Required Reading: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

required_readingA few weeks ago, The Hub posted a poll asking for your favorite assigned summer reading in high school. With 49% of the 134 votes, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was the top selection. This got me thinking about how required reading has impacted us as YA readers.

It’s a safe assumption that we’re all readers over here on The Hub. The results of the poll show that there were some fantastic experiences, but does it mean that all of our past reading experiences were great? I turned to some of our bloggers to get the scoop on required reading: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Read on to hear how assigned readings have made our bloggers stronger feminists, wish fatal illnesses on heroines, and really, really love bacon.

The Good

Jessica Lind: “When I was in 7th and 8th grade, I had an English teacher who really challenged us with reading. During her class, I fell in love with Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, and 1984. I was transitioning out of the books of my childhood and these classics helped to keep me reading.”

The JungleGretchen Kolderup: “My 10th grade US History class was combined into a two-period class with our English class. We learned history and we learned English, but it was all through the lens of social movements in America. The books that we were assigned were really thoughtful choices that illuminated social issues and that weren’t what you’d typically have as required reading — Power by Linda Hogan, All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller are the ones I remember. I loved that what we were reading was actually put into context so I could understand it — I would have missed so much of the meaning in the books if I hadn’t known what was happening in the world at the time they were published.”

Carla Land: “When I was in tenth grade I was in an honor’s English class and one of our required readings was The Great Gatsby. I absolutely hated it! My teacher was obsessed with the “eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg” and spent weeks talking about how important they were. I swore off of F. Scott Fitzgerald forever after that class. Fast forward to my sophomore year of college when I took a Modern Literature course- taught by a professor who was a Hemingway and Fitzgerald scholar. He’d spent his whole career studying them and their words. When we got to The Great Gatsby I held my breath and waited for the inevitable week long lesson on T.J. Eckleberg and his eyes. My professor commented on them once and they weren’t even on the test. After listening to him talk about the book and the author I had to take his Hemmingway and Fitzgerald course the next semester. It’s now one of my favorite books!”

The Yellow WallpaperSharon Rawlins: “I fell in love with the short story I read for a women’s studies class in high school called “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892). It’s the story of an woman who’s had a nervous breakdown after the birth of her child and been confined to her room by her husband. She’s not allowed to write in her journal or do anything at all. The lack of stimulation causes her to slowly go mad. She becomes obsessed with the texture and smell of the room’s yellow wallpaper and sees women trapped within the wallpaper and identifies with them. She locks herself in the room & attempts to free them by tearing the wallpaper off. Her husband breaks in to find her crawling around & around the edges of the room making ridges in the walls as she endlessly circles. He faints and she just continues to circle around climbing over his body as she goes. It’s such a powerful and evocative feminist story that’s stayed with me ever since I read it.”

Lalitha Nataraj: “During my junior year, I distinctly remember being one of the very few students who truly enjoyed reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. For me, that book spurred an enduring love affair with gothic literature which continued throughout college. I know many of my friends hated the book, but I loved Hawthorne’s prose and his flair for the dramatic. I mean, come on, meteors in the sky and burning symbols of sin? Love.”

The Bad

Gretchen Kolderup: “I hated Jane Eyre. The copies we were given had a hideous salmon-colored cover, and I remember very clearly when Helen contracted typhus thinking to myself, “Maybe Jane will get it, too, and she’ll die and the rest of this book can be about something interesting.” The twist is that when I was in college, I took a class on the Victorian novel and read (and loved!) Villette and Sense and Sensibility and other novels that I know high school Gretchen would have hated. I think that some of it was that my appreciation of writing had matured, but a lot of it was my professor — her love for her subject was contagious. (I still think Jane Eyre is terrible, though.)”

Animal FarmCarla Land: For some reason between middle school and college I’ve been assigned to read George Orwell’s Animal Farm at least five times. Every time I read it I hated it a little more, and the last couple times I was assigned it in college I didn’t bother rereading it and just used class notes from years gone by to refresh my memory. English classes, history classes, political science classes- it seems like at least one teacher a year forced this little book on me. I understood the lesson, but I disliked the book so much, and was forced to read it again and again so many times, that I will never touch a George Orwell book without being forced to. It is the only book from college that I didn’t keep when I graduated. The only thing to really come out of Animal Farm for me is that I’ve learned to really dislike pigs and love bacon!”

