Broccoli Books

Tell me why, exactly, somebody thought a bunch of sixteen-year-olds in 1996 needed to read a play about a guy in a job that doesn’t much exist anymore, having a mid-life crisis? What exactly was the relevance of that play to anything in our lives?

Actually, I can answer that one. Death of a Salesman is considered to be a classic. That’s its relevance: it is classic, ergo we must read it. At least, the people who designed our English curriculum thought we should read it before we die, and since we were juniors in high school, they were running out of time to force that to happen.

That’s my theory, anyway, not only for Death of a Salesman, but for everything I think of as a “broccoli book.” They’re good for you, so you don’t get to leave the table of education until you’ve read them. Nevermind whether you have the slightest interest in them, or derive any value from the experience. (Though my metaphor breaks down there, since you get the nutrition of broccoli whether you eat it slow or fast, with pleasure or without.)

As you might guess from my phrasing, I don’t think much of this approach to literature. There are any number of things I was forced to read in school that at best went in one eye and out the other, and at worst put me off that author for a long, long time. Jane Austen’s Emma left no mark. Emily Dickinson will forever be associated with the worst English teacher I ever had. And Arthur Miller? I would not sit through a reading or performance of Death of a Salesman unless you paid me enough money to cover the therapy bill afterward.

Some of these authors I’ve come back to since then. Austen is funny! Hell, so is Dickens! But both of them really need context. A Tale of Two Cities bounced right off my ignorant skull in ninth grade, but a couple of years ago I found myself enjoying the hell out of the opening to Bleak House, because by then I was so immersed in the history of Victorian London that I knew what he was talking about with the Court of Chancery. I’m thinking of revisiting Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, curious to see how it will read now that I know more than, oh, nothing about Nigeria. We read that one in tenth grade in exactly the same way you take your vitamins: “okay, and now we will have a non-Western author, because it’s good for us.” Yay diversity, I guess — but is that any way to approach a book?

And I say this as a voracious reader! I enjoyed Shakespeare and Oedipus Rex (shoehorned into the American Lit year, of all places, just because that was where they could find room for it), but that’s because I had enough context for both of those to understand what was going on. I find myself wanting to redesign secondary education so that history and literature get merged into a single class, and you read novels in conjunction with learning about the time of their writing or setting. (Somebody has probably done that at an alternative school, or a private one. But we need it in public school education, too.)

Anyway, share your horror stories. What books or authors were you put off because somebody crammed it down your gullet at the wrong time? Have you been able to come back to them later with a fresh eye, or have you been poisoned forever?

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  1. 1. Jessica Meats

    I love watching well-performed Shakespeare. That’s the way it’s meant to be enjoyed. I hated studying Romeo and Juliet in school. I got hideously bored studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream and that’s now my second favourite Shakespeare playing, having seen it performed a couple of times, once by professionals, once by amateurs. So many people hated studying Shakespeare and I think it’s because it wasn’t written to be dissected – it was written to be watched.

    I loathed the George Elliot book we were made to read.

    In fact, I really disliked most of the books we had to pick apart. I think that’s what ruined them for me. Sitting there and poking through every paragraph for symbolism (at least, the symbolism that the syllabus says is there) destroys my enjoyment of books.

    I think nothing ruins the enjoyment of reading so much as English literature lessons at school.

  2. 2. Ziv W

    School usually makes math and history and art into boring chores as well. I’ve had good literature teachers and bad literature teachers, but when you’re constructing a curriculum, you’ve got to choose *something*, haven’t you? How many books do you seriously think we’ve got to choose from, if you want something to both have enough literary merit to warrant actually *studying* the book, and also for the book to be accessible?

    I see no reason to dumb literature down to fit into what students already know how to deal with – that’s kind of defeating the purpose. I can see a student seeing “Emma” as archaic and tough to understand (alas – poor, benighted student!), but Arthur Miller has straightforward characters with great power and drama. (If “Salesman” strikes you as too slow, how about the gut-wrenching “Crucible”?)

