I’ve read a few books in the last couple years and while I can’t honestly say that they have been building towards any one book in particular, I can earnestly write that there were always a few books that I despised growing up that I was sure I could find a way to like or get something out of as an adult. This is the honest purpose of my RRHS series. I believe that in many cases high school students are asked to read novels that they have no business reading. Not because it’s too good for them, but because it’s introduced too soon. It’s difficult for kids to read some supposed literary greats and think about anything other than how boring it is. Does that mean we should just give students John Grisham and Stephanie Meyer novels all year long so they can be entertained? No. Not even a little bit. But the fact of the matter is that reading novels carries with it the weight of entertainment. If a novel fails to be entertaining in at least some way then has it succeeded at all? As an English teacher I fully believe that one of the ways we’ve failed students is in refusing to understand that in the classroom we’ve made students associate reading with work. As if it is part of their 9-5 job and we’re asking them to take time outside work to keep working on it.
Why do people read novels? Is not the basic truth of the matter that we want to be entertained? Sure, it is true that some people desire for their books to carry a bit more weight than others, but in the end the reason I read Thomas Pynchon and other people read Nicholas Sparks is based upon what we derive the most satisfaction from. Ignoring that books such as Finnegan’s Wake hang over an essay such as this one like a ghost in a haunted house, I have to ask the question: At what point does one officially give up on reading a novel?
I wrote at the start of this post that there isn’t a book that I was really working towards a goal in my reading. That is for the most part true, but I have had in mind a novel that I knew I wanted to give a real second chance once I felt that I had gotten my reading endurance levels high enough to slog my way through it, even if I still didn’t enjoy it. That novel was Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. In high school I think I read to page 150 or so before quitting on Pip. Not only did I quit, I walked away with a vocal distaste for Dickens, willing to happily rant about my displeasure with his supposed greatness to anyone who wanted to know my opinion. This followed me through college, where even as an English minor I never had to read him. When I met another person who did enjoy him I was bewildered and fascinated. How could one possibly enjoy him? In the end I think I felt him to be using more words for the sake of having them. I remember proudly perpetuating the myth that Dickens was paid by the word. It didn’t matter how interesting his stories were. They were so dense and masked by language that I couldn’t access them.
Part of the problem was that I was asked to read Great Expectations as a high school freshman. Which, to this day, has yet to cause anyone to do anything less than cringe. Upon revisiting it, that anyone in my class made it through it at that age was a miracle that the Vatican will certify (or maybe we were a class full of liars). When I began to go back through the books I read or was at least supposed to have read in high school, Great Expectations still brought up intense feelings of frustration and worry at the thought of potentially going through the whole thing. Yet as I’ve gone through the supposed classics I either loved or hated as a kid, I’ve noticed that my feelings about the books have switched poles. I disliked Things Fall Apart in school and now love it. I loved The Scarlet Pimpernel and now find it upsettingly bad. I couldn’t even remember the characters of The Great Gatsby and now at least understand why it is so important. After reading these novels I began to soften immensely to the idea of Great Expectations. When I would walk around bookstores and see the expansive selection of Dickens’ works I would start to feel a bit excited rather than frustrated. Finally I pulled the trigger I bought Great Expectations. When I finished George Saunders’ CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (review coming July 4th), I began reading.
For about fifty pages I was okay with the novel. It had been so long since I had last read Dickens that it was as if I had never read him. I laughed a few times. I understood why people who liked him always said he was funny. I would like to think that I overcame the negative association I had with Dickens’ writing going in. Yet… ten pages later it wasn’t so easy going. The writing started to weigh more and more upon me as I found it to just take so long to say what it wanted to say. His jokes stopped being funny as they would just appear into view more than anything else. The book became something that caused my eyes to glaze over. At 80 pages I found myself worried about Great Expectations once again. I took a breather and read another collection of short stories and went back. After forty more pages with Dickens I was done. After 120 pages I couldn’t do it anymore. Pip was annoying. Miss Havisham was ridiculous. The book was a swamp to trudge through rather than a tale to take in. The idea of reading four hundred more pages of it was exhausting and unattractive.
But why? Why could I not read it? I’ve finished other books that I didn’t like. More difficult ones. What is it about Great Expectations that makes it insufferable to me? I’ve thought about it for a week and I think I have an answer. A simple one. Great Expectations simply wasn’t in the least bit entertaining to me. It wasn’t entertaining to me in high school and it isn’t entertaining to me now. It has relatively little to do with Dickens’ prose in all odds, as I can enjoy that of DFW and Michael Chabon with their 10 page long sentences. No, it’s something else that I’m not sure I can put my finger on. Perhaps I’m still not old enough to click with it. Perhaps I wasn’t distanced enough from my previous hostile feelings to Dickens. Perhaps I’m still just not giving it a fair shake.
Yet again this brought me to thinking about what we ask students of literature to read. It’s true that often you have to read things you don’t like to grow as a reader. But many, many times you’ll begin something with hatred and end it with love or at least an appreciation of the book. However, asking people to read what they have absolutely no interest in is death to reading. If all of reading had the same negative connotation that Dickens has to me then I would never read again. Yet this is what we’re doing when we ask students to read nothing but things like Great Expectations while telling them that their YA books are trash or their graphic novels and comics or manga is a not good enough. When we forsake the fact that novels are written for their stories and the story is the oldest form of entertainment then we participate in the death of potential readers.
Beyond all this, however, I still believe there is a point where readers should want their fiction to have a bit more weight to it. But isn’t that on my shoulders as a teacher? If I’ve not led a student to water how can I be mad at them when they don’t drink it? And I think this about all forms of entertainment whether it be movies, TV, or painting. Shouldn’t there come a point where the entertainment you digest mean something more than a cheap laugh or an easy cry? I think the answer is somewhere in agency: letting people find a vein they like to exist in and beginning to challenge them more and more within it. It’s okay to despise Great Expectations just like it’s okay to despise Hunger Games. In the end what I hope I am saying is that with our entertainment, in this case examined through the vehicle of novels, we should follow what we love while continually asking ourselves if it means anything more to us than being simple entertainment for entertainment’s sake. And in the case of Great Expectations, admitting when it neither boldly challenges or playfully entertains us as individuals.