The Missing Classics

by drpoppy

In my last post, I mentioned that I had a spotty and unusual literary education in high school.

Here is a short list of regularly-assigned high school classics I did NOT read in high school:

  • The Great Gatsby
  • Anything (ANYTHING!) by Jane Austen
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • A Tale of Two Cities (though we did read the vastly superior Great Expectations, so it wasn’t a total wash)
  • 1984*
  • Fahrenheit 451*
  • The Grapes of Wrath*
  • The Scarlet Letter (I did read this novel on my own during high school, or possibly even middle school, but it was not assigned. I was just a weird kid. I remember buying it from the Scholastic book club catalogue.)
  • Heart of Darkness (when I finally read this–in grad school–I was surprised that it would ever be assigned in high school)
  • Wuthering Heights

To be fair to my high school, I was never assigned any of these books in college, either–though I’ve always thought the college professors probably assumed we had already read them. Some of these I’ve read since then, on my own or in grad school, but I still have not read the ones with asterisks next to them.

After finishing college without having read The Great Gatsby and a few others, I felt like the foundation of my reading was lacking and decided to take a college class called–this was really the title of the class–“The Great American Novel.” And guess what was not assigned? Because the professor assumed we had already read it? Yeah, we read Tender is the Night, instead–which is fine, because I love that novel and probably wouldn’t have read it on my own, but what is a “Great American Novel” class without Gatsby? Then again, the professor was obviously not taking a traditional view of the course: he also didn’t assign Moby-Dick or The Scarlet Letter, but he did assign Tender Buttons, Michael Gold’s Jews Without Money, and This Side of Paradise. I’m really glad I read those books, but I still consider the class to have been falsely advertised.

Also, you guys: I NEVER READ ANYTHING BY JANE AUSTEN UNTIL I WAS IN GRADUATE SCHOOL. It boggles the mind.

I’ve been thinking that, after Moby-Dick (if I decide to read it), maybe I will re-read The Scarlet Letter, since even though I did read it, it was so long ago that I assume I would get more out of it as an adult than I did at thirteen. But it’s hard to tell. I think some books have a kind of expiration date; like, if you didn’t read On the Road in college or The Catcher in the Rye in high school, maybe it’s just too late. Personally I felt the same way about A Tale of Two Cities when I finally read it a while back. Whereas other novels age much better. I re-read Great Expectations a few years ago and was struck by its poignancy, particularly in the relationship between Pip and Joe, when all I had remembered was Miss Havisham and Estella and Magwitch–though those characters, too, were more complex when viewed from a mature perspective. And for all my whining about not having read any Jane Austen before graduate school, what a nice surprise it was when I finally did read it. I was aware of Austen in high school, but I was a total book snob with a delusional sense of myself as highly cynical (even though I was really quite romantic) and I had assumed Austen wrote nothing more than fluffy romances. What a delight to discover how funny she was. And would I have understood that humor when I was fifteen? I’m not sure, since I was obviously so busy taking myself too seriously.

To be honest, I have no interest in reading Steinbeck. But I am curious about 1984 and Fahrenheit 451–should I read those? Or is it too late? Does The Scarlet Letter for an adult reader? Should I make this the summer of reading and re-reading high school classics?

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