Something Formidable This Way Comes

13 May 2013

The book to read is not the one that thinks for you, but the one which makes you think. — Harper Lee
The bookstore had a good old musk...There's been a great deal of past discussion on Literary Lane on the subject of required reading. For the longest time, I believed it to be a terrible imposition inflicted upon the naive student by particularly vindictive instructors whose sole purpose was to enforce a love of literature into said student by way of hammer and chisel. At the time that I held that belief, however, I was not much acquainted with the true value of the thing, and my own assumptions were somewhat biased. It took several years for me to loosen my balled-up fists and accept the fact that reading for school does serve a purpose.

Before I reached eighth grade, the required reading to which I was exposed was of a wholly different nature than that with which I am now accustomed. I had reading assignments for school, but they generally took me no more than hour to complete, leaving the rest of my leisure time to volumes of my choosing. My literary intake flourished as a result. All that changed when I entered the tutorial at which I currently study, and I was introduced to an entirely new brand of required reading: that is to say, the sort that occupies your entire week. The number of pages I was expected to read jumped from twenty to two hundred and twenty. My time was no longer my own. And what's more, I didn't like the books I was reading! (Horrors, I know.)

I've copied out endless lists of the books I want to read in future. Dickens, Tolkien, Lewis, Austen . . . each name figures upon the page. And with the arrival of each new school year, I anxiously scan the book list that my mother prints out in search of familiar faces. If I'm lucky, I'll recognize two or three of the titles; they may even be replicas of those found in my own lists. But the majority of the titles are foreign to my eyes.

There's a difference between a student who rarely picks up a book that isn't a fluffy YA novel and a truly invested reader who seeks to learn and grow by testing his mental capacity with the books he reads. I'm not aiming this post towards those who have to be forced to read, balk at a book numbering more than a couple hundred pages, and utilize Spark Notes and Wikipedia for quizzes and essays. I know that most of you follow Literary Lane because you are avid bookworms in your own right. Assuming our own to-read lists contain classic works of fiction and other wholesome titles, is there still some value to be found in the required reading given by an outside source? Is there more we can gain from stepping outside our comfort zone?

Surprisingly enough, yes, there is.

Over the course of the past three years I've spent in my homeschool tutorial, I've been exposed to a number of titles I would have never encountered or considered on my own. Books like Rebecca, White Fang, The Little Shepherd of Kingdom ComeWatership Down, Frankenstein, and yes, even The Scarlet Pimpernel were all unknown to me. Surprisingly enough, some of these books (and others I haven't mentioned) are now treasured favorites with worn covers that attest to multiple readings. I could easily see myself enjoying the Victorian classics to which I frequently limited myself, but what pleasure can be gained from a book about a Siberian husky-dog or a tale of rabbits finding a new home for themselves? Is it possible for such a love to spring from an assigned list? I learned the answer to my skeptical question soon enough.

This past school year, my World Literature course not only opened my eyes to pieces of literature I hadn't read but didn't even recognize. Cry, the Beloved Country wrenched my heart, The Metamorphosis gave me eerie chills, Oedipus Rex fascinated me, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight spawned a greater love for Arthurian legend and the traits of chivalry and honor within me. Many of these works' authors used a new form of narration with which I was unfamiliar, effectively forcing me out of my comfort zone and opening my eyes to a whole new world of literature. I've been challenged to catch symbolism, foreshadowing, and allusions within even the most complicated web of text . . . and somehow, it's still worth it. Without setting aside my own desires for a time, trusting my instructor that these books, though unheard of to me, are revered for a reason, and reading the dreaded literature, my own perception of the written word would have remained one-dimensional.

It requires a measure of patience to accept the fact that a list of unfamiliar books will replace the ones I would prefer to read, at least for the current school year. Eleventh grade in particular is promising to be a challenge, as the realm of American Literature does not possess much enduring hope within its pages. Nonetheless, I've never regretted the choice to read these required books. Mansfield Park may be a more enjoyable piece to read, but that's not to say The Chosen and Watership Down weren't just as worthwhile.

And who knows? Maybe I'll find a brand-new favorite in some of the coming year's titles.

7 epistles:

  1. Since my 'official' schooling has been over with for a few years, my reading is self-directed, and I admit I usually stay within the bounds of fiction that appeals to my tastes. But I am making a bit more of an effort to try out different classics that I'm not familiar with. I haven't read Dumas yet, and I'm eyeing a couple by E.M. Forster and George Eliot that look intriguing. Although I like my lighter reads of mysteries and westerns, it's ultimately more satisfying to have a mixed diet in literature.

    Just out of curiosity, what are some of the titles you'll be tackling in American Literature? I haven't ventured too far among the better-known American authors (especially 20th-century ones), but I'll certainly be interested to hear what you make of them!

