I was listening to a podcast and they were talking about required reading in schools. Though it was American the texts were similar to what you might expect someone to learn in an English school.
Rather than expect that I thought about what texts I studied. And whether they were good/relevant. First things first: I always think of a book called Looks and Smiles when I think about reading at school. And I generally think about how odd it is that we read this book amongst the Orwell/Dickens/Shakespeare. Mainly because I’ve never heard anyone mention that text outside of a my English lessons in a limited window in about 1992.
I remember the book having a very late 70s/early 80s picture. If you need a specific reference: it looked like a picture from the set of Tucker’s Luck (if you have to ask, you don’t deserve to know). At the time I thought it was just some rubbish book that the school had. Now I realise we were studying a book with some political comment. Admittedly commenting on a decade that wasn’t even contemporary then. And it was by Barry ‘Kes‘ Hines.
The other books we read were more traditional offerings. Lord of The Flies and Macbeth for GCSE. We also read A Christmas Carol and Animal Farm. I am pretty sure we didn’t do Animal Farm for GCSE anyway. Maybe we did. Perhaps we read Oliver Twist at some stage. I already liked Oliver Twist by secondary school because of the BBC versions that I’d watched with my dad.
What did I get from those books? Well I got a sense of how to take the joy out of a book about talking animals by learning about the allegorical layers. A horse was the peasants…or something. But it showed that communism didn’t work. Because you need an allegory. Lord of The Flies was about power and man’s inhumanity to man wasn’t it?
I’d love to say I hated these books, but I didn’t. I don’t like overanalysing texts. Maybe because I am not very good at it and miss even thin literary devices and signs. HE WAS CALLED NAPOLEON!!
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that Animal Farm isn’t a great work of literature. It’s just an allegory or whatever. I like real books. I like meaning being dripped on my face as I hold a book above my head. I don’t want to have to carefully grill a text at 14 degrees and then add sulphur to get some meaning, and then have to translate it from Greek.
And Lord of The Flies, I am pretty sure reading that book wasn’t the thing which made me realise that everyone is a fuck who ends up fucking people over to survive. It was SO DEPRESSING. It’s not what you want to read at 14: life is horrible; the bully will survive and win out and the two soft kids will both be murdered. Nice one. Oh but a fucking shell represents democracy…how brilliant, this book has suggested everything I think about bullies is probably true.
I would rather have read To Kill A Mockingbird*, as I like my meaning in my face and not buried in a third level of quasi-meaning/neo-symbolism. Or 1984, there’s some commentary on something complex and meaningful without having to call a fucking pig Trotski or something. [I’ve deliberately chosen books that are studied as part of matriculation rather than just books I like.]
Or do I enjoy these books because I discovered them myself and wasn’t told that I had to read them? Or is it because I am intellectually devoid of ‘clever’ reading of texts? Hardly, I think you’ll find I realised House was based on Sherlock Holmes without anyone telling me. So there.
I suppose what my conclusion is that a good story is more important than conveying some meaningful message through a literary device, though I concede that teaching students about the latter may come at the sacrifice of the former.
I am trying to read a novel at the moment. This is a break from my tendency to read a biography of Brian Clough every six months, which I really need to stop doing (but I did read a review of one I haven’t read and it sounded like a new twist and interesting). It’s by someone I like and I want to like their book. But it’s annoying me a bit. You’re meant to think the lead character is so cool and hip and rock ‘n’ roll. Only I don’t. I think it feels like a fictional character. And I get the point: she is one of these maverick free-spirits that float through works of fiction with a joie-de-vivre. Until they die. Or don’t change – but the main character does, realising that these people need to grow up and get some sensible shoes at some stage.
I will stick with it. It is better than Animal Farm – and (what are the odds?) it share’s lots of its title with Animal Farm. What a small world.
*That wasn’t topical when I started writing this about a week ago. So, zeitgeist your own face on that.