65: how to ruin a good book

This week’s ramblings have been brought to you because I have been listening to the audiobook of Cider with Rosie, read by Laurie Lee himself: lush, sunshine-drenched prose, set in countryside not so very far from where I grew up in Monmouthshire. There are some books which, if you mention them to people of a certain age, elicit an instant response of eye-rolling and and ‘urgh, I hate that book, we had to read it in school, it’s so boring.’ It’s true, a terrible English teacher can ruin a wonderful book (equally, a good one can bring it to life: I’m looking at you, Mr Bradley, you and your passion for Jane Austen).

Prime candidates for this, at least for people of my generation, seem to be:

  • Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
  • Cider with Rosie – Laurie Lee
  • The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
  • Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger

All of which are classics, of course, and I love them all, but ‘studying literature’ as opposed to just reading a book can really ruin it for people. Second-guessing what the author meant, analysing their intent in using this word or that, deconstructing poetry often means that you can’t see the story for the words, to paraphrase that famous saying about forests and trees.

My own GCSE texts included a story or two from Leslie Norris’s Sliding, which I still love, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and probably some other ones but, amazingly, none of those listed above featured – probably because of the move from O-level to GCSE the previous year.

A badly-chosen text can have the same negative impact: for me this was Graham Swift’s Waterland, set in the Fens and with content so far out of my sphere of experience as an A-level student that I couldn’t engage. Mr Mills tried his best, bless him, but it was hard going. Ten years later, I found myself spending a lot of time in the Fens around March and Ely, so I went back and read the book as an adult: it’s brilliant, frankly, but it took an understanding of the area and the concerns of an adult to understand it. My youngest sister had The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro as one of her A-level texts: my mum and I loved it, she didn’t – presumably for the same reasons I couldn’t get to grips with Waterland. It doesn’t matter how much you love books and reading, if you can’t engage with the content then you’re unlikely to enjoy it.

I suppose the point of teaching literature is to inspire a love of reading in children, but I do wonder occasionally who chooses the texts. Thing 1 is in her first year of GCSEs and is doing Macbeth and A Christmas Carol and doesn’t like either of them: she loves analysing text but hasn’t engaged with either of those. She’s just said that she likes book she can relate to: she read William Goldings Lord of the Flies before being given it at school and loved it.

I love reading, I don’t understand why they can’t just let us read it, they keep stopping us every five seconds to make us analyse why Lady Macbeth is a symbol of patriarchal society. What if he just liked Lady Macbeth? If they just gave me ‘The Outsiders’ or ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ I could analyse them in about five minutes cos I can relate to them.’

Thing 1

The school Things One and Two attend practise DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) so they are expected to have a book of their choice to hand at all times, and the teachers have door signs saying what their current book is as well. I love this idea, and it’ll probably go further to instilling a love of literature in children who aren’t growing up surrounded by books than if their first encounter with great books is stripping them into their component parts without ever getting to enjoy the stories first.

The year of the handmade gift

Back to a bit of crochet for the latest gifts: I made the ladybird a leaf sleeping bag, and also made this Totoro baby comforter. Both will be going off to a colleague whose wife is expecting. The ladybird is for his older daughter, as big sisters need a present too! It’s back to the cross stitch now, while I carry on listening to Cider with Rosie even though the sun has gone away again.

Another gift is with its new owner today – I have just this minute had a text message to say thank you, so happy birthday Gina! We have always had a resident fox at the Museum, with cubs most years, so this seemed like an apt present. The pattern is from MaxStitch.

I am off now to get on with things….see you next week!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

The Glamourist/The Conjurer – Luanne G. Smith

Moonshine – Jasmine Gower

Attention All Shipping – Charlie Connelly

Cider with Rosie – Laurie Lee (Audible)

One thought on “65: how to ruin a good book

  1. So true, I never did get the point of trying to understand what an author was supposedly thinking! Haven’t thought about Mr Bradley for years but he did make Jane Austin interesting. And agree again about Waterlands, still don’t like or understand that book and stubbornly won’t give it another chance!

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