1. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
In all fairness, I probably hated reading this book because of the literature teacher I had at the time. He spoke slowly in a sluggish, deliberate, monotonous way that literally put people to sleep. The last thing I want to do is disparage someone because of how he spoke, but it did end up being especially unfortunate for our class since he insisted on reading a lot of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales himself. Sometimes I’d be lulled into a deep sleep while sitting upright in my chair and, after a period of time, suddenly wake up in a panic after my teacher dropped the large, hard-bound literary anthology from which he was reading to the floor.
Looking around I noticed I was hardly the only person who had been sleeping. At this point, he would make us take turns reading instead; which was a bad idea since virtually nobody in the class had any idea what page we were on. A lot of us only had a weak grasp on what The Canterbury Tales was about. I think it had something to do with a bunch of townspeople going on the 14th Century equivalent of a road trip. I also think they told each other tales while on their way to, I’d imagine, Canterbury. At any rate, I was effectively passed out asleep in the back seat for the entire drive to Canterbury. Just Wake me up when we get there.
2. A Separate Peace by John Knowles
A man visits the uppity boarding school of his youth and then, over the course of only 200 pages, revisiting his time there. Doesn’t sound like too bad of a book to read for school, right? Although this book was by no means the worst I’ve ever read, I hated the protagonist (Gene Forrester) from the very start and continued to find reasons to hate him throughout the rest of the story. Gene has little self-esteem, resents his “best friend” Finny because he is more talented at sports, is overly competitive in school in an effort to outdo him, and eventually knocks him out of a tree, breaking his leg.
Then the protagonist goes through this whole bullshit “Who am I? What does it all mean?” self-indulgent period of reflection. Thankfully, some other guy calls him on his bullshit. This provokes a fight which, in turn, causes to shatter his already broken leg. For some reason this kills Finny, but Gene doesn’t feel guilty or even that upset. In fact, after Finny dies, Gene’s anger fades and he quickly comes to terms with everything that happened. So after pages and pages of teenage angst and narcissism, you realize the book is essentially about a self-centered, oblivious boarding school kid who gains self-awareness by killing his friend. I really do not understand why so many schools have students read this.
3. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
This could easily be the gold standard by which all other tedious, boring high school reading is measured. Although I will admit that I didn’t fully give this book a chance; asking a 16-year-old to read a 500+ page Dickens novel is asking a lot. I could barely sit still and focus in class, so it was almost painful when I would force myself through a dozen or so pages at a time after I got home from school. During the weeks we read Great Expectations, seemingly unending reading assignments hung over me like doom. The book became a persistent burden that seemed to hang around my neck like an albatross (Yeah, that’s right. I’ve read my fair share of Samuel Taylor Coleridge too).
To some degree, the monotony and gloom of the story and the perpetual sadness of the protagonist eventually carried over into my own life. If anything, I suppose this makes my having read Great Expectations more worthwhile. Although being assigned these kinds of books in high school was frequently unpleasant, I can still recognize and appreciate the skills I developed in the process. I also had the good fortune of reading a number of books that were thoroughly positive experiences, too. I can’t help but remember the ones that kind of sucked, though.
This post has been provided by Nicolas D'Alleva. Nicolas is the president and CEO of Specialty Answering Service, a phone answering service and call center service for all businesses and professionals. Nicolas spends most of his day running the service and listening to books on tape.