appropriate but was one of my earlier entries into scifi
- Some Hemingway books which I knew already then were full of toxic masculinity and I disliked intently.
- Animal Farm and Brave New World which were about at my level in high school and I took to heart
- Shakespeare and Canterbury Tales and Beowulf - I sometimes wish I had been introduced to these at some other time in my life because high school was the wrong time for them, in a room full of other disinterested surly teens, and I never wound up liking any of them even as I appreciated why people might like them.

I took every English/Lit class there was because I didn't take a foreign language in high school and took a lot of writing classes in college (which were also reading classes in many ways) and really found my niche there and enjoyed getting to read better books---Marguerite Yourcenar, Peter Handke, Michael Ondaatje, Chinua Achebe, J. M. Coetzee--and talk about them with less-surly classmates. I also grew up in Massachusetts, near Walden Pond and Thoreau and his ilk (Alcott, Emerson &c) were fetishized and I never got that into them because I was so reactionary about them and I am not sure if that was a mistake or not.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:06 AM on April 3 [1 favorite]


I don’t remember too many from when I was in school, either. But I was also not in school a lot, and never finished high school. Shakespeares included Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, and Macbeth, with trips to Stratford (Ontario) to see the plays performed for MacB and JC. We did Lord of the Flies and I remember reading The Moon is Down out of a slate of choices offered to the class, the only of the others I remember was Who Has Seen The Wind (which I still have not read). Some of my friends who actually went to class later read Fifth Business and The Handmaid’s Tale, I think. One friend who went to a different school had to read Finnegan’s Wake and still holds it against the Irish to this day.
posted by rodlymight at 10:09 AM on April 3


for some reason, this kind of discussion always feeds my soul; thanks to everyone who shared or will share :)
I mostly disliked my high school English classes because, from my perspective, stopping to discuss anything was antithetical towards my goal (shoving as much literature down my gullet as quickly as possible).

Stuff I got: Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Ethan Frome, excerpts from The Odyssey, the Scarlet Ibis, The Cask of Amontillado, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Fall of the House of Usher (not all at once), Guy de Maupassant's The Necklace, A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, Huck Finn, A Modest Proposal (I was the only one who laughed), 1984, Animal Farm, Forgotten Fire, Elie Wiesel's Night, To Kill a Mockingbird, some Bradburys (short story: the time travel one and The Veldt, Fahrenheit 451), The Most Dangerous Game, Flowers for Algernon, Tuesdays with Morrie... An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge... The House on Mango Street...

Ethan Frome clashed abominably with the tone and time in life I read it (sorry, marriage troubles are not relatable to 15 year olds).

I got to The Chocolate War on my own terms and was surprised it wasn't paired with 1984 in class. If nothing else, they both have bangers of last paragraphs.

Somehow I got through high school without encountering The Crucible, which I count as lucky.

I read Lord of the Flies in between sections of the standardized college testing, since I was taking it in someone's English classroom with copies lying around. I knew that the point was "humanity* is inherently crab bucket" (*for privileged white cis male definitions of humanity), but I really just enjoyed the idea of a demonic pig head on a stake talking.
posted by snerson at 10:36 AM on April 3


It sounds like a few of us had the same dreadful high-school English class experience. Don't get me wrong, I loved books and I've always been a voracious reader; but the classes themselves weren't the least bit intellectually stimulating. I don't know how it is nowadays, but when I was a student we'd get issued these massive books at the beginning of each year's English class that were amazing collections of short stories, a few novelettes, and maybe a novella or two; over the year we might study two or three of the shorter works, along with a separate full novel and typically a Shakespeare play - just to say we'd done so, as best I can tell, since a plain read-through seemed to suffice without further background or historical context from the teacher. I guess the author's genius shining through the very words on the page was supposed to be enlightening enough on its own.

Me, I sat at the back of the room pretty much ignoring the plodding progress of the class itself and read my way through just about every story in those fat books, plus whatever else I managed to latch onto to feed my need and drown out the boring teacher and clueless students. I learned far more from osmosing all that stuff than any alleged "English" course could possibly have taught me. Also, in my literary immersion I wasn't disrupting the class in any way, so I pretty much flew under the radar. And I still managed to pass all the tests (which says far more about the state of American education than it does of my own scholastic prowess).

Best book? Far too many to recall. Worst book? Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, which even as an enthusiastic reader I couldn't get through more than a third of before I decided it was tedious garbage and refused to waste any more time on it...still got a 'B-' on the test, which again wasn't a challenge.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:53 AM on April 3 [1 favorite]


On a side note, I learned about kimchi grilled cheese sandwiches this week. Now the next chapter of my life begins.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:54 AM on April 3 [5 favorites]


Back in high school in the late '60s I made my AP English teacher absolutely furious with me by attacking C. S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters and then suggesting that it might not be all that appropriate to assign such heavy-handed proselytization in a public high school in the first place. But he was a lost cause anyway after I'd said in a class discussion that I thought King Lear was about venereal disease. That didn’t go over real well in an Elizabethan literature course in college either, though.
posted by jamjam at 11:25 AM on April 3 [2 favorites]


Me, I sat at the back of the room pretty much ignoring the plodding progress of the class itself and read my way through just about every story in those fat books

I did this as well, and you reminded me of this short story I haven't read in years so thank you.
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 11:26 AM on April 3 [1 favorite]


I was just reflecting the other day how many of the works I read in school offered a pretty dim view of humanity. Things like The Scarlet Letter, 1984, Lord of the Flies, "The Lottery," The Crucible -- the message I took from all of these was that groups of people are evil and stupid in some mixture, and if anything is worth saving in humanity, it must be something that is found in the courage of individuals. At the time I ate this perspective up -- it resonated both with my natal Catholic faith (not sure theologians would agree with that hot take, of course) and with my experience of being, not quite a social outcast, but definitely awkward and not well-liked -- but I now find it sort of disturbing!

