For most of us, our introduction to “great literature” starts in high school, which normally means selections from the Western literary canon—a problematic concept from the get-go. And like everyone I’ve ever broached the topic with, I hated almost everything I was forced to read by my English teachers. At the time, my mom always told me that at least some of the books weren’t that bad, and I’d appreciate them more once I wasn’t sixteen and angry at the lack of space battles and elves. Well, it’s been almost twenty years since grudgingly slogged my way through them. Let’s see if she was right.
One thing you will notice about these books is that three-quarters of them were written by dead white guys—and this is only a fraction of my full list of hated high school reads. I worked hard to winnow it down to only four items, but trust me, the long list is dead white guy city. There’s not much diversity of viewpoint to be seen—and maybe that’s one reason I had a hell of a time connecting to these books.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Ah, the classic tale of love and revenge during the French Revolution. What I recall hating the most about this book was Sydney Carton’s loserdom over Lucie Manette’s porcelain and gold angelic loveliness of trembling, innocent goodness. In Sydney, I got the first glimmering of the literary sub-sub-sub genre I have come to loathe the most, which is Angsty Man Pines At Length After Angelic Woman Who Could Be Played By An Empty Chinese Take-Out Container In A Wig—which ultimately caused me to throw The Sorrows of Young Werther across my dorm room as a freshman in university, by the way.
I found Sydney and Lucie (and by extension the nauseatingly perfect Charles Darnay) so annoying that they seemed to take up the entire book at the time. But on later reading, I can’t believe I forgot about Madame Defarge in all her murderous, aggressively knitting glory. She gets far more pages than Sydney, and deservedly so. Also, I finally appreciate just how funny Charles Dickens is.
Verdict: Buy for the villainy of the Defarges.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Rather than subjecting us to the entire book, my teacher handed out photocopies of selected chapters. I wondered, going into this reread, if maybe I that was why I’d found it so unutterably dull. The answer is: no.
There is some excellent prose in Moby Dick, but this never distracted me from my overwhelming urge to scream, “Ishmael, GET TO THE POINT.” Everyone talks about the Ahab versus Moby Dick revenge story as the be-all and end-all, and honestly, it would have been a much better book if that were the case. Ahab’s story is barely more than a footnote in a long-winded slice-of-life account of being on a whaling ship and learning that Mother Nature is one mean mother—with generous asides about the whaling industry and cetology.
Call it personal taste, but I prefer my tall ship stories to have more plot and fewer discussions of rendering blubber.
Verdict: Borrow and skim to the good bits. Also, consider writing Queequeg/Ishmael fanfiction.
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
THE BROKEN PICKLE DISH IS A METAPHOR FOR ETHAN AND ZEENA’S SHATTERED MARRIAGE. There. Now you don’t have to ever read this book, which is about a guy failing to commit suicide via sled crash (no, really) with his wife’s cousin because his wife is the worst human being who has ever lived, and then they’re all trapped in a house in a frozen wasteland together until they die. The end.
I hated it the first time I read it, and I hate it even more now, which I didn’t think was possible. It’s a book populated by miserable, awful people being miserable and awful, with a depiction of disability as a symbol of miserable awfulness that’s the cherry on the crap sundae.
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
In high school, I loathed this book because I found it to be a navel-gazing, boring slog. Adult me looked forward to being so much more enlightened (haha, get it?) with years of experience and patience. I went in ready and wanting to open my heart to this man named Siddhartha (but not that Siddhartha) journeying through his life and gaining enlightenment.
Upon rereading… with many apologies to my best friend, who genuinely does love this book, I still find it to be a navel-gazing, boring slog. Siddhartha is a very philosophical, spiritual, and dense book, and in all honesty, I don’t generally like books that involve any of those qualities. They tend to lack quippy dialog and explosions, which are my literary mainstays. Reading it, I can totally understand why some people really like this book—and why other people, less secure in their love of light entertainment and delightful trash, might pretend they do.
Verdict: If you share my tastes and can overcome the guilt of admitting you’d rather be shoveling popcorn into your brain by the handful, Bypass. If dense and philosophical is something you find interesting rather than annoying, Buy.