I like to think of myself as a honest person. Honestly. But there are some deceptions from my past that cannot be ignored on this blog. Fortunately, I’ve reached an age when I don’t have to worry about my High School English teacher discovering my perfidy on line. I can see her yellow hair and hear her firm voice saying, “I’m very disappointed to hear that. I expected more from you, Teresa.” So, with my apologies to all my wonderful English teachers, here is my list of…
Books I Only Pretended to Read.
The first book I remember lying about was The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. It happened in my freshman year, when our class was presented with several books to read as groups. I’d read all of the others, and hated the idea of reading a ‘war story for boys’. So when my English teacher asked which group I wanted to be in, I told her I’d read them all. I remember the moment, I was sitting just right of center in the second row, Sharon Parrish was next to me, and I had just lied to Mrs. Gilliland -- right out loud. No one in the room questioned me, since I usually had read everything. I regret lying, but managed to graduate with straight As without reading Lord of the Flies, only skimming through The Scarlet Letter, and giving up on Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene not long into it. Now that I think about it I realize I’ve ‘not read’ The Faerie Queene three times. Mrs. T’s Senior class was just the beginning.
It happened again my freshman year of college. Not realizing I didn’t have to take all the bonehead classes they suggested for new students, I signed up for Intro to World Lit. It turned out that I’d already studied everything we covered in that class except for, you go it, The Faerie Queene. I resolved to finish it this time, but of course this excerpt was longer, and I failed again. After that I had no illusions. When it appeared on the syllabus of yet a third class, I admitted to some fellow students that I’d never finished the selections, and wasn’t looking forward to trying again. The one boy who had actually read it before told me not to bother, it wasn’t worth it. We generally agreed on literature so I happily took his advice. Joseph, wherever you are, the third time's on you. The same class brought me to my literary knees again. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage by Byron was introduced as not being as great as the book said. According to my Professor it had sections of great beauty ruined by many difficult, awkward, and boring passages. He was right. I started with great gusto but never finished. Both of these poems are written in Spenserian stanzas. Is it possible I’m simply allergic to that form? I’d like to think so.
In my search for ever more interesting lit classes, I signed up my sophomore year for Modern American Drama, number 400 and something. No problem, until I arrived and found that all the other students knew each other. They were very friendly when I came in, but seemed to be regarding me as an unusual specimen of fish. When the teacher showed up he looked surprised to see me, too. It turned out that this class was actually required for graduate drama students, but was listed in the 400s because the department didn’t have enough undergrad classes to meet their quota. I was offered a chance to switch, but declined. It became one of my favorite classes, I learned so much, and they treated me like an equal. Here I studied plays by Tennessee Williams, Ibsen, and others. And for the first time I admitted to my teacher that I had deliberately not finished something. The play was Strindberg’s Miss Julie, and I hated it. Unfortunately, one of the required essays on the Final meant I had to compare it with two other plays we’d read. Falling on my sword I admitted that I’d found it very distasteful, and had stopped reading it. Therefore, I explained with what I hoped would read as dignified humility, I would be comparing and contrasting the other two plays only. I got an A on the paper and the class, perhaps more for my guts than anything.
You might be wondering by now if I’ve gone back and read the books I skipped in school. I will tell no more lies, I have not. The Faerie Queene, the longest poem in the English language, has been described as allegorical and allusive. Just pondering that can give me a headache. As for Childe Harold and his Pilgrimage, quite a few of the experts agree with my professor. I still enjoy reading short pieces of it occasionally, though. I don’t think I need Lord of the Flies to show me what depravity man can sink to, and I read the Cliff Notes so I know how it ends. Strindberg doesn't tempt me, while not reading The Red Badge of Courage has become such a tradition, I’m almost afraid to pick it up. I actually think I might upset the great balance of the Cosmos. Or something.
Sometimes, just like a fisherman, I find myself thinking about the ones that got away. Then I pick my current book and read on. It is possible to lead a full and rich life without understanding The Faerie Queene. Fortunately.
Read Well, Friend.