I also remember reading a few feminist works in school and having basically zero appreciation for them. My life was actually shaped to some degree by misogyny -- my father's, in particular -- but at that age, I couldn't see it for what it was.

This year, Little eirias has graduated to reading novels in school. The book list was very obviously put together with an eye toward cultural diversity and reading about the experiences of kids living in other ways, and on the whole I'm so pleased. The one real exception that I'm still kind of pissed about tbh is the first one they read, in which an autistic kid is repeatedly called the r-word and is also treated disrespectfully by the text in other ways (this kid is the one kid who doesn't get a first-person viewpoint, and seems to be there as a metaphor for the other students' disconnection from each other, and when he "gets better" he is sent away to a different school). April is autism acceptance month, so I'd like to say to any K-6 teachers reading this, please don't assign Because of Mr. Terupt to your classes -- on disability issues, at least, it's insensitive in ways you might not have noticed.
posted by eirias at 11:36 AM on April 3 [1 favorite]


John Christoper's Triffids books

Believe you meant Tripods, warriorqueen. The Triffids are John Wyndham (and only one book).
posted by Rash at 11:48 AM on April 3 [1 favorite]


I had to read Lord of the Flies and A Separate Peace a couple of times, I loved them, but they're definitely in that category of books that stay on the syllabus because they are short: The Great Gatsby, The Pearl, Of Mice and Men, Things Fall Apart, Heart of Darkness, The Picture of Dorian Grey, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Fahrenheit 451, Mrs Dalloway, Animal Farm, etc.

When I was fifteen, I turned in an essay called "The Death of Love" that was all about how Angel Clare from Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Gene from A Separate Peace ended up murdering the person they loved because they were trying to kill the part of themselves that was capable of love. There may have been an Oscar Wilde quote as an epigraph. The prompt was about the use of setting in the novels we were reading. Later I turned in another essay that was basically Eliza/Higgins fanfiction. Looking back, my high school essays were unfortunate examples of the "Sir, this Is an Arby's" meme.
posted by betweenthebars at 12:00 PM on April 3 [5 favorites]


For me? War and Peace, because a middle school teacher said I couldn't do it.
posted by doctornemo at 12:07 PM on April 3 [1 favorite]


But my son, ah. School lit readings have driven him away from lit. He reports that they are uniformly dismal and he dreads each one.

My own passion for lit hasn't really crossed over for him. I suspect he thinks I'm a good person to talk with, but that my love for serious fiction is an eccentricity.
posted by doctornemo at 12:08 PM on April 3 [1 favorite]


In high school my teacher gave us copies of “A Modest Proposal” to read to ourselves in class with no discussion of what it was beforehand.

When I got to the proposal part it was mind blowing. I did not see it coming! I did not expect the swift turn to satire, how well it was setting it up, it was all a huge amazing shock and I gasped out loud and then started laughing. Loud, unsubtle laughter.

The problem was I read really fast and the rest of my classroom was still of the serious discussion of poverty part. To them I was laughing, at this point uncontrollably, at people’s suffering. My poor teacher had to send me outside and I wasn’t allowed back in until I stopped giggling. It took some time.
posted by lepus at 12:16 PM on April 3 [15 favorites]


You are right! Tripods.
posted by warriorqueen at 12:22 PM on April 3


I did not expect the swift turn to satire

ISWYDT
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:01 PM on April 3 [7 favorites]


I did 3 years of high school in the US and the last one in the UK, going on to do English at the only university who were fool enough to accept me.

Luckily I had a series of excellent English teachers in both countries. Starting in 7th grade, when we landed in the room with an extremely cool Chinese-American woman, younger than most of our other teachers. Instead of sitting behind her desk, she liked to sit ON it with her legs folded under her. We all knew we could never ascend to her level of cool, but we were definitely listening to everything she said. She took us through A Midsummer Night's Dream and made damn sure we read Pearl S. Buck (The Good Earth) and Maxine Hong Kingston (Woman Warrior). I'm now friends with that teacher on Facebook, even though I will still never be as cool as she is.

In the succeeding years, most of my English teachers were extremely patient with my nonsense because I could write. I enjoyed creative writing assignments and oh god I hated writing essays (says the person who went on to do an English degree). I was glad to learn critical analysis skills because that meant that if I HAD to write essays about books I disliked, at least I could spend the essay anatomising with great precision WHAT I disliked about them.

Other stuff I was assigned in high school:

Robert Browning: My Last Duchess, Porphyria's Lover

Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (I forget if this was for English or History class)

Chaucer, The General Prologue and The Pardoner's Tale. Still love Chaucer.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Austen, Pride and Prejudice; then when I got to England, Mansfield Park. The beginning of a lifelong aversion to Austen.

