Friday Book Chats: My Teacher Made Me Do It

Today’s book chat is a tip of the hat to some of the literature teachers I’ve had over the years who assigned me some great works that I may have never read on my own. Of course, not every book I read in school was a smash hit. A lot of the books on my Books I’m Supposed to Love But Can’t Help Hating list were also assigned reading. But this post is about celebrating the gems I discovered and  about saying thank you to the teachers who made me do something I didn’t necessarily want to do because they knew it would make my life richer. (Or because they were required to by state law, but either way…)

1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I can’t say for sure that I would never have read this book if it hadn’t been assigned, but I certainly wouldn’t have read it when I did and I think this is a book that impacts you more when you read it as an adolescent. As a teenager in the American South this book had an impact on my developing understanding of race and justice in America.

2. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. I wouldn’t call this a favorite book, but it is a book that I’m glad to have read. As a sophomore (or maybe junior?) in a small Christian high school I remember my sheltered self being appalled and disgusted by parts of this book (particularly the ending) but after a few years of maturing and, frankly, growing less prudish about literature, I came to really appreciate its message about the Haves and the Have Nots, the scope of moral vision, and the endurance of human dignity.

3. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. In retrospect, it’s strange that this book was assigned at my conservative Christian high school, but I think it had more to do with it being a story set in Louisiana and written by a local author. This book is considered a comedic masterpiece and follows the main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, “a Don Quixote of the French Quarter”  on a series of comedic adventures.

4. Light in August by William Faulkner. I read this book in college having previously only read The Sound and the Fury (a book I was not thankful to have read in high school). Light in August is one of my favorite modern classics and its main character, Joe Christmas, is one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever encountered.

5. The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare. I happen to love Shakespeare so who can say whether or not I would have gotten to this play eventually had it not been assigned, but it is one of the less famous of Shakespeare’s plays. I read this during a study abroad in England and later saw a stage production of it in Stratford that was so creative that it brought the play to life for me in a way I’ve never forgotten.

6. Dogwalker by Arthur Bradford. I had to write a paper on this collection of short stories while in college. Initially I thought it was bizarre and disturbing and I kind of hated it. The stories in this book are strange bordering on the absurd with elements of magical realism woven throughout. After studying the text and learning more about the author I came to understand these stories as showing the strange and unconventional beauty of the misfits of society.

7. Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. Elaine Risley is a painter who has returned to Toronto, the town where she grew up, for a retrospective, only to be confronted with the shadows of her childhood. As someone who has spent much of recent years trying to make sense of the complexities of my own childhood, this book resonated with me on a deep level. It was heart-wrenching and tender and funny all at once and I remember it as one of the most moving books I’ve ever read.

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12 comments

    1. The Sound and the Fury is so difficult. I can’t believe we had to read it in high school. The whole first section is narrated in stream of consciousness by a mentally challenged person. I can’t imagine a worse way to get the reader engaged from the beginning. It’s so confusing! But Light in August is much easier to understand. 🙂

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  1. I really don’t like Margaret Atwood. I hate to admit it, as she is a fellow Canadian, and we are all supposed to kiss the hallowed ground she walks upon, but I have not enjoyed the books I was forced to read of hers throughout school. Maybe I should try Cat’s Eye, it sounds intriguing, but it will be hard to get past my initial “ugh” factor of an Atwood book.

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    1. I think Cat’s Eye is one of the most accessible Margaret Atwood books. I’d say that one and Blind Assassin are my favorites even though they’re not quite as popular as, say, The Handmaid’s Tale. But, of course, you are under no obligation to like her books. I used to feel pressured into trying to like things I just didn’t like, but I’m becoming more comfortable admitting when I don’t like something without feeling like it means I must have bad taste. 😉

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      1. As a Canadian you are definitely pressured into thinking Margaret ATwood is the be-all and end-all of writing. It’s kind of nauseating. Especially to those of us who live in the West – for me she personifies much of the attitude that many people who live in Toronto have; namely, that it is the seat of culture and everything else in Canada and therefore anyone who does anything apart from there does not rate. The whole thing grates on me, as you can tell. And I just don’t think her writing is any better than lots of other Canadian writers I have read. So, ugh.

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      2. It would be the equivalent of being an American who hates To Kill a Mockingbird. 🙂 That would be really irritating – to be considered “uncultured” even by your own countrymen because you’re not from the right area. Perhaps similar to the stigma on the American south (where I’m from) that everyone there is uneducated.

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  2. Hurray for lit teachers! 🙂 Love this list, as I love all your Friday book chats. Your teachers probably had to do some serious battle with parents and administration to keep some of these books in the classroom. The mother of one of my students told me I was “un-American” for teaching Grapes of Wrath because it was “vile Communist propaganda.” Ugh.

    On a lighter note, Margaret Atwood is very active on Twitter, and if you tweet her, she will usually respond, which makes me super fangirl-happy.

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    1. Haha. That’s funny about Grapes of Wrath. With my high school I’m more surprised some of them made it through because of language and sexuality which was really strictly monitored. Cool to know that about Margaret Atwood. Maybe I’ll give her a shout out! 😉

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  3. Light in August and Cat’s Eye sounds especially interesting to me. If I read one which one should I start with? (I loved The Night Circus and Cinder, both of which you recommended, so I trust your judgement on books more than most. 🙂 )

    I love A Winter’s Tale so, so much! When I was in high school I was a production of it that was magical. In Ashland, Oregon there’s a Shakespearean festival and my family took a couple of vacations there. Best family vacations ever! It’s too bad you’re not going to be closer; I’m sure you’d love it!

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