School. What Is It Good For?

Animal FarmWhile I was one of those studious types who, for the most part, enjoyed her time at school, I have in recent years come to realise an extra school bonus. That is that school potentially offers us that key, almost once-in-a-lifetime, opportunity to read some of the great books of our time.

I’m talking about the 1984s, The Great Gatsbys, the Brave New Worlds, the Animal Farms, the Pride and Prejudices, the Catcher in the Ryes, the To Kill A Mockingbirds, the A Clockwork Oranges, The Princess Brides, and The Crucibles. The books that are cultural touchstones and that are bywords for capturing or interpreting events or experiences.

These days we describe a perceived as intrusive use of technology as ‘very 1984’, bleak, dog-eat-dog situations as ‘lord of the flies’ in style, and many women hope to meet their very own dashing ‘Mr Darcy’. There are lines of dialogue that are regularly quoted—‘Two legs good. Four legs bad.’ and ‘My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.’ And who could forget the characters whose names—Boo Radley or Atticus Finch or Holden Caulfield—conjure up very distinct memories and meanings?

The Princess BrideOf course, when you’re forced to write critical essays under exam conditions or give oral presentations about a character or particular theme from one of these books, it’s understandable that you don’t necessarily appreciate you’re on to a good thing. But while the memories of the specific assessment tasks that surround them fade away (I mean, I can’t remember which assessment I completed for which book), the overall memory of that book doesn’t.

Some of us revisit those texts as adults, with many swearing by the grown-up pass. It’s a way of both returning to a happy reading time and of appreciating the writers’ subtleties and sophistication that may have gone over one’s younger reading head. What I’ve realised is that although revisiting is excellent, if school didn’t give you that initial reading introduction, it is very, very difficult to get round to reading these modern classics as an adult.

I’m puzzled why this is so. My guess is that adulthood brings with it greater time pressures, more distractions, and less reading time, and that reading the modern classics is, much like housework, something you know you should do but you keep putting off until later. Me? I’m also distracted by the bright, shiny new releases and am less likely to get back to the classics—they’ve always been around and will always be, but this brand, spanking new title with an uncracked spine? That’s cutting edge and uber tempting.

A Clockwork OrangeIt’s in this blog that I should probably fess up that I only recently managed to read 1984 (although I loved, loved, loved Animal Farm when I read it at school). I’ve never read The Catcher in the Rye (and I can’t right now, because, like, everyone’s reading it after his death and I don’t want to seem like a mainstreaming groupie). Nor have I read The Lord of The Flies, A Clockwork Orange, or Brave New World. I bought a shiny new copy of the latter about a year ago with the determination to gain insight into our near future and to catch myself up on the Aldus Huxley references, but even that new copy keeps gathering dust on the shelf as it gets prioritised as a book ‘for later’.

Bizarrely, it was an attempt to read Fahrenheit 451 because I hadn’t been made to read it at school that saw the freshly purchased copy disappear from my bookshelf before I’d even cracked the spine. My family would argue that all the accusations and mystery could have been avoided were it a set text during high school. And they have a point.

The Catcher in the RyeAlthough I read some fantastic books during school, there are so many I also missed out on. I would give anything now to have read Fahrenheit 451, as well as Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, and The Catcher in the Rye, because I’m not sure when or how I’ll find the time to now. Which books did you miss during that first pass stage at school? Have you managed to read them now? If so, how?

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Fiona Crawford

Fiona Crawford is a freelance writer, editor, blogger, proofreader, and voracious reader. She regularly appears as a book reviewer in Australian BOOKSELLER+PUBLISHER magazine. Fiona is also (unfairly) known as the Book Burglar due to her penchant for buying family members—then permanently borrowing—books she wants to read herself.

One thought on “School. What Is It Good For?”

  1. Earlier this year I was at the local Lifeline Bookfair, scrounging for bargain books for my children, when I spotted a copy of Treasure Island for 50 cents, and thought to myself, “I’ve never actually read Treasure Island,” and threw it into the box with everything else. At the same table I saw 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, also 50 cents, so I bought that too, and then a copy of Bram Stocker’s Dracula for a whopping $1.00. Now that I’ve read them all and realised WHY they are considered classics, I’m on a mission to fill in the gaps in my reading. I haven’t read Fahrenheit 451 or Lord of the Flies either, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for them now. Thanks for reminding me of a few more titles to add to my list. There is a reason these books are considered classics. Mostly it’s because they are bloody good reads, and it seems a shame to miss out on a story that is already well acclaimed as a good one, when the alternative is to pick up something brand new and shiny that may turn out to be a load of fluff.

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