Some Countee Cullen poems. I particularly remember Red.

Some Gerard Manley Hopkins. I remember the sonnet God's Grandeur as particularly mindblowing.

Seconding everyone who was sneakily reading their Anthology rather than listening in class.

Probably some more Shakespeare but I forget what. Definitely some sonnets. Possibly The Tempest? In high school, I remember acting in Shakespeare plays more than I remember studying him.

But then I landed at school in Britain, and we opened King Lear in September, going scene by scene, line by line, finishing in about February. The teacher, now deceased, was the most British stereotype ever-- hyphenated name, tweed jacket, combover-- but by God he had a precise mind, and our class left no word unpondered and no depth unplumbed. And now I'm a Shakespearean text coach, so I'm still putting that work to use. (Then he made us read Mansfield Park for the rest of the year. Oh god.)

The other English beak (also sadly now dead) was a former actor who'd been in some Hammer Horror films, and I loved his class. I remember studying The Pardoner's Tale with him, and a whole lot of Sylvia Plath-- he was a great Plathian-- and Much Ado About Nothing. I remember playing Rebecca Nurse when he directed The Crucible. All the horror films meant he had the perfect glassy stare for when you hadn't done your essay. He'd go very still and silent, and it went right through you to your bones. Damn.

I came out of high school extremely certain of a number of things:

- I had no patience for novels and preferred poetry and plays

- I liked old stuff better than modern stuff (mostly)

- I really fucking could not stand Jane Austen.

(During lockdown, I finally learned why people like Jane Austen through watching and participating in Sun & Moon Theatre's charity readthroughs on YouTube. It turns out that if you dislike a book, listening to it read by people who love it is a good way in)

When I went to university, I learned that you weren't supposed to like or dislike books. You were just supposed to read in a detached and analytical manner, with enough contextual knowledge to divine authorial intent, but also disengaging the work from its context so you could wank critically about it. Then you had to read countless volumes of OTHER people's critical wank, at which point any love I had for the subject died a death and I decided I was going to become an opera singer at the earliest possible opportunity.
posted by Pallas Athena at 1:33 PM on April 3 [5 favorites]


Yeah, Tess of the D'Urbervilles was the one and only time in my life I've used some knockoff Clif-notes equivalent. Pretty sure I did well on the test too.

Best book? In 10th grade, we did 1984, Brave New World, and Anthem in one quarter. I'm not sure what Anthem was doing with those other books, aside from being thematically dystopian. I was already deep into speculative fiction so it wasn't exactly new, but it was novel to have assigned reading I was actually interested in.

Going back to jr high: The Giver. I'm not sure adult-me would appreciate it on re-read, and the reviews have scared me off the sequel...
posted by Alterscape at 2:08 PM on April 3


For me? War and Peace, because a middle school teacher said I couldn't do it.

I think War and Peace is easier to read than something like The Wheel of Time, she said, crossing her arms beneath her breasts.
posted by betweenthebars at 2:18 PM on April 3 [6 favorites]


My biggest memory of school reading was not assigned but was the science teacher who saw me reading Neuromancer and loaned me her copy of Snow Crash.
posted by eruonna at 2:41 PM on April 3 [7 favorites]


a Scottish middle-ranking public (hence private and £££££) school in the mid-80s, I did the minimum amount of English possible because I was in the science stream. What I remember: The thwarting of Baron Bolligrew; I am David (Anne Holm); Of Mice and Men; A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Merchant of Venice; Hamlet; Macbeth; A Christmas Carol; Nicholas Nickleby; Kidnapped (R L Stevenson); Huckleberry Finn; An Inspector Calls; The Winslow Boy; Juno and the Paycock; Unman, Wittering and Zigo; Flowers for Algernon; Kes; The Chrysalids (aka Re-Birth); far too little Saki (Sredni Vashtar and Filboid Studge, at least); The Great Gatsby; Animal Farm; 1984; Burmese Days (ffs Eric, we all wanted to kill ourselves after that one); The Mayor of Casterbridge; Lord of the Flies; Catcher in the Rye; The 39 Steps (author was an old boy, so it wasn't optional).

We did have one teacher, a tiny woman from Wales who was entirely unable to keep a class of all boys (school was mixed, but not English) in order, except when she covered the poetry of Wilfred Owen in exquisite depth. Then all was silent. I can still recite almost all of Strange Meeting from memory, and that was 35+ years ago.

The only other highlight of a place I couldn't get out of fast enough was we'd occasionally have real live poets come and speak to us. I remember two: the tall, gaunt Norman MacCaig who nonetheless had a sweet and kindly manner. He recited Basking Shark, Brooklyn Cop and Sleeping Compartment (“ I don't like this, being carried sideways / through the night … / It's no good. I go sidelong. / I rock sideways - I draw in my feet / To let Aviemore pass.”). The other was Edwin Morgan, whose clownish seriousness was a revelation, with his readings of King Billy, Trio, The Computer’s First Christmas Card, The Loch Ness Monster’s Song and The First Men on Mercury (“Of course, but nothing is ever the same, now is it? You’ll remember Mercury.”).
posted by scruss at 5:00 PM on April 3 [2 favorites]


In my senior year for AP English, we read Pride and Prejudice then Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and then Crime and Punishment. Happily we were given the paperbacks to keep and I still own those copies. We dissected all three novels to the same degree, despite how different they were. I’ve never read Dostoyevsky again but I feel like I did it really thoroughly that one time so it’s ok.