    1. My reading assignments for American Literature include The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, The Sound and the Fury, Of Mice and Men, and several others. On the bright side, it also includes Huckleberry Finn and My Antonia, which I'm quite excited about reading, so the list is not wholly disappointing. If you've read any of these titles, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts! Some of them are familiar to me, but having never ventured past the title page of any of these books, I'll be treading on unknown ground next year. We shall see how this turns out . . .

    2. I read My Antonia last year, I think it was, and enjoyed it quite a lot. Huckleberry Finn you'll probably like too...the funny thing is, I first read it when I was very young and didn't catch on to the parts that were satire; I took it all seriously. Then when my brother read it years later and we talked about it, I started realizing just how funny it was.

      I haven't read The Scarlet Letter yet, but my mom has...The Great Gatsby is on what I call my "thinking-about-reading" list—I'm interested, but I keep trying to decide from what I hear about it whether it's worthwhile or not. I'm afraid I've never been too attracted to Faulkner or Steinbeck though!

  2. Actually, I only half-sympathize with you, Elizabeth - not because it is in my nature to be heartless or cruel ^.^ rather because while you are feeling dreadfully upset that certain books are being forced upon you to read, leaving you little time for seemingly pleasurable reading, I on the other hand suffer from a lack of 'forced' reading and being in high-school struggle to fit any sort of literature reading in my free time (rides to and from church in the car are my only real 'reading' hours). For while ACE (the curriculum I homeschool with) has as part of its curriculum some literature courses with wholesome reading material, they are quite limited and focus on grammar and writing - to be perfectly honest, I have almost read every one of the required books for my high-school already in my childhood, books such as The Pilgrim's Progress , The Hiding Place God's Smuggler The Swiss Family Robinson Twice Freed Did Man just Happen? etc, with hardly any classics thrown in at all. I am trying to be grateful to the fact that I don't have things I wouldn't enjoy reading forced upon me, but with all my school-load I actually often wish that I had some new/classical and in-depth readings which would be considered part of my schooling to look forward to. Instead I have lots of maths and grammar ;). Oh, and right now I am working through a required Literature book which I actually did not read in my childhood - 'Up from Slavery' which is an autobiography of Booker T. Washington, and oh, it isn't written well at all I must say, but it is quite interesting nonetheless...

    However, I do see the whole point of this post; sometimes we really need to branch out from the sort of books we'd naturally read. Since I've finished The Silmarrilion, my Dad has encouraged me to try reading more of the spiritual books, such as Andrew Murray and the George Muller and the Puritans as well as inspiring Christian biographies and not focus all my reads on nothing but fiction. A very good reminder, because often we can just fall into a routine of reading the those that are always our cup-of-tea, exciting or entertaining reads and miss out on true gold-mines. Also, I want to get myself into reading more history and books on research... :). That later purpose though has sinister, author-ish motive I must confess.

    Great post, dear!

    1. Yes, it certainly serves a greater purpose to step outside our own literary comfort zones (although such a purpose is not immediately recognizable, especially when one is in the throes of a particularly lengthy narrative). I confess I'm rather envious of your literary freedom (oh, to read everything one's heart desires!), but your comment shows that it too has its downfalls. You've also reminded me of my aspiration to add more Christian biographies and theology to my reading list this year, as one can never have too many of those. In general, I am thankful to have some of my reading assigned, as it helps to keep my to-read lists well rounded.

      Of course, there are still those days, when I feel like crying out, "Oh, leave me to read Austen and Dickens before I suffocate in all these dreary tomes!"

      But we won't speak of that.

  3. Wonderful post! I always enjoy reading what you have to say, though my to-read list seems to keeps increasing... =]

    Since graduating three years ago, I have delved more into the classics than I ever wanted to while in school. Your story reminds me of myself, except that you have accepted and openly welcomed the required reading lists whereas I had particularly rebelled at what I was made to read. Now, I am hungry for it! Well done! I salute you!

    I am sure there is no need to say to you "Keep it up!" for, through my visits to this site, I know you to love literature. However, keep it up! You will be all the better for this knowledge and experiences you are now experiencing. =]


    1. Ah yes, that is the tragedy of blog-reading, I'm afraid. The literary doctor would recommend you stay away from all writing blogs to cure you of your unfortunate predicament, but where would be the fun in that? :)

      Every time I want to groan and complain about the volumes I'm made to read in my literature course, I remind myself that I'm getting these assignments from well-learned Christian instructors who have been teaching said courses for a number of years and know very well which books are worth reading. It's rather arrogant of me to assume I know better, but the feelings still creep up nonetheless. Please don't take away the impression that I have fully accepted my lot, as it would not be wholly honest. Rather, I'm learning to see the good in these assignments, no matter how much I detest them at the moment.

      Thank you for commenting, Sarah!


"Gracious words are like a honeycomb; sweetness to the soul and health to the body." —Proverbs 16:24

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