When Even Gatsby’s Not So Great
My seventeen-year-old daughter was assigned to read The Great Gatsby. “How do you like it?” I asked. “Hate it,” she said. I nodded. I remembered hating it in high school, too.
But when she asked me to look at the paper she’d written on this hateful book, she included the following passage describing a party at Gatsby’s house:
“The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word.”
“Wow,” I said, as she looked over my shoulder. “That’s some pretty fantastic writing.”
“Yeah, it is,” she said. “But I still hated the book.”
I had to laugh, because it reminded me of reading The Catcher in The Rye in high school. It’s about a teenager, after all—we were expected to relate, even though it had been written several decades before, and the lingo sounded like a joke. I hated it. I thought Holden Caulfield was whiny!
A couple of years ago, I read The Book That Changed My Life: 71 Remarkable Writers Celebrate the Books That Matter Most to Them. At least five of these great authors listed The Catcher in The Rye.
“Okay,” I thought. “It’s short, it’s sitting on my living room bookshelf, let me take another crack at it.”
I was blown away. I was crying at the end. I wanted to take Holden home and give him a good lunch and the compassion he so desperately needed.
So here’s my question: Why are we ruining perfectly good books—classics, no less—by requiring teenagers to read them, analyze them to shreds and stay up late writing papers on them? Isn’t that the perfect way to make someone hate something—by forcing it down their throats and making them cough up an assignment they’ll forget as soon as they hand it in?
Here’s an idea—let’s make them read current books. I’m not talking about bodice-rippers or whodunits. There’s great stuff out there written in ways that teens can connect with, possibly relate to and maybe even … like.
Here are some ideas, just off the top of my head:
These are all interesting, well-written books with a strong young character or two. Teenagers would have a lot to say about these books, and plenty to ponder beyond the inevitable paper they’d have to write. They can read the classics later, when they’re a little more classic-friendly. Maybe in college, or even when they’re “classics” themselves.
If you had to choose a book that was written in the last ten years to assign to a high school English class, what would it be?