Freshman year, we read a lot of things but had a whole unit that was “Short Stories” and so we read a lot of the things mentioned by others, but the theme of thinking about why the particular story was a short story rather a novel really sunk in for me. Lots of de Maupassant and Poe and Ohenry and Jackson.

My classes did so much literature analysis, and I really enjoyed that - making a case, finding the evidence in the writing and making connections to outside materials etc etc so that for a while I thought I was meant to be a writer or a lawyer or something along those lines, but thankfully, I also had a great chemistry teacher and realized my true love was science but also.... now I write teams of technical documents with all kinds of analysis and evidence gathering, and I love that Jane Austen and James Joyce and the rest were a big part of preparing me for Science!
posted by Tandem Affinity at 6:17 PM on April 3 [3 favorites]


I also grew up in Massachusetts, near Walden Pond and Thoreau and his ilk (Alcott, Emerson &c) were fetishized and I never got that into them because I was so reactionary about them and I am not sure if that was a mistake or not.

Ack - I also could not get into Thoreau et al the year we studied Transcendentalism and felt there was some sort of scam being pawned off on me there. Like, did the teachers not see the malarkey in these (mostly Thoreau’s) writings? Now a transplant to MA, I see what you mean about the fetishism here of it all but at least I also finally paid enough to the history of the times to understand it a bit better. For instance, Thoreau and Emerson were taught almost in isolation so I never really put the whole scene together.

P.s. - the Fruitlands museum did not turn out to be a great educational resource in this subject. seeing the setting of Walden Pond did not change my mind about Thoreau.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 6:36 PM on April 3 [1 favorite]


For my middle to part of high school, I was at Afrocentric schools. Black Boy (the descriptions of his visions after being beaten, Jesus, they still haunt me). Invisible Man. A ton of Langston Hughes, both prose (the Simple stories) and poetry. Baldwin essays. Other readings from this school anthology, Black Voices. Countee Cullen ("we were not made to eternally weep"). Things Fall Apart. I think Huckleberry Finn was in there, too.

Then I switched to a fancy rich school. The Iliad, the Oresteia. Tons of Shakespeare. Doctor Faustus. Hemingway (I think it was The Sun Also Rises). Senior year, we got to do electives. One of mine featured Peer Gynt, A Doll's House, Hedda Gabler, Arms and the Man. Le Grande Meaulnes (what???).

While the quality of teaching (and the resources available to teachers--how are you going to have a group discussion with 30+ kids?) varied widely, I'm profoundly grateful for having been exposed to that range. I'm also really glad I got to skip the year of, like, The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, A Separate Peace, and Lord of the Flies at the fancy rich school.
posted by praemunire at 8:54 PM on April 3 [6 favorites]


Three stories.

One:

When I was in 8th grade my assigned seat was front row in front of the teacher’ podium. There was a poster on the podium with a blurry horse galloping through a blurry meadow and a poem printed over them.

I stared at that poster for five years - or however long 8th grade lasts - and memorized the poem. To this day i sometimes mutter under my breath, “September is a stallion with a flowing tawny mane...”

Recently I learned that it’s a poem and not something created by Hallmark.

Two:

In tenth grade my class was assigned to read O Captain! My Captain” by Walt Whitman.

In class we went around the room and each person had to read a couple lines. Everyone was stumbling and mumbling through their lines but when they got to my friend CQT she smacked her hand on her desk and yelled
“But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red!
Where on the deck my Captain lies!
Fallen cold and dead!”

She’s my oldest close friend and I’ve been in awe of her confidence since then.

Three:

My junior year of high school I was in England and we read a lot of Shakespeare. Every week our English teacher, Mr. Reddington, would ask us to memorize a few lines from a Shakespeare play and then took a few minutes at the beginning of the class so we could write the lines from memory.

The school was very small and Mr. Reddington was a very popular teacher but the seniors - who’d had Mr. R. the previous year told us how to cheat.

You’d write the lines on a piece of paper before class and hide it between a couple blank pages. When Mr. R. had his back to you, you swap the pages and hand in your pre-written paper.

In retrospect I learned two things.

1. I really wish I’d memorized that Shakespeare.
2. He totally knew what was going on. He was too smart not to.
posted by bendy at 12:16 AM on April 4 [1 favorite]


I too had to read The Great Gatsby but now that I’m older I really wish they’d made us read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist instead.

But I also realise I’m dreaming if I honestly think for a second that they’d swap out the wealthy capitalist fiction for the poor socialist musings. Sigh.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:17 AM on April 4 [1 favorite]


The two readings that stayed with me the most in school (well, junior college) were Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Orwell’s 11-page short story, Shooting an Elephant. Both of those hit me like a ton of bricks, and still do.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:21 AM on April 4 [1 favorite]


Freshman year, English 1101 -- A hideously boring, dry as chalk teacher who I loathed, held in complete contempt, a complete fish. He *loved* Shakespeare, to the point that he had little models of the stages where the plays were originally played, I cannot imagine a better way to crush Shakespeare for me. I don't know if I passed the class or not. Passing classes was not a big deal for myself nor my friends, we all ended up in dumb kid classes, like "Welcome Back Kotter" and some of us were dumb but not all of us, not by a long shot, no one really reached toward us and we damn sure didn't reach toward them.

