between daemons: does 'required reading' ruin books?

Between Daemons is a discussion post series dealing in bookish and filmish topics. Inspired by the spiritual companions from the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman, I chose that specific title to encourage comments and conversations grounded in the personal thoughts, feelings, and opinions you may not have the chance to share very often. While disagreement is welcome, disrespect is not. As always, please be polite to your fellow commenters!

A recent Twitter discussion about a user's average Goodreads rating (started by @WordsWithLara!) had me re-examining my one-star reviews. Since joining in 2012, I haven't added that many: only 12 out of a total 426 ratings. Some of them were books I'd picked up for pleasure only to very grudgingly, grumpily finish because I'd already paid for them, but others were books assigned to me in school. Out of that small brotherhood, a full third are required reading titles. They all have an average rating close to four stars or better, so these are a far cry from universally reviled books.

This disparity has me asking another question: do 'required reading' assignments negatively impact your enjoyment of a book?

With the school year approaching another end, it seemed like a fitting time to talk about our positive and negative experiences with school reading assignments. Personally, I can't fit all of my assigned readings into one category or the other. This is partly thanks to having high school English teachers who preferred to designate a category of books to choose from, rather than making the entire class read the same thing. Because of that flexibility I had my choice of National Book Award winners, classic novels, Shakespearean plays, and even current releases. While this made the actual school year much more enjoyable, summer reading usually didn't allow the same freedom of choice.

Those are the books I'm going to focus in on for this discussion: books assigned to the entire class with no input from students. I've selected a few that (I believe) are relatively common in American high school classrooms. Breaking them down into books I liked, disliked, and want to revisit, I dredge up my memories of required reading assignments through the years. Let's start with the positive, shall we?


The Stranger by Albert Camus
My sophomore English teacher used one of Camus' most famous novels to simultaneous give a lesson in literature and philosophy. This really enriched the learning experience for me: instead of looking at metaphors and narrative arcs in a vacuum (and speculating on a author's undocumented intent, which I hate!) we used The Stranger to develop a vocabulary for talking about existentialism and the effects that alienation can have on an individual. Beyond the excellent lesson plan, I also loved Camus' writing style. I've read several more of his novels on my own time, as well as had the pleasure of studying a couple more in college. This was a rare instance of discovering a favorite author in the classroom!

Othello by William Shakespeare
The first Shakespearean play I ever read (in middle school), Othello was such a success for me thanks to its villain, Iago. My teacher's personality also made all the difference: effusive and outgoing, with a theatrical streak, she taught most of the text by having us read aloud in turns. Another useful trick was her choice of the Folger edition. Some classroom-oriented editions place a "modern" translation of Shakespeare's play on the facing page; Folger editions instead provide notes on grammar, vocabulary, and history that provide context without ever diluting the original play. Instead of just learning what happened in Othello, I developed skills that helped me read and interpret some of his other plays later on!


The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Ironically, we read this in the same class that made Othello such a hit. In spite of its relatively short length every page of Old Man was a monumental struggle. I disliked Hemingway's style of writing—and that continued through high school—and, because of its brevity, we were expressly told not to read ahead outside of class. This mean I had to sit through laborious repetitions of Christ imagery and speculation over the symbol of the fish. According to our teacher, hidden meaning lurked in every word of Hemingway's novella; she allowed no room for our own interpretation, instead teaching us the "correct" way of reading the book. Admittedly, her teaching methods can't change my dislike of the general style, but her rigid approach spoiled any chance The Old Man and the Sea had of entertaining or stimulating me.

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
This book served as our summer reading assignment before sophomore World History AP. The central premise is interesting and plausible: when European explorers began subjugating indigenous societies in North and South America, their success hinged on possessing guns, germs (diseases like smallpox), and steel that the natives did not. Unfortunately, a thesis that could have been adequately explained (to the lay-person, which we all were) in 200 pages took nearly twice as long in Diamond's hands. Every chapter was mired in repetition and his tone often betrayed confusion over the intended audience. On the one hand, Diamond expected a relatively strong background in world history; on the other, he wrote in a voice that reinforced his own superior knowledge. I still cringe when I see this on the shelves of a bookstore, and it's been over 10 years since I had to read it!


The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
When I first read this it suffered a similar fate as The Old Man and the Sea: too rigid of a lesson plan, that emphasized a "correct" interpretation over flexing our developing brain cells. In the intervening years, however, I've watched and enjoyed both film adaptations of Fitzgerald's story about love, class, and the emptiness of material fulfillment. Knowing that the stereotype of movies not quite living up to their literary sources often proves true, I really want to revisit Gatsby on my own terms and enjoy a story even richer than its flashy, big-screen cousins.

1776 by David McCullough
Another summer reading as prep for high school history, this time AP U.S. History. As I remember it, McCullough wrote with enough detail that he assumed the reader had a fairly good working knowledge of the beginning of the American Revolution. While I remembered the essential facts, it had been three years since my last U.S. history class and a lot of details didn't stick! That made 1776 a bit of a slog and I think I took nearly all summer to read it. My recent efforts to read more non-fiction have been rewarding, though, and Chernow's massive biographies of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton have both been excellent refreshers on the time period. I'd like to revisit 1776 armed with that additional knowledge to get a bigger overview of the politics at play during one of the most important moments in my country's history.

The Aeneid by Virgil
This ancient classic was doomed from the start: in junior AP Latin, we had to translate it, line by line, from Latin into English. That was the whole. entire. class. And then we took a national exam for college credit at the end of the year. By winter break I was so turned around by tenses and how there are so many noun/verb forms that you can arrange the words in practically any order and technically still translate it correctly that I was done with Aeneas and his shenanigans. If I got the change to read it again—and I don't think I even own an English translation!—I would want to enjoy it for the story, rather than the linguistic exercise.

So there you have it—my most vivid required reading memories! Looking back over the list, as well as remembering all the titles I didn't include, I wouldn't make a blanket statement that being assigned a book ruins it for me as a reader. A teacher's approach was much more influential, particularly when I consider that I wouldn't have selected any of these books to read for pleasure in middle or high school. I was also happy to see that there are titles I would return to now. That just reinforces my belief that you really can read a book at the wrong time or in the "wrong way" (by which I mean, not being able to do so on your own terms!). If you weren't in love with a book you read in school, don't be afraid to give it a second chance! Tastes, situations, and perspectives change over time, so you never know what may resonate with you months or years later.

Does being assigned a book change your opinion of it? Do you ever re-read assigned books after that class is over? Did the classroom setting help you interpret a book or just overly complicate it? Sound off in the comments below!

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