Let’s Talk About Required Reading

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.

Required Reading Affects the Reading Experience Discussion

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?

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9 Comments

  1. I totally agree that it’s how a book is taught! I had to read Machiavelli’s The Prince twice and I loved it the first time and hated it the second time. The only different was my professor. But on the other hand when I was in high school I took AP Literature, but the teacher decided to change the curriculum. We read whatever books we wanted to on our own and wrote a paragraph on if we liked it. And i think it heeded my ability to like some books as much as I could have. I never got to do an in depth look at catcher in the rye, or Dracula, instead I spent a month reading IT

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  2. That’s such a good point! There were many required readings that I loved and others that I was just happy to get over with. There was actually one English class in high school where I loved everything we read, but the teacher had a great method of showing those books. Others, not so much. There are some that I’m interested in revisiting to see if my views have changed; I’d love to see if my thoughts are different at all!

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    1. Yeah I have some from high school I want to revisit as well. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of them. My high school English teacher really ruined that one for me, and obviously it’s a classic and people love it for a reason. I just have this dislike association with it from disliking my class so much. Which ones do you want to revisit? – Amber

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  3. This is such a great discussion post. I would be curious to hear what people’s thoughts are when approaching contemporary books for required reading, rather than classics. I understand the importance of classic literature. But, particularly when considering middle and high schooling, I think reading something that is easier to relate to could shape reading in a better light for a lot of people. Food for thought.

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    1. That’s a really good point! I do think middle and high school need to start teaching more contemporary novels. A lot of books being published these days tackle modern day issue and topics and kids and teens should probably be reading more about those situations than Romeo and Juliet’s disastrous love affair. While I do think classic literature is important and I will always love it, more contemporary literature would open up new realms of discussion for kids in school and, like you said, maybe spur more of a love of reading. I know a lot of people who hated reading growing up because all they read in school were classics. I’ve heard of schools starting to introduce more contemporary books into the curriculum and I hope to see that continue – like a mix of classic and contemporary. – Amber

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  4. I love this post, raised some really good points! I myself do not really like required readings as for me, there a fixed interpretation of the book required by the syllabus in school and fixed things, especially themes focused on with not much room for exploration. This is especially true as many of us just use those online literature websites as what will be tested and discussed is really predictable.

    However, that being said, it finally gives me a book that I can discuss with many more people and thus find out all these different opinions which aren’t encouraged by the teachers in required reading.

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    1. Definitely! Required reading definitely does put the experience of reading that book into a specific box set out by the syllabus. That ws my experience with Wuthering Heights. It’s interesting how the way you were a taught a book can alter drastically your opinion of it. It is nice that so many people have read those books now and I think a lot of people want to talk about most required reading books in a way they didn’t get to in school. Thanks for reading! – Amber

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