I was the kid who got in trouble for reading under the dining room table. When I picked up a new book, I would shut myself inside my room for the whole day, not coming out until evening, and when I finally did I’d be so emotionally drained from empathizing with every damn character that I would barely talk until the next day. I read “The Maze Runner” series on a road trip with my mom (giving a massive middle finger to car sickness), and when Newt died, I sobbed for the next hour in the car. And yet, despite all this, assigned readings have still managed to slowly corrode my love for books.
I remember filling out those elementary school reading logs and running out of space in the boxes. At the time, being forced to read was like my parents sending me to my room as a punishment (an introverted child’s greatest secret). And yet, when I started to be assigned specific books, whatever teachers perceived were the canons of literature, I resented reading. I found it draining — not in a good way — and an utter waste of my time. And if I didn’t like a book, it typically meant that I wasn’t going to learn from it.
I will not be presenting a solution here, because ultimately public education is mostly a shit-show in dozens of other ways I can’t help. But in case you’re curious, here are the books that done me the most dirty (my least favorite assigned readings from junior high to college):
1. “Heart of Darkness”
I knew this book was trouble from the moment I opened it. I told my teacher this, but she encouraged me to focus more on the ~style~ of writing than the content. So in other words, I was supposed to ignore the racist, sociopathic colonizer attitudes of the novel and enjoy how beautifully Conrad could write about the Congo River. Reasonably so, this pissed me off. Not only was this book grotesquely problematic, but it really wasn’t that interesting. It felt like an imperialist version of “Scary Movie 2” — dramatic horror and modernism to the point of comedy. I don’t know if I wish it was banned because it’s important to learn about and be exposed to controversial texts in literature classes, but I wish my teacher hadn’t glossed over the issues and encouraged its reverence. Also, this book is just straight up dense for no reason. I’d read one page and feel like I needed a three-hour nap.
2. “Beowulf “
Honest to God y’all, if I EVER have to read this book again, I will stab myself in the eyes. I concede that I do not have the most refined taste (I love me some Rainbow Rowell), but this book is so damn terrible. Like if toxic masculinity were a novel, this is it. Man fights monster, wins. Man fights monster’s mom, wins. Man fights dragon, loses. They give him a funeral. Like okay??? We’re just not here for the sperm show.
3. “Great Expectations”
As tempting as the puns are here, I’ll spare you. I truly believe Dickens was trying his best here, and maybe I would have appreciated his efforts more had his friends not convinced him to cut the more depressing ending he intended to have, but this was just not cute. And I didn’t even have to read all of it! My teacher herself recognized it was bad and allowed us to read one chapter per reading assignment and Shmoop the rest (which is how I know Dickens’ fully morose dreams were not realized, thanks Shmoop, I owe you my life). Estella was a true bitch, and not in a fun femme power way like our dear witch Abigail Williams. Charlie gave us many a word, but not many an original plot point.
As a prospective English major, I understand that this is essentially blasphemous. But I was not amused. If anything, this should’ve been about our icon Lady Macbeth. Our homeboy Macbeth is so irritating that I couldn’t even enjoy the hilarious tragedy that was his life. It got quite boring to watch him succumb to teeny peeny insecurity and kill over and over again anyone and everyone that threatened his power. I get that Shakespeare is considered a genius for a reason, but I just don’t see this as a shining moment.
5. “Billy Budd”
For some reason, I assumed that this whole having-to-read-terrible-books thing would stop once I got to college. I was deeply mistaken. This was viscerally painful to read and taught me quite literally nothing. Billy Budd was like a Ken doll come to life, and it was tough to empathize with someone so terribly dull. I thought I’d escaped having to read Melville when magically none of my high school teachers made me read “Moby Dick,” but once again, I was deeply mistaken. And I do resent it.
And just for fun, here are my honorable mentions:
- “The Crucible”
- “Animal Farm”
- “Bunnicula” (please look this up for a hearty laugh if you haven’t heard of it)
Contact Malia Mendez at mjm2000 ‘at’ stanford.edu.