“You cannot open a book without learning something.” – Confucius
I was lucky when it came to reading books for school. Having always loved reading, I had no aversion to reading for English classes in middle or high school. If anything, I became frustrated with the slow pacing at which some of the books were covered. I finished them quickly and took up a second book for fun. In some cases, this meant that I, albeit unintentionally, read books for school ahead of when we actually read them in school (and sometimes I regretted it like when I had to read Where the Red Fern Grows twice in about four months and wound up crying like a baby both times; what is it with middle school curriculum and sad books about dogs?).
Letting go of that fun reading was the hardest thing about college. I simply didn’t have the time though I could sometimes get away with reading a chapter of a guilty pleasure book between major assignments. Graduate school I had too much trouble keeping up with the workload to even think about fun reading. Thank God I don’t suffer from motion sickness and have always been able to read in the car (or on a bus or on the subway); my commute into the city was at least two hours each way on public transportation. I also found that getting audio books for some of the titles helped keep my attention focused so I didn’t fall behind.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
I was familiar with this story long before I ever read the actual novella. Both times I’ve read the actual text were for classes. For undergrad, I read it in my fantasy lit class but we ran out of time for actually discussing it. I enjoyed the story both times but the discussion we had in my graduate Gothic lit class was a large part of why I will probably reread it again. The complexities of the writing as well as the themes addressed are difficult to fully appreciate alone. It is a story that requires discussion and critical thinking for complete enjoyment. Though it is also pretty cool and creepy entirely on its own.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
This is another book that I read twice, once for undergrad and once for graduate school. I enjoyed it equally both times. It’s a wonderful example of Hemingway’s writing style: the clipped sentences, the lack of adjectives when it comes to telling who is saying what, and, of course, the subtle power dynamics of the male/female relationships. There are probably more pages of literary critics debating whether or not Hemingway was a rampant misogynist and to what degree his misogyny extended than there are pages Hemingway wrote. And while it is an important conversation to be had, I hope it doesn’t detract from the stories being told and the characters themselves. There is more to the novel and more to Hemingway than just the question of sexual politics (and more and more I find people shaming one another for the things they like, conflating a problematic element with the work as a whole and using someone’s enjoyment of the work as a whole to put them down; okay, mini-rant over).
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
I tend to have a difficult time with watching anything graphic. I could only watch MASH when the color on our television started to go turning the blood purple. I can’t watch most horror films. But the kinds of things I can’t watch, I can read. And I’m a history nerd. Thus, I have an odd fascination with books about wars. Usually I gravitate towards the American Civil War since that’s a particular period of history that I enjoy learning about, but I also have a number of other novels centered around twentieth century wars lining my shelves. The Things They Carried was one I read during high school. I was so engaged in the text I went out and bought my own copy and now it sits with copies of All Quiet on the Western Front and Johnny Got His Gun.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
This is one time where I saw the movie first. It was on Lifetime or Hallmark or one of the other stations like those late one night when I was babysitting and the kids were in bed (I also saw Seven that way and couldn’t make myself go to sleep when I got home; not always a good way to watch unfamiliar movies). I was mesmerized by the film and a short time later, I bought and read the book. I don’t remember too much about my initial impressions except that I found it all… well, mesmerizing. I’d probably have stronger opinions if I went back and read it again having a much firmer grasp of things like the male gaze and the objectification of women; I don’t think it glamorized suicide though I can see why some people would think so. I do think it demonstrated, in an indirect way, the impact and lingering effects of such events on teens though it is also rather subdued, building to the titular suicides. There’s a tendency to put narrative distance with that kind of traumatic event; the narrator is years removed and reflecting rather than displaying the immediate reactions, the confusing emotions. Part of that, I think, stems from the fact that there’s so much already confusing about being a teenager that it is only with time that some sense can be found; but I almost wish there were more books that focused on those moments themselves, the chaos that must be endured instead of showing things only from the other side.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
When I first read this book in high school I remember my classmates getting caught up on the characters’ names (Teacake in particular) and missing a lot of the story. I enjoyed it far more than the TV movie adaptation we only ever got halfway through during a class on one of the last days of school. The discussion was more active and more relevant when I had to reread it in graduate school. More than the novel, I find the author interesting. I need to go back and read more of Zora Neale Hurston’s writing (I know I have some of her shorter pieces and excerpts of her work in my anthologies from college).