I love to read and I love to write but I never had another book placed into my hands in that school, because I didn't know what dangling participles are. I still do not know and I do not care; I was absolutely not even aware of what all else was going on, I knew nothing of literature classes, nothing about any writing classes at all. I saw all English classes as to be as bad as that first one, and all of them full of assholes wanting to know what dangling participles are.

But I read, non-stop. I got very lucky in that I loved loved loved Mark Twain -- I've read "Huckleberry Finn" at least fifty times, I love Huck, such a decent person, such a good heart, and such a great liar and con, too -- and I was incredibly lucky when I in the 10nth or 11th grade got to read Samuel Clemons, a remarkably different man than Mark Twain. I don't think it's too much to say that Samuel Clemons saved my life; I can say for sure that he saved my ass -- I came up in this insanely fundamentalist Jesus Jumper family, Samuel Clemons, with "Letters From The Earth", he lampooned *all* men and *all* religions but since he came up in Christianity that was his focus, a razor sharp, lazer sharp focus on all of the stupidities and fallacies of it all, and wonder at how even very smart people got duped, by not asking pointed questions about all of the lunacies spouted by judgmental fools, not asking any pointed questions, not asking any questions at all. I'm in this study hall, it's all I can do to not jump up doing fist pumps, and not just about "Letters From The Earth" but by *all* that was written by Samuel Clemons. His beloved wife dead, his beloved daughter dead, broke from yet another series of horses-ass investments, Clemons was goddamned sick and tired of just being all festive, smiley-faced Mark Twain, and he got out his sharpest pens and set to town. I loved him. I still love him. Just for a chuckle, go and read "Letters From The Earth", it's free in about a zillion places online. Or read anything else he wrote toward the end of his life.

And. "Brave New World." A perfect companion piece for Clemons, at that time in my life, and at any time in my life. Today, for example. I love how two of the lead characters come to understand that fucking without love was totally empty, one man reaching that place because he couldn't get laid, the other one reaching that place because he had character and pretty good eyes; actually, both men had good eyes, just that one was contemptible, the other honorable, a fine man. If you happen to fall under my sway -- and I do mentor some younger men -- if you fall under my sway and are a reader at all you're going to get "Brave New World" into your hands. I don't recall how that book fell into my hands, probably other kids were reading it in some class that I was locked out of due to total lack of giving a fuck about dangling participles, and due to my hatred of teachers, plus lots of other people, too.

A *lot* of short stories fell into my hands. Guy de Maupassant, lots of love for him, then and now. And: Jack London. Holy shit, what a man! Dead at 40, alcoholism, but more life lived in his 40 years than the next 4,739 men. I read about everything that I could that he wrote; reading "The Sea Wolf" I found that London knew me well; he wrote about a man who was smart and read continuously but since his reading was catch as catch can, his education was not well rounded, large holes that would have been filled in any straight-up education. I got that, viscerally. London knew a lot about me, as he knew a lot about most people, and all men.

Catch 22. I picked it up, could *not* get past the second page -- Catch 22 does *not* give you any lead time, you're thrown immediately into the heart of an ongoing story that's hurtling along, like stepping into a fast paced movie and not knowing any of the characters and why did that guy rub that chocolate bar all over his head, anyways, which you'd know had you been in the theater for the whole flick but stepping in you're rather fuct. That's Catch 22. The second time I picked it up I could *not* set it down, I've read it time and again, Heller paints characters as perfectly as anyone I've ever read. What I didn't know until perhaps five years ago is that his editor, Robert Gottlieb, his editor was as involved in the book as Heller, they spent long hours fiddling with sentences, re-writing, re-arranging, moving this over here, over there, striking this and adding that -- he really deserves a credit; though it wasn't his idea, his fingerprints are all over it. Heller talked about that in an interview, and the next day Gottlieb called him and reamed him out, saying that no editor would want that kind of credit, that their role is to be strong but not noted. (Turns out Gottlieb has edited more books than most people ever read.)

ANYWAYS, Catch 22 was absolutely hilarious, unbelievably violent, a true indictment of war, thus a true indictment of humanity. Somehow Dalton Trumbo "Johnny Got His Gun" fell into my hands, and "All Quiet On The Western Front" and what I've read, in the years that I read it, as all of the US citezenry got to see what we were *really* up to in Vietnam, it's left me no room for admiration of any of our leaders, has in fact left me deeply contemptuous of anyone waving flags around and talking of peace through war.....

