Thursday, February 24, 2011

How Low Can You Go

For the last couple of days I've been immersed in an extremely long nonfiction work; as a result, I've had little fresh meat to throw to the readerly lions.  So today, I'd like to host a special event: let's talk boring, depressing, soul-crushing, and overflowing with despair - let's talk high school reading lists.

When I think of how the typical high school reading list is made, I picture a dingy conference room filled with bitter (possibly non-tenured?), angry professors whose most prominent defining characteristic is that they hate children and everything about them.  "Let's crush their spirits," one says, perhaps the crazy-eyed one at the end of the table.

"No," says the next, the one with very thin lips, nose hair, and a Ph.D. in education; "Let's not stop there.  Let's beat every ounce of hope, optimism, and faith in the goodness of mankind out of them so thoroughly that alcoholism, three broken marriages, and reality TV will be all they can muster the energy for when they graduate."

At that, there's a chorus of ayes, and The Grapes of Wrath, Ethan Frome, The Sun Also Rises, King Lear, and The Scarlet Letter all make the list immediately.  All five of these have the advantage of being both incredibly dull and almost ludicrously depressing*.

Then we get into the sort of dull and sort of depressing category, which includes such classics as Oliver Twist (really damn dull, depressing until the very end), Of Mice and Men (not long enough to be all that dull, but depressing as hell), The Great Gatsby (characters too irritating to make the book not feel boring, pointlessly depressing Modernist ending), Lord of the Flies (boring if you're not a sadist, really depressing), 1984 (so boring that one suspects Orwell of trying to indicate through style how dull a perfectly organized dystopian society would be; depressing from beginning to end; not as good as either We or Brave New World, works comparable in theme which were both written before 1984), and Wuthering Heights (not all that boring, except when no one's acting insane, which is rare, but generally depressing nonetheless).

I know that I'll get some disagreement on which of these books are actually boring and which are not, and that's fair**.  I can accept that someone, perhaps not someone with either good taste or a sense of decorum, but someone out there, might enjoy reading The Sun Also Rises.  That person will never change my mind about that book.  I will say this for it: I gained some self-knowledge while reading it, that being that I have no interest at all in the inner workings of a relationship between a man with no testes and a nymphomaniac, something about myself of which I had been blissfully unaware.

Granted, there are books typically assigned in high school that break out of this pattern.  But overall, it seems that being as thrilling as moldy cheese and as cheerful as a five-car pileup on the highway are the two major criteria used to pick books for kids to read.  If the goal is to convince young readers, overall, that their time would be more entertainingly and cheerfully spent watching The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, then the strategy for assigning high school reading is just what it should be.

Based on these criteria, I fully expect The Road to be assigned to English classes nationwide at any moment.

* Actually, Ethan Frome is beautifully written - it is a great book.  But it's kind of slow, and what it lacks in boredom it more than makes up for in how much it makes you want to jump off a bridge after reading it.

** Debate about the boredom-inducing qualities of these books is to be expected.  I'll be dumbfounded if anyone wants to argue that they don't represent a cross-section of life's, and literature's, biggest downers.

No comments:

Post a Comment