Annoying Classic Literature

In honor of a chance reunion with my 12th grade English teacher, I offer our gentle readers a short list of so-called classic literature that I despise.

Dickens, Charles Great Expectations

Random kid makes good by helping a convict and just so happens to meet the weirdest woman in England? Real plausible there, Dickens. Not that Dickens ever cared about plausibility (though he apparently cared about orphans and making money).

Try instead: Well, I can’t recommend any more Dickens, since I’m firmly in the Anti-Dickens camp. But I can suggest Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, which presents a much more amusing Miss Havisham.

Great Expectations is available as a book, an audio book, and assorted movies. We also have the Cliffs notes and a DVD guide, but if you’ve been assigned this book you should still probably read it. The Eyre Affair is available as a book or audio book.

Eliot, George Middlemarch

I tried to read this three times, twice while in college, and never managed to get more than 2/3 of the way through it (though I still got As on my papers, go me). The moral of the story is that you shouldn’t marry an old dude when you really want a younger one. There, I just saved you 800+ pages of dullness.

Try instead: Um, I hated Middlemarch so much that I never tried to read any more Eliot. Anyone out there have any suggestions?

Middlemarch is available as a book,  an audio book, and a movie that I should eventually buy for this library. We have the Cliffs notes too, which are probably every bit as boring but much shorter.

James, Henry The Turn of the Screw

This particular bit of assigned summer reading was such exquisite torture that I had to read it twice. Not that I enjoy making myself suffer, mind you, I was just so bored the first time that I was reading individual words and not complete sentences. I had to read it again so that I could pick up enough plot points to write a convincing essay (which I did, of course).

Try instead: Roderick Hudson – I read this one in college, and it actually has a plot. A plot that make sense. And the main character has a name!

The Turn of the Screw is available as a book and an audio book. We have the Cliffs notes as well, so save your money and borrow our copy instead. Roderick Hudson is only available as a book, probably because everyone gives up on Henry James after reading The Turn of the Screw.

Wharton, Edith Ethan Frome

Life is hard! Let’s sled into a tree! While Robert Altman and the crew from M*A*S*H would have us believe that suicide is painless, this book, with its botched and completely lame suicide attempt, is anything but. Gah.

Try instead: Anything else by Edith Wharton. I loved The House of Mirth and Old New York, perhaps because they are nothing like Ethan Frome.

Ethan Frome is available as a book, an audio book, and a movie, though not even the presence of Liam Neeson can make this classic palatable. We also have the Cliffs notes for those who want to get this over with quickly and painlessly – unlike poor Mr. Frome. The House of Mirth is available as a book, an audio book, and a movie – though perhaps not a good one. Old New York is available as a book.

So I ask, gentle readers, are there any classics that you cannot stand? Or would you care to convince me that these four are worth my time after all?

– Amy (who really does have a degree in literature)


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27 responses to “Annoying Classic Literature

  1. I forced myself to read Thoreau’s Walden. My son was assigned this book for his junior year summer reading. My son hated the book and complained endlessly about having to read it. In an effort to show him the errors in ways I read the book. He was right! I was wrong. Our mutual loathing of the text lead to an unexpected parent/child bonding experience.

    • I also had to read Walden in my junior year! It made me less appreciative of nature and more appreciative of air conditioning and indoor plumbing. So there is that, I guess.

      I’m glad that you and your son managed to get something out of it, at least.

      – Amy

  2. Lisa

    The Deerslayer by James Fennimore Cooper gets my vote for the most painful to read classic title I’ve slogged through. Although I also have an English Lit degree, there is an embarassingly long list of titles I haven’t read, so I can’t complain about them (though I do second your opinion on both Great Expectations and Ethan Frome). And if you ever want to do a post on children’s classics we love to hate, count me in.

  3. I totally agree with most of your choices, Amy, but at the same time…well…a lot of this stuff doesn’t get assigned because it’s GOOD, but because the ideas in it have stood the test of time, and/or it was a representative product of its age.

    [You really didn’t want to get me started on canon formation, but now it’s too late…if I ruled the world…mwahahaha….]

    If I had been your teachers, I would’ve picked instead:

    Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities. Romance, honor, a crazy woman with knitting needles. Who could ask for anything more?

    Eliot, Adam Bede. Students are never going to like Eliot. For rousing conversations about pre-marital sex, appropriate romantic partners, and religion/sin/punishment, any teacher with an ounce of sense would pick this one over Middlemarch.

    Wharton, The Age of Innocence. After Adam Bede, of course, for more rousing conversations about social mores!