I'm running out of gas, out of words, too. School, particularly high school, was ever a social event for me -- show up, meet my friends, go out to breakfast, maybe make it in time for third period. I got one A in high school, another dumb kids class, this one history, and some in that class were dumb but damn sure not all of us, and we had a teacher who really was reaching for us, and we loved him, and we worked for him, I think the most attention I payed in any class. We all of us wanted to do well, this teacher reilly cared and let us know and we cared right back. Do you know that America picked up it's name beause of a Italian map-maker named Amerigo Vespucci was first to map the coast(s) of South America? Or something like that. Anyways, I may have been the only kid in that class who knew that piece, and look, here it is 50 years later and still Ol' Amerigo lives on in my heart, or my head, or wherever the hell he is, but he helped me one day in my junior year.

I went to high school four and a half years and didn't graduate and didn't give a rats ass, people who went to college were people who played tennis etc, I was making more money than any of my teachers and I knew more about work than they did, hadn't yet injured my back nor my neck though I did have this one really great fall, about two stories, a flip, head first landing on the back of my head and my shoulders and my body whipped so hard as it came around that it threw my shooes off my feet. Concussion. A few days in the hospital, where they kept waking me up and shining a light in my eyes, to see if I was dead maybe, I couldn't say; I can say, and will say, that it was damn sure annoying. Anyways, my path was cut for me by being born into the family I was born into, at 13 they shoved a hammer into my hands and said "You're a Nielsen -- Go forth and pound nails." and I did so, all until all the injuries finally caught me, summer 1987, maybe 35 or 36, some day you're bored I'll see if I can dig up pictures of my low back and also my neck, totally trashed, covered over with arthritis, too.

Anyways, I never one time studied a text until the injuries shoved me out of the trades, but I've never, ever stopped reading. I have to wonder what it would have been like had I been given books in high school, and put into a writing class or two, could be I'd be a bit more rounded, having read some of the same books as you.
posted by dancestoblue at 12:24 AM on April 4 [8 favorites]


College reading changed everything about my life. I took a class called “Utopias” and another called “Rock ‘n Roll”, a couple film classes and a class taught by Samuel Delany. Add in Russian fiction and everything Nabokov ever wrote.
posted by bendy at 12:26 AM on April 4 [4 favorites]


Also, yes, George Orwell was obligatory, but none of the good stuff

Keep the Aspidistra Flying?
posted by bendy at 12:38 AM on April 4 [2 favorites]


We spent so very much time plodding through a different shakespeare every year (ugh) and going into excruciating detail analyzing it that we didn't get through many actual books at all.

Two notable ones were Flowers for Algernon (loved) and the hobbit (sparked a lifelong interest in fantasy novels). A couple classics like TKAM (which I did like and learned from) and lord of the flies and I think animal farm but not much else. We could have read so many more books, and especially some from more diverse authors, if there hadn't been such an obsession with Shakespeare. (Canada, 90s-00s)
posted by randomnity at 7:54 AM on April 4


South Africa. I'm actually struggling to remember reading anything but Shakespeare in high school English. Afrikaans was another story, plenty of turgid, dreadfully earnest epic poetry and biblically inspired novels.
My most vivid memory is from about 7th grade . We were reading "101 Dalmatians" and were supposed to keep a list of words in the book we didn't understand. (Afrikaans school, English second language) There were no words in "101 Dalmatians" that I did not understand so my notebook was empty. The teacher did not accept this explanation for my empty notebook so I was sent to the headmaster, who didn't know what to say to me. After all I had not done my homework, that was a fact. He just gave me a warning and some analogy about how if you have a powerful sports car, it didn't do you any good if you never took it out of the garage.
I remember being really irritated with the whole thing.
posted by Zumbador at 10:20 AM on April 4 [1 favorite]


(BTW, "Shooting an Elephant" isn't a short story--it's memoir.)
posted by praemunire at 11:46 AM on April 4 [1 favorite]


Cared about/got something out of: Animal Farm, Chaucer, Macbeth because we got to watch a performance featuring Patrick Stewart and I realized how stupid it was to read plays and not see them performed.

Disliked/was bored by: Beowulf (too alien, needed way more context to enjoy), Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet (why the fuck was it all tragedies)? A Separate Peace and Lord of the Flies, which gave me a permanent distaste for Rich White Boy Angst.
posted by emjaybee at 3:48 PM on April 4 [2 favorites]


Can barely remember high school, the earlier years' reading lists are a mashed-up memory of the horrifically grim and dreary- Lord of the Flies, Z for Zachariah, The Chocolate War (UGH!), Of Mice and Men, and I don't know what else. In senior years I enjoyed the annual Shakespeare and assorted poetry. I fondly remember the Year 10 science teacher who caught me reading Lord of the Rings under the desk and recommended Dune next, a good call. In Year 12, failed to hand in an assignment on Euripides on time because I'd pulled an all-nighter reading Wuthering Heights, (not on the syllabus)- my poor English Lit teacher-her name escapes me now but I can still picture her not knowing whether to laugh or cry. (I'm sorry Ms X!)
posted by Coaticass at 4:06 PM on April 4


"Why the fuck was it all tragedies?" A good question.
posted by Coaticass at 4:09 PM on April 4 [2 favorites]


Oh! For some reason, the mandatory summer reading one year at fancy rich school was Margaret Laurence's The Diviners, which must make our class the only Americans under the age of 60 who've read it.
posted by praemunire at 8:44 PM on April 4


an assignment on Euripides

My favorite morality play in my Ancient Greek Literature class was the one about a Classics professor who visited his tailor to fix his trousers. The tailor asked, "Euripides?" and the professor replied, “Yeah, Eumenides?”
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:46 PM on April 4 [4 favorites]


oh the Eumenide
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:47 PM on April 4 [1 favorite]


New Zealand in the mid-1980s.

