Random Thoughts on Book Reviews and High School English

For a little more than a year I’ve been writing book reviews for another website, not  my own.  It’s been sporadic, and mostly done in my spare time and only when I feel like it, which partly explains why nearly a year passed between my most recent two reviews.  The other part is explained by the latest book I reviewed, a dreadful little thing called Poisonous that I think you should avoid like the plague, because it’s terrible.  Because it’s beyond terrible.  That’s why I won’t say who it’s by or where you can buy it, or show you the picture of the cover or link to the review or anything.  In other words I don’t want it to be easier for you to buy it, because I don’t think you should waste your time and money.  If you read it, the best you’ll feel is indifferent and since nobody likes reading things that leave them indifferent, it’s better to just avoid it.

Nevertheless, slogging through the book – did I mention the book was so awful it took me three months to read a 110 page novella? – I had the feeling, in a lot of ways, that being a reviewer of anything was quite a bit like being in high school again.  In both instances you get little control over what you read, you’re forced to read it no matter what happens, that you’re just as likely to loathe as love what you read, and there’s no guarantee the next thing will be better than the last.  Very likely, it will be worse.

When I was in high school I took a class called American Literature – pretty much everybody who had designs on going to college took it, but because I transferred from one high school to another in the middle of a year, I wound up taking this a year late, which was just as well.  Anyway, this class was part of the ‘college-track’, while plain-old Composition was the track you followed if you had no designs on college and could only best hope to learn how to spell and construct a sentence.

My teacher for the class was Mrs. Pat Hand and in her version of American Lit we were each issued a copy of Four American Novels, a volume from the late 50s that contained The Scarlett Letter, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, The Red Badge of Courage and Moby Dick.  By some generosity we were spared having to read Moby Dick – though, I do have vague memories we watched the movie in class.  There was no generosity to spare us from the other three, which were assigned, in their entirety.

Needless to say, to anybody whose read them, The Scarlett Letter, The Bridge of San Luis Rey and The Red Badge of Courage are not exactly appointment reading.  Anybody who claims they are are probably lying, and if they’re not lying then there is obviously something wrong with them, because nobody likes them.  Hard to believe, but that year of school turned into a real slog as I tried to fight my way through each, eventually picking up enough from what I read, and from Cliff’s Notes, to get a decent grade on the tests over each.  Yes, I’m sure I could have done better on the tests, but under the circumstances, a passing-yet-unspectacular grade was a fair trade-off to be spared having to read one word more of each.

One sad part of this story is I love to read and have always read eclectic books.  I read Gone With The Wind during that same year, read The Stand around the same period of time, sped through Dracula, and then Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  In other words, long or old books never frightened me.  What did frighten me were the long and old books we were assigned.Another sad part of this story is if I’d been in the other American Literature class, taught by a different teacher, I would have had a marvelous year.  While we were reading three-quarters of Four American Novels, the other class was reading things like Slaughterhouse Five, Of Mice and Men and other, more interesting books that I was reading anyway in my spare time.  What always struck me is while I was jealous of them, they complained of what they were reading as much as I complained about mine, so part of me wonders if we’d switched places whether I would have been miserable in the other class and jealous of the kids in the other class who got to read such wonderful prose as The Scarlett Letter for a grade.  Of course, there’s no way to tell now, though I suspect I would have been miserable no matter what – it was just the way I was raised to be.

Curiously, my daughter is now the same age I was when I read these books in high school and goes to the same high school I went to and now the English class she takes is essential a hybrid of the two reading lists for two different American Literature classes that were around when I was there.  So now they read Of Mice and Men and also The Scarlett Letter, and then, for fun, Tuesdays with Morrie.  Unlike my experience, where I loved Of Mice and Men and hated The Scarlett Letter, she treated Of Mice and Men like it was a blunt object being used to bash her head in, and had not one peep about The Scarlett LetterTuesdays With Morrie – I’m not sure what she felt.  Anyway, I don’t know what to make of all this, but if I had to make something of it I guess it would be that there are no lengths children won’t go to in order to rebel against their parents, even so far as to be diametrically opposed to the books they read.  Alas, that’s a stretch, but if it were so, at least it would explain things.

Incidentally, from time to time I used to run into my American Literature teacher at the Y and of course she never recognized me.  Since I hadn’t been in her class in near twenty years, there’s no reason to think she would.  Realizing this, a depressing point occurred to me: how many children in her life did she ruin reading for by forcing them to read Four American Novels?  Conservatively, if she taught three sections of this class a day, twenty-five students per class, for twenty-five years, that’s 3 x 25 x 25.  That’s 1875 students turned off reading all because one teacher wouldn’t drift to a different curriculum with more appealing works.

Funny, when people tell me teachers should be paid more I’m inclined to agree, becaue teachers mold the next generation of minds, but it never fails that in the back of my mind I remember Ms. Hand and Four American Novels.

Ah, the power of teachers.

In the nmeantime, while you’re waiting for me to return to the Best Picture Project, don’t be agraid to go here  or here and do some shopping…

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