The Ugly

Gretchen Kolderup: “This could have just been a story about required watching rather than required reading. In my AP English Lit class, we’d just finished reading Heart of Darkness and my teacher decided to spend a few days showing us Apocalypse Now. Because it was rated R, we were required to get parental permission slips, and anyone who didn’t would be given “an alternate activity.” I don’t like violent movies or TV shows, so I asked to be excused from watching the movie and given the alternate activity instead. I don’t think my teacher had expected anyone to opt out — and no one else but me did — so she didn’t actually have anything prepared. In the moment, what she decided on was that I had to read The Scarlet Letter and write a paper about its major themes — all in just three days. I was furious about the inequity of spending class watching a movie vs having to read an entire book and crank out a paper in a short period of time, but I figured the best way to stick it to my teacher was to succeed, wildly, so I dove in. I’m not sure it’s the best paper I wrote in high school, but it’s probably the one I’m most proud of.”

The Scarlet LetterTraci Glass: “So, the one book I remember that has haunted me all these many years is The Scarlet Letter. I was assigned to read it the summer before my junior year, and I just didn’t. I couldn’t get into the story, I hated all the characters (except Hester), and I didn’t get any of the symbolism. I ended up reading the Cliff’s Notes about it just so I wouldn’t feel like I had done absolutely zero work on it.”

Jessica Lind: “I have always loved reading, so it bothered me any time I struggled with assigned reading. I usually worked through it, but I just could not get into The Odyssey when it was assigned in 9th grade. I read the chapter that I was required to do a report on and that’s about it. I still feel guilty about it to this day.”

– Jessica Lind, currently reading Tsarina by J. Nelle Patrick

3 thoughts on “Required Reading: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”

  1. Oooooh! Great article!

    I too loved “The Yellow Wallpaper.” It was one of my favorites I was required to read for a college-level Lit class. Also “Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge” was memorable. The imagery in that one was so vivid for me it seemed to play across my mind like a movie as I read (actually, I think it was made into a short film, but I can’t remember where I saw it). And “To Kill A Mockingbird”…and “The Outsiders”…loved them!!

    As for hated books, “Great Expectations” is right up there near the top. I had to read it for a 9th Grade AP English, and it (and the paper I had to write based on it) was the bane of an entire semester. The main character, Pip, was so whiny it’s no wonder Estella tortured him! And all I could think while reading , was: “Miss Havisham would be SO much happier of only she had about 200 cats.”

    As for Ugly, there was “Where the Red Fern Grows.” My 3rd grade teacher thought she’d “treat” the class by reading it aloud, but I still remember how hard I (and half the class) cried when the dogs died! Ugly, weepy, snotty crying (In case you’re curious, the book she read us after WTRFG was”Charlotte’s Web.” Sick!)

  2. Interesting postscript re: my hatred of The Scarlet Letter – Every December my Teen Book Group here at the library picks a book for December that has a movie adaptation of the book, so we read the book during the month, and then get together at the end of December to watch the movie and discuss the book in tandem. So, of course, 2 years ago they all wanted to watch Easy A, which is loosely based (or at least gets some of its inspiration) from the Scarlet Letter; therefore, the book that we’d have to read for that month was The Scarlet Letter (insert menacing music here). So, something my 11th grade English teacher couldn’t get me to do – even with the risk of getting an “F” on that unit, my awesome teen book groupers got me to do – I read the book, we watched the movie and discussed it in relation to the book. And, the one thing I learned – I thought I would really dislike the book when I was a teen – and, my teen self was right. I still don’t like the book at all, but I can say that 18 years later, I finally read it. BTW – my teens really liked it, and our discussion that day was really spirited and lively!

  3. I was assigned to read The Red Badge of Courage in tenth grade. It was the first required reading I didn’t finish. I just couldn’t get into Crane’s writing style at all. My teacher LOVED my final project on the book, though, and spent lots of time in class praising its depth and how it demonstrated an understanding of the book.

    Fast forward eight years. When I started teaching high school English, imagine my surprise when I was given Red Badge to teach to my honors 11th grade students. I taught it – for six years, no less – but still never read the entire book. I didn’t confess that to my students until just this year, when many of them are now graduating from college.

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