I remember realizing the day had arrived like a villain rolling into town in a western. But there was no Clint Eastwood or John Wayne to make things right. I was thirteen and about to read “Lord of the Flies,” which felt like an injustice. I heard unfavorable things from the older kids:
“You know what happens in that book? Yeah, a bunch of boys become cannibals.”
“They’re just on the beach, and then they all eat each other.”
“You know there’s cannibalism in that thing, right?”
“God, I hated that book.”
My teacher made us sit dutifully in our chairs and silently read it. It amuses me to think that she did this because she had never and didn’t want to read “Lord of the Flies” either. Unsurprisingly, like many middle schoolers before me, I didn’t enjoy the book. I was too young to appreciate how grotesquely meaningful it is.
The moral of this slightly unimportant tale is that I read “Lord of the Flies” and disliked it enough that I didn’t pick up another book for a long time. There is a danger to assigning books carelessly — young students may become averse to reading after choking down a book they don’t like. English teachers, particularly high school ones, are given the difficult task of choosing books that students like enough to continue reading after the class ends.
When I was in high school, I shelved books at a library while listening to various podcasts. On one occasion, I listened to the College Board’s “101 Great Books for College-Bound Readers,” which detailed which books should be kept and which should be rid of: “Middlemarch” instead of “The Mill on the Floss;” keep Baldwin; eighteen-year-olds are too young for Becket.
One comment stuck with me. The podcaster said that if you gave a young person “The Canterbury Tales” without any context or means of discussion, they may never pick up a book again. I thought about what he said for a very long time. The finality of it was a little terrifying: never again would they read fiction. Never.
When someone disappoints me, I often wonder if they have ever read anything. Has there never been some story, whether in the form of a novel, movie, song, or personal anecdote, that touched them so deeply they began to look for the good in people more? The best stories make us understand that the people around us have souls. And if we only read what we don’t like, it can be difficult to understand how others find so much joy in novels. The answer is obvious: we are never going to love what we hate by an English class’s poor design.