Throughout my high school English classes, I made certain never to seek the aid of SparkNotes—those best-selling laminated cheat sheets that explain classic works of literature in language teenagers can understand.
Even as virtually all my classmates supplemented their reading assignments with this handy dandy resource—often with the encouragement of the teacher—I took it as a point of pride to always go into a book cold, knowing as little as possible about its contents beforehand and plodding through its prose—however impenetrable—fully on my own, in order to achieve a truly organic reading experience.
It was one of the stupidest decisions I’ve ever made.
In point of fact, I succeeded in never relying on SparkNotes to understand classic literature. The result? I graduated from high school not understanding classic literature.
I opted to treat the act of reading as an ordeal rather than any kind of pleasure, and—wouldn’t you know it?—this had the effect of retarding my ability to read for pleasure.
Of course, I exaggerate a bit. The Catcher in the Rye was relatively straightforward even in 11th grade, and John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany was a joy from start to finish. (Granted, the latter, published in 1989, does not exactly qualify as a “classic.”)
But then there were the likes of Moby-Dick, one of several novels assigned the summer before my senior year, which I struggled all the way through for the sole purpose of being able to say that I had done so. To this day, I still occasionally make that boast, but I don’t remember a thing about the book itself, and I hardly understood a word of it at the time. I was interested merely in finishing the damn thing, and cared not one whit as to why it was (or was not) worth opening in the first place.
I make these rather self-pitying recollections now—lo these many years later—to draw a handful of possibly useful life lessons here in the opening week of a new school year.
First, I note what an obviously terrible attitude this was in any case. Indeed, if you insist on making things needlessly difficult for yourself, whatever the subject at hand, you are all but fated to succeed.
Second, I must take exception to the general feeling among most former students that English teachers—or, more specifically, English curricula—have extended every effort to make literature as unpleasant and dull as humanly possible, and are therefore singularly responsible for any and all hostility that young people develop toward the idea of reading for fun.
Yes, it’s true that many such courses reduce even the most irresistible tomes to various mind-numbing “exercises,” be they lists of arcane vocabulary words or long-winded discussions of symbols and metaphors. And, perhaps more to the point, the roster of selected readings itself is always something of a head-scratcher. (To wit: Why, in a world that contains Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, do so many school districts opt to waste everyone’s time with Wharton’s Ethan Frome?)
As such, blaming one’s teachers for one’s aversion to reading would be convenient, cathartic and partially correct. But I would just as well blame myself, and I would advise others to adopt a like view. J.K. Rowling once quipped, “There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.” I dare say the same is true for educators. Sooner or later, the resistance to read is not their fault.
Third, and most crucially, is the question of pride.
The truth of the matter is that there are plenty of teenagers who can handle (and enjoy) sophisticated books without outside assistance, but I was simply not one of them. I was not clever enough in high school to digest Dickens and Fitzgerald sans SparkNotes. In thinking I was, I deprived myself of the intellectual delights that come with truly exploring and understanding a great work of literature.
I thought that reading a classic novel without any context or cheat sheet was the right and honorable way to go. I was mistaken.
In the intervening years, I have attempted to rectify this grievous sin by catching up on many of the works I had subconsciously avoided since leaving high school, and I am infinitely glad to have (finally) done so.
The difference between then and now—that is, the secret to genuinely enjoying the sorts of books that are forced upon you when you are young—is that I have succumbed to the temptation to cheat. I have pocketed my pride, having found so little use for it in the first place.
Earlier this summer, for instance, I finally encountered Hamlet. I’d somehow never read it before, and decided that enough was enough. In preparation, I went to Wikipedia and learned the entire plot, from start to finish, as well as all the major themes and characterizations.
As such, I was able to properly digest and appreciate Shakespeare’s most complex play in one go. This appreciation came through basic comprehension, and that in turn came through knowing what the heck was going on. Even today, I find Shakespearean prose rather daunting. The key was admitting this to myself in advance, and not trying to be a hero by plowing through it on my own. By acting otherwise for so long, what was I trying to prove, anyway?
They say pride is the deadliest of the deadly sins. I’m sure there are some practical uses for it, but destroying the experience of reading a great book is not one of them. I just wish it had taken me less than a decade to figure that out.