To all of our former English teachers,
Maybe you adhered to a curriculum that had been set by the school district or the government, or maybe you chose books you thought we would enjoy. Regardless, we were disappointed in your choices. There are books written in the 21st century that you could have taught us — more diverse books. Yet, year after year, students like us suffered through the same stuffy, boring and outdated books for the sake of a letter grade. The books we read for school, for better or for worse, shape us. We know there may be merit to reading the books you assigned to us, but we’re not aiming for retrospection or understanding. Here are four books that we hated reading throughout our academic careers.
— Books Beat Editor Ava Seaman
“Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
This may sound nerdy, but I genuinely enjoyed most, if not all, of the books I was assigned to read in my high school English classes. I unfortunately cannot say the same for those that I was assigned to read in my Spanish classes. While I did like a few of the assigned Spanish novels, most of them were extremely boring to read and the experience was not made any easier by the antiquated language the novels’ authors employed. And even if hating the assigned readings in my Spanish classes was second nature to me, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s “Don Quixote” stands out as the worst and (personally) most hated of them all.
“Don Quixote” follows the story of a man named Don Quixote and his self-imposed journey of becoming a knight-errant as a result of reading chivalric romance novel after chivalric romance novel. With the help of Sancho Panza, his trusty sidekick, Don Quixote roams the world as he attempts to accomplish what he believes is his life’s destiny. His story has consumed the minds of readers and high school Spanish teachers for over four hundred years, and it’s considered by many to be the first modern novel.
I am not here to deny “Don Quixote”’s iconic status. I firmly believe that Cervantes was a genius of a writer and storyteller, but I do think that the story he crafted, and his writing for that matter, is severely outdated. I perfectly remember picking up my copy of “Don Quixote” during my sophomore year of high school, only to put it down five minutes later, not having understood nor retained any of the words on the single page I was able to get through. Spanish teachers nowadays merely assign a select number of chapters from “Don Quixote”’s two volumes, so I think it’s safe to say they should just stop assigning the novel altogether.
Daily Arts Writer Graciela Batlle Cestero can be reached at email@example.com.
“The Crucible” by Arthur Miller
One thing that consistently amazes me about old books is their unmatched ability to take a suspenseful, riveting historical context and suck the life out of it until the concept lies dead on the ground, still and lifeless. The Salem witch trials are undoubtedly among the most bizarre, horrific events to happen in human history. Imagine getting publicly executed by your community for … doing what, exactly? Existing? I can’t tell you how glad I am to not live in Salem in 1692.
Despite this terrifying, captivating source material, Miller overcame the odds by aggressively stomping on every flickering spark of life within this tragic tale, and convinced my 15-year-old self (with the help of Shakespeare, of course) that every stage play is a deeply strategic tool, meticulously crafted by anti-education gods to ensure that students never again pick up a book for the rest of their lives. That, or these playwrights really were writing for the stage — in which case, I’m an enthusiastic advocate for English teachers acting it out for us, or else not assigning them at all.
Daily Arts Writer Pauline Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift
During my senior year of high school, I took an amazing class that covered Western Humanities from ancient Mesopotamia to the post-World War I United States. We read dozens of books and I honestly loved most of them; but, hidden in our exciting explorations of Plato, Shakespeare, Voltaire and Thoreau was Jonathan Swift and his wretched “Gulliver’s Travels.” This 18th-century satire is one of the most painful and generally worst books I have ever had to read in or outside of a class.
“Gulliver’s Travels” is often hailed as a classic and one of the most influential books of all time, claimed to be a “satirical masterpiece” and prolific work of English literature. It follows the bumbling Lemuel Gulliver on his never-ending misadventures through hellish fantasy lands. The buffoonish Gulliver manages to offend every group he encounters and narrowly escapes death time and time again as the reader increasingly starts to hold a secret hope that maybe his next mishap will lead to a painfully deserved death — putting both Gulliver and reader out of their shared misery.
I am sure that at its time of publication, the crude humor and cartoonish characters of “Gulliver’s Travels” were biting caricatures and satires. However, reading it almost 200 years later, most of its political and social commentary is lost on the reader. Discussions of bygone British political parties and Anglo-Irish conflicts are irrelevant to the average American high schooler. Combined with the antiquated language and outdated cultural attitudes, “Gulliver’s Travels” makes for an unengaging and unrewarding required read. There are better classical examples of satires for teachers to draw from (check out Voltaire’s “Candide” or Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey,” even Swift’s infamous essay, “A Modest Proposal”) and it is time for Swift’s novel to be removed from the required reading roster.
Daily Arts Writer Kathryn Hemmila can be reached at email@example.com
“The Beans of Egypt, Maine” by Carolyn Chute
This spring, I had the opportunity to participate in the New England Literature Program — an experience I highly recommend for anyone, especially those pursuing an education in the arts. NELP was rigorous — in addition to hiking every week, cleaning common spaces, preparing meals and attending classes, students were expected to read 11 books, including two full novels. One of the novels was “The Beans of Egypt, Maine,” an unflinching examination of the conditions of rural poverty by Maine native Carolyn Chute.
I wanted to love this book. Chute focuses her attention on the Bean family, shunned by society and commanded by patriarch Reuben, and Earlene, a neighbor to the family who is wracked by bouts of depression and religious guilt. Despite its heavy themes and clear condemnation of the ever-widening gulf between the social classes, Chute still finds moments of intimacy and hope amid all the madness.
Two scenes, however, pulled me out of the novel. Both depict sexual encounters where consent is dubious, if not non-existent. In each case, one character’s protestations are entirely ignored by the other. The descriptions are terse, but both scenes are laced with an unspoken threat of violence. They are, unambiguously, rape scenes.
But not according to the author. In the afterword to the 1995 edition, Chute refused to even engage with the notion that the scene could constitute rape. “I’d be interested to see what kind of sex feminists would not describe as rape,” Chute wrote of the scene. As to the extremely questionable consent, she said the character in question “never says no.” The conversation never goes further than that.
While Chute’s adamant reading of her own novel may be at least partially explained by some of the unfounded negative press the book received — Chute claims one social worker even went so far as to suggest that the book’s themes hinted at a past of buried abuse — it doesn’t excuse her open refusal to even discuss the violence that underlies both scenes. The literary merits of this book are without question, but its insensitive approach to sexual violence makes it a poor choice for required reading.
Daily Arts Writer Alex Hetzler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org