Required reading. Those are some scary two words for some people. It definitely gives me flashbacks to sludging my way through Heart of Darkness just to write an essay on it and hating every second of it. It also gives me flashbacks to reading some of my all-time favourite books.
Most of us have had some sort of experience with required reading in our lives in middle school or high school. For most of us that included classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter and many many Shakespeare plays. If this brought back some high school flashbacks for you, sorry about that.
I have a lot of thoughts on required reading and could go on forever about the pros and cons, but right now I want to talk specifically about how it can influence one’s experience and opinion of a book.
For some quick context, I paid a university a lot of money to receive a piece of paper in professionally reading books. Lots and lots of books. (If you’re curious what I read, check out mine and Samantha’s list of books we read in university to see how many.) Over four years I read probably over a hundred required texts. Some I loved. Some I hated. And some I wish to never see again (*throws Heart of Darkness across the room*).
I know a lot of people will say that being required to read a book ruins one’s experience of it. Many people, myself included, reread books on their own after being required to read it and end up loving it. But, I would argue that it is not the ‘required’ part that affects one’s experience, but the way in which the text is being taught.
I had a very specific experience with Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte to illustrate this idea. In short, when I first read it as a required text I thought it was absolutely horrid. When I read it a second time, again as a required text, it became my favourite book.
In my second year of university, I read Wuthering Heights as part of a ‘Children in Victorian Literature’ class. We explored how children were portrayed in Victorian texts and the roles they played. Specifically, in Wuthering Heights the troubling aspects of childhood that plagued all the characters. While an interesting topic, the teacher was incredibly boring, I didn’t find the child lens particularly interesting, and I also wasn’t in a place to fully appreciate the beauty that was Wuthering Heights.
Two years later I took a Bronte seminar that explored the Bronte’s work through the lens of the Gothic supernatural. To say this class was absolutely fascinating and the most educational and interesting experience of my educational life is an understatement. I dreaded rereading Wuthering Heights given my previous experience, but with the professor I had and the supernatural angle I quickly realized what an amazing book it is. In both cases this book was a required text, and in one situation it was the worst book I had ever read and in the other it was my favourite book ever written.
The way a book is taught to students can have such an impact on how that student experiences the text. Especially in high school when many required texts are taught through the same method people have been teaching for decades. Not to mention that they are still teaching the same books they were in 1950. Required reading lists do need an update. A more modern approach to teaching required texts to students might greatly impact some student’s experiences. While I recognize that 1984 and To Kill a Mockingbird are important classics that are actually good books, my high school English teacher ruined both for me. She even made me dislike Shakespeare and teenage me was obsessed with Shakespeare before her class.
Teachers and the courses we read required texts in can have a big impact on our experiences with books and whether or not we like them. I don’t think that a book being required is what makes it a bad experience, it is what one is told to learn from it and how they learn it.
So, from experience, never right off a required text as a bad book. You might have just had a bad experience with it. When read in a different setting, the worst book in the world could easily become your favourite.
What have been your experiences with required reading? Any books you changed your opinions on after reading a second time?