We got Lord of the Flies, The Red Pony (a Steinbeck novella), DH Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, Macbeth and Othello, The Crucible. A handful of New Zealand short stories and poetry, but no novels as far as I can remember. Maybe the War Poets? Oh, and we studied films. I'm remembering Witness.

Memories: the English teacher I liked, talking about the coal miners in Sons and Lovers: "they'd get home after a day working down the mines and they'd be literally buggered", which puts a new spin on the story I guess.
The boring English teacher explaining at great length that Shakespeare was the greatest writer ever and would always be so, and if anyone praised another writer, we could just smile to ourselves because we knew they weren't as good as WS.
"Studying" Shakespeare by doing a class read through. Nothing like a group of bored 15 year old boys to instill a love of the language.
posted by Pink Frost at 11:09 PM on April 4


England, late 60s. In a radical departure, the syllabus for my 15/16yo English exams included a nautical trio rather than one set book, to go with the one set Shagsper. The Shadow Line by Conrad + The Old Man and The Sea by Hemingway + The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge. That made the process a lot more interesting and choosing a minority interest Conrad was neat and allowed me to read Typhoon, Heart of Darkness for pleasure rather than penance. The Shakspere that year was Romeo & Juliet and I can still rattle off chunks of dialogue.

In Ireland at the same time my SO was ploughing through Soundings a poetry anthology compiled by Augustine Martin - who he?. 20 years later our son found that the same, Seamus Heaney free, anthology was still being used. So two whole generations of Irish kids grew up internalising the same sub-set of EngLit and ignoring the rest. Shakesp was slightly more expansive: Hamlet - King Lear - Macbeth were examined intensely and exclusively on a three year cycle. You know if someone is your age [or +/- 3 years] if they can complete a quote from "your" shakesplay.
posted by BobTheScientist at 6:50 AM on April 5 [1 favorite]


I mostly had a lovely high school English experience. I liked all my teachers (although still mad about my grade on a freshman-year Julius Caesar paper, teacher had a real thing for Mark Antony and I thought he was a bit of a dick). Enough of the class had always done the reading that we were able to have freewheeling, wide-ranging discussions, and all of my teachers let us get passionate and argue, and they raised interesting questions for us to debate and let us run pretty wild as long as we were talking about the book. In math and science and foreign language there was a lot of learn-and-practice but in English (and history, to a large degree), it was reading things and getting to TALK about them and have big ideas about them, which felt much less like work and much more like fun.

We read a novel a month, plus the textbook (short stories, poems) nearly cover-to-cover, which I thought was pretty normal but I guess was not.

"- Z is for Zachariah - this was a trippy post-apocalyptic book we read in 7th or 8th grade that was only borderline appropriate but was one of my earlier entries into scifi"

I ALSO read this in junior high, although not for class, and it fucked me up. The school librarian noticed my fanatical love for YA SFF and gave me some suggestions for more adult SFF I might like. Specifically, she handed me "Z is for Zachariah" and "Childhood's End," and now I wonder if maybe she was going through some shit. I had nightmares for months.
posted by Eyebrows McGee (staff) at 8:00 AM on April 5


Chile. We had to read Don Quijote de la Mancha, in the original outdated Spanish (think Shakespearean English, except you've never been exposed to it at all in any form before reading this one book), and it's supposed to be amazing and funny except you don't understand any of it. And it's a brick.
I loved Spanish class in general and was (am) a big reader, read 10 books in the time they assigned for 1, etc., but I never got past the first few chapters, skimmed the rest, faked it on the test and got a better than deserved grade because the teacher was a huge fan of my brother and (less so) me.

Secret bonus: non-USians, should I give that book/author/etc a try?

García Márquez: 100 Years of Solitude, Chronicle of a Death Foretold.
Vargas Llosa: The War of the End of the World.
Cortazar: Cronopios and Famas, Hopscotch, all his short stories.
Borges: Everything.
posted by signal at 9:16 AM on April 5 [7 favorites]


In 8th grade our geometry teacher assigned us Flatland, the only fiction I was ever assigned in a math class. And I thought it was So Cool. It does an amazing job of walking you through how a being from a higher dimension might interact with our own. I’d love to read it again.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:58 PM on April 5 [3 favorites]


I can still recite all the pieces we had to memorize and recite in high school.

Grade 9: the prologue to Romeo and Juliet
Grade 10: “Friends, Romans, Countrymen”
Grade 11: the final stanzas of “Thanatopsis” and “The Chambered Nautilus,” and the whole of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”
Grade 12: “To be, or not to be” and one prologue from The Canterbury Tales (mine was the Summoner)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:56 PM on April 5


Graduated high school in 1988, and I remember very little of my assigned reading. Largely because I was a voracious reader who was seeking this kind of thing out nine times out of ten anyway. I literally only have three stories about Assigned Classroom Reading.