    Identifying NEW classics would be nice, but that’s damnably tough. I applaud the teachers who can, and do, teach pieces they think will speak better to modern students. But if you could do something like that on a large scale… well, then you’d have modern classics. I’m not sure we do. And I don’t want lit classes teaching Harry Potter merely because students don’t find it threatening.

    Teens are smart. All they need is good teachers who don’t make the subject into a headache, and some modicum of preparation to fill in the gaps they’re missing to take the piece in context. Really good literature is REALLY GOOD, and can really be enjoyed by all but the least receptive readers. And if there’s any point to studying literature, isn’t it in learning how to be receptive to it?

    Of course, really good teachers are rare as unobtanium, so a lot of this doesn’t really happen. But bad teachers will mess up Harry Potter as well.

    Hmmmm. This begs the question: can we put a dent in the popularity of “Twilight” by teaching it in high schools?

  3. 3. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin)

    Hi Marie.

    No particular book, but an experience to share.

    In 6th grade, one of the classes I had, and one of the ones I was doing poorly in, was Reading.

    Not because I didn’t like to read or didn’t read. It was because the curriculum bored me to tears. I didn’t want to read any of it. I wanted to read the fantasy and SF my brother introduced me to. To hell with the contemporary crap, I wanted more Zelazny, Vance, Asimov, Norton and the rest.

  4. 4. Shakatany

    When I was 10 my mother had a bad stroke and died when I was 15. In school they were making me read horribly, depressing books like Silas Marner, Of Human Bondage, The Grapes of Wrath etc. all full of suffering adults. I was a walking ball of pain and this was just adding to my depression. When they made us read Evangeline I said enough of this. From then on I skimmed through the books, listened intently in class and actually got good grades but I rarely read a required book unless it had was a bit light like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. To this day if someone recommends I read a book because it’s a classic I refuse. Heck I didn’t read Pride & Prejudice until after the miniseries with Colin Firth came out and I was visiting Lake Como and there was nothing else to read. In their zeal to make us read good books the teachers managed to turn me off them though I read science fiction and mysteries by the armload.

  5. 5. Seabrooke

    I can SO relate to this. Love the label you’ve coined for them!

    My worst experience with it was Margaret Atwood. I read The Handmaid’s Tale for high school English one year, and to this day I haven’t been able to bring myself to read another of hers. Which is a shame, because she’s a wonderful lady and I know her stepson (though I’ve never met her, oddly).

    I’ve been put off the classics in general. I agree with Jessica above that a large part of the reason was the dissection of the books for symbolism and meaning I’m not sure the author ever intended to be there. (I know when I write I’m not trying to insert such stuff. If it’s there, it’s a product of my subconscious.) Picking a book apart usually ruins it for me.

    My husband has sometimes tried to encourage me to read some of the classics, and one of his main arguments goes along the lines of “because they’re good for you”. Which is about as effective as a parent cajoling their kid to eat their broccoli for the same reason…

  6. 6. S.C. Butler

    Excellent post. Like everything else, there are good classics and bad classics, though I think classics tend to have a better hit ratio than contemporary books because the really awful ones tend to have been weeded out over time.

    My own horror tales are more with contemporary classics, ie all those ‘great’ writers of the mid-twentieth century (including Arthur Miller, of course) that everyone with any kind of literary pretension has to read. I have yet to read a book I’ve liked by Bellow or Updike, and have only liked one Roth.

  7. 7. Dany

    I hated A Tale of Two Cities. That is not a book that most fourteen-year-olds have any business reading. I flat refuse to read anything by John Steinbeck, because I was forced to read The Red Pony IN FOURTH GRADE and I still think it’s legitimately one of the worst things I’ve ever read. I’m not a huge fan of ~*~*American Literature*~*~ such as it’s taught in schools, because my teacher that year was convinced it was the end-all, be-all of literature and that really rubbed me the wrong way.

    On the other hand, I loved basically everything I read in British literature and most everything relating to classical Greece. But like you said, I had context for those, because classical and British history are two of my favourite subjects. What I’