This may come as a surprise, but English was my least favourite subject at high school. (Side note: I don’t know if it’s the same outside of Victoria, Australia, but down here “English” is where we study books, write essays, analyse articles, learn public speaking etc.) For someone who loves reading and loves writing, I always dreaded those hours at school where I’d have to do exactly those things.
I don’t know about you, but 90% of my English classes were spent hacking apart different media to study their contents. Novels, graphic novels, movies, plays—it didn’t matter, we always managed to butcher them. Ruin them with over-analysis (in my opinion anyway). Today I take a brief look at the six NOVELS I studied during my six years of high school, and the fleeting thoughts and memories I have of each. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the novels you studied (or are studying) in the comments below!
MY AGE: 12-13
1ST THOUGHTS: I first read Chinese Cinderella in primary school and enjoyed it, so I was happy to read it again in my first year of high school. Adeline Yen Mah’s story is a fascinating insight into Chinese culture, and it is written in a very entertaining way.
2ND THOUGHTS: Okay, so studying this book didn’t exactly ruin it for me. I mean, we were only 12, so our assignments centred around researching China and making a shoe that represented us (don’t ask). I think there was one essay involved, which was bearable, if slightly traumatic.
YEAR 8 • The Wind Singer by William Nicholson
MY AGE: 13-14
GENRE: high fantasy | YA
1ST THOUGHTS: I was sceptical at best during my first read of The Wind Singer. Despite being high fantasy—a genre I always adored—there was something…odd…about it. From memory, I’m pretty sure it was the characters.
2ND THOUGHTS: Given the aforementioned oddness of the characters, OF COURSE we spent week after week analysing them. This was probably my introduction to the supernatural ability of English teachers to pluck interpretations from random bits of prose. Having said that, I went ahead and read the rest of this series and LOVED it 😂
YEAR 9 • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
MY AGE: 14-15
GENRE: historical | classic
1ST THOUGHTS: Before anyone starts shouting at me, know that I’m not a fan of classic literature. It just doesn’t interest me. So during my first read of To Kill a Mockingbird, I was able to appreciate the significance of the story while still being bored by it.
2ND THOUGHTS: I didn’t HATE studying the book, and there was plenty of food for thought when it came to writing essays, but I got super sick of hearing terms like “symbol” and “metaphor” and “theme”. I mean, objectively I can understand why we tore the damn book to pieces, but at the same time WE TORE THE DAMN BOOK TO PIECES!!!
MY AGE: 15-16
GENRE: contemporary | YA
1ST THOUGHTS: Now, I actually LOVED The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time the first time round. It’s from the POV of an autistic boy, and I’d never read anything like it. It was incredibly enlightening to me and I actually found myself racing to get to the end.
2ND THOUGHTS: And then the English teachers ruined it, as they were wont to do. Picking apart the book word-by-word, studying sentence structure and choice of adjectives and nouns…WHY?! It completely sucked away the impact of the story and made me view it like a dissection rather than a living, breathing piece of art. Thanks a lot.
YEAR 11 • Triage by Scott Anderson
MY AGE: 16-17
1ST THOUGHTS: I was terribly bored by Triage the first time around. Don’t get me wrong, it’s actually a great book that I’d probably appreciate more now, but at the time it was a bit too…adult, maybe?
2ND THOUGHTS: Okay, so this book was probably one of the few I enjoyed more after studying it than I did before. As I said, it was a little over my head, so examining the themes and quotes and language actually helped me decipher the messages it was trying to get across. So my thanks is genuine this time! We could have done without watching the movie though—it sucks in comparison.
YEAR 12 • A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
MY AGE: 17-18
GENRE: historical | classic
1ST THOUGHTS: 😡😡😡😡😡 Sorry Hemingway fans, but I DESPISED A Farewell to Arms. I hated the sexism, I hated the characters (especially you, Catherine), and I especially hated the story which, given the way it ended, seemed pointless.
2ND THOUGHTS: I’m pretty sure the majority of my classmates tossed the book on the fire by the time we were done with it. Seriously, we DECIMATED it with analysis, and I have SO MANY TABS in my copy. Funny thing though: it was actually the book I used to write my essay in the year twelve English exam. I feel kind of indoctrinated! 😂
My closing thought is this: how valuable is it for the modern teenager to to study classic / historical / older literature? I can acknowledge that there is SOME value—there’s obviously a reason book like To Kill a Mockingbird and A Farewell to Arms still populate many school reading lists.
But contemporary YA literature has come along in leaps and bounds in recent years, and I feel like it would be more useful for young adults to actually read and study the books that were written for THEM, not their grandparents. At the same time, I don’t want anyone’s favourites ruined for them by ripping them to bits in the classroom!!
What books did you (or are you) study(ing) in high school? Were any completely ruined by the act of studying them? What books do you think should be studied at school?