1. I think it was sometime in Junior Year that my class was assigned Silas Marner. Everyone in the class found the first chapter to be boring as hell, so most of my classmates decided to secretly get the Cliff's Notes and get through the rest of the book that way. But I kept with it....and was pleasantly surprised to see that it picks up in the next few chapters, and I ended up liking it.

2. This is more a story about overhearing another class's discussion about their assigned reading. I was in my own English class, and we were all taking a test - and suddenly were treated to the voice of another English teacher in another class, booming down the hall, as he was enthusiastically and in very graphic detail answering one student's question about "when the book says this guy was 'drawn and quartered', what did that mean?"

3. In my high school, seniors had the privilege of reporting directly to the library during their study periods, instead of going to the study hall and getting a pass first. It was meant to be for the students who had occasional research, but there was no limit on how often you could do that, so I spent every study period in the library that whole year, and got to be friends with our librarian - Mr. Lynch, who was one of those old grumpy-looking dudes who secretly are marshmallows on the inside. After an initial week of power struggles (he thought I was trying to scam the system somehow), he and I got to be buddies; he would sometimes wander over to vent about other kids, he would chat with me about what I thought about the stuff I was reading, he would recommend stuff to me now and then, he would pretend to be scandalized on the days I wanted to just slum it and read a magazine. And so when I had an English class that didn't assign us specific books but rather required us to select a book from a specific time period, I would often consult with him for recommendations (I remember Ivanhoe being one in particular, which he described as "a cracking good story").
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:01 AM on April 7 [2 favorites]


EmpressCallipygos: "After an initial week of power struggles (he thought I was trying to scam the system somehow), he and I got to be buddies; "

I went to a small private school in Chile that was self-styled as 'English', whereas the only person on staff who actually spoke English well was the old British lady they put in charge of the 'library', actually a small room with less books in it then I have in my home now. We also became friends, mostly because I spoke English as well and liked books. I spent a lot of time in that room, hanging out, and reading the 8 or so sci-fi books they had over and over.
posted by signal at 10:09 AM on April 7 [1 favorite]


A rite of passage in my high school was "Burr" by Gore Vidal, in American History.
posted by thelonius at 10:57 AM on April 7


Love this thread so much!

From an Ontario perspective (late nineties/early 'aughts), very little that hasn't been mentioned here, with a few exceptions:

- I switched from the Catholic to public back to Catholic school systems, so I ended up reading both Lord of the Flies and Romeo and Juliet twice.
- My dull English teacher had us read Where the Heart Is because "the other books were too depressing", and I still haven't forgiven her for it. What a wasted opportunity.
- I read The Sun Also Rises for an independent study project, and in my report, compared the main unrequited romantic relationship to J. Lo's breakup with Puff Daddy.
posted by Paper rabies at 12:56 PM on April 7


Every Irish person of a certain age range has read (in Irish) Peig Sayers. They usually have a deep array of bitter opinions about it that bond them as a group like no other book I have seen.

Now she is no longer a school text she is having a cultural moment which stirs mixed feelings in me.

For people in my region we all read also an even more depressing book called Caisleain Óir. That too is a good bonding in hatred book for many.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 4:01 PM on April 7


I’m thinking of this from both a high school reader and a high school teacher of literature and I’m always struck by the lack of non-white authors we experienced in Western Australia when I grew up. I think the only writer in my high school who wasn’t Eurocentric was Mildred Taylor in a brief comparison/contrast task with TKAM. There wasn’t even a decent Australian selection of writers when I was in high school in the 1980s, just the bush poets Lawson, Patterson, Colin Thiele, and with a strident feminist teacher I think we read My Brilliant Career. The only aboriginal poet we encountered was Oodgeru Noonuccal/ who was called Kath Walker at that time.

In my teaching life in the 1990s/2000s that changed somewhat but the Eurocentrism remained in high proportion - the Fitzgeralds, Austens, Wildes, Wordsworths, Whitmans, Frosts etc etc.
The Mabo decision changed some aspects of the teaching landscape by opening up much more engagement with Country, counter-history, genre fluidity. For example, No Sugar, a docudrama, part of a trilogy tracking pre and post colonial life, by Nyungar writer Jack Davis was read by just about every literature or English student in the country. A popular genre shifting autobiography My Place became a syllabus staple in the late 80s. This was a good start, and other amazing texts by indigenous writers started to join the syllabus, so much so that my snooty private school gals often petulantly complained they were being ‘Aborigined out’ - despite admitting they had no idea that such great books existed before they were put on their reading lists.
posted by honey-barbara at 7:23 AM on April 9


I've read a lot of these, but the ones I have strong opinions about were: our English teacher in 10th grade spent waaaay too much time on the scarlet letter and a handful of emily dickenson poems. Grapes of Wrath was quite interesting to me, though.
posted by aniola at 10:22 PM on April 9


The comment about reading Orwell but "none of the good stuff" made me think about how I've long found it strange that everyone knows Orwell for 1984 and Animal Farm because they're widely assigned in schools, but those two books are quite unlike most of the rest of his work.

I'd argue that his best book is Homage to Catalonia, though his best stuff overall is probably the essays. I did revisit 1984 as an adult and liked it, though; I haven't revisited Animal Farm and don't particularly care to.
posted by breakin' the law at 4:35 PM on April 13 [2 favorites]


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