    James, Collected Stories. Starting somebody off with James’s novels is both wrong, and mean. You don’t feed an entire bag of kibble to growing kittens, and you don’t give one of the most complicated novelists of the 19th/20th century to impressionable minds. Short stories go down better, and innoculate younguns against the trauma, somewhat.

    still irked that nobody ever assigned her To Kill A Mockingbird, but she had to sit through Catcher in the Rye twice. Bleargh.

    • With so much literature out there that really is good, I just can’t see the value of inflicting painful titles on young minds, even if they are themetastic or great depections of their age or style or what have you. Why not save that stuff for college, when the kids who are actually interested are more likely to pay attention?

      I think that a lot of this stuff is assigned to people who are too young to appreciate it – for instance, I found Pride and Prejudice to be horribly dull when I was 16, but somehow it was a hoot when I was 22.

      – Amy
      (who was assigned both To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye, and who remembers very little of either)

      • I totally see your point. There have been a few books I suffered through in class that ended up benefiting me later, but they probably could’ve waited until later…sigh…


  4. Tony

    Right on, Amy. I’m a pretty strong advocate of changing what books are ‘assigned’ reading, but never had a brave enough teacher to go off the grid. I always considered the reading I did when I was slacking off from my assignments to be my real education. That said, I always thought John Barth’s “The Floating Opera” would make for pretty essential college age reading.

    – Tony

    P.S. – Way to totally spoil “Ethan Frome” (a book I had no intention to ever read) for me.

    • Well, I didn’t tell you what kind of tree was involved with the sledding incident, did I? Nor did I mention the sled’s passengers.

      As for off the grid, the English teacher that I mentioned at the beginning of this post assigned me Genet’s The Maids and Deathwatch. That’s some crazy stuff to hand to a 17 year-old. Whee!

      – Amy

  5. jeff

    I completely agree with Ethan Frome, and would like to add The Scarlet Letter and especially A Doll’s House as books I loathed to read in high school.

  6. I’ll see your Ethan Frome and raise you Billy Budd. And Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans (Mark Twain was spot on about Cooper– though I’m relieved that such a great film came out of that book). Ooh! And A Separate Peace. I could probably list dozens from my lit-centric high school career. I’m convinced that James Joyce had a crack sense of humor, because I’m pretty sure that his entire body of work is one giant practical joke that keeps being sprung on generations of scholars.

    I think that on top of being challenging reads, many English teachers treat “The Classics” as mountains to conquer rather than cultural artifacts that (usually) contain a universal truth doubly framed by the written word and the context in which it was written. Some may climb mountains for fun, but how can you appreciate the view when you’re on a painful forced march?

    • “They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.”

      Ah, thank you, Mark Twain! And thank you, Jackie.

      (P.S. My fondest memory of Billy Budd involves playing air hockey with a radiator and a classmate’s hat instead of participating in the discussion.)

  7. Heidi P.

    “Bartleby the Scrivener” – ugh!

    “Catcher in the Rye” – whine whine whine!

    anything by Joyce – sorry, LAV!

    “Orlando” by Virginia Woolf – WTF was this woman on when she wrote this?

    • After reading Bartleby, my whole class spent the rest of the year laying the old “I would prefer not to” on our teacher. Maybe she should have saved that one for spring.

      – Amy

    • rofl @ Heidi AND Amy.

      I love yinz guys. Truly. I didn’t “get” Bartleby (or Bobbie Ann Mason’s “Shiloh,” come to think of it) until I was 35. I guess I could’ve waited on those, but at least we had a good teacher delivering ’em..

      Oh, and Heidi – Orlando actually makes more sense as a movie. Seriously.

  8. Rebekah

    I thoroughly agree about “Billy Budd.” That was one of my summer reading assignments in high school, and I swear it was the longest 81 pages. I’m also in the anti-Dickens camp, and loathe “Hard Times,” though it is aptly named as it seems like you’re serving hard time as you read it.

    “The Old Man and the Sea” is awful and the Spencer Tracy film does nothing to redeem it.

    As to the movie version of “The Scarlet Letter,” if the student wants to pass the exam, yo had best read the book since the movie changes the nove’s ending, oops!

    I never was assigned “The Deerslayer” or any Wharton or Eliot. Yay me for being a music major. *wink*

    • Rebekah

      Correcting my fast typing:

      “You had best read the book since the movie changes the novel’s ending, oops!”

      • Based on your enthusiasm, I think we can forgive the typos!

        – Amy

        • Steve

          I had a class called ‘Medieval Imagination’ which was really a fancy way of saying ‘Medieval Lit. 101’. The only problem was the prof’s idea of ‘medieval lit.’ consisted of nothing but Chaucer and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”.

          After “Troilus and Criseyde” I wanted to open my jugular.


  9. Pingback: Acceptable Classic Literature « Eleventh Stack

  10. tom tobey

    I once had a copy of a German translation of jabberwocky which I found amusing. If I can find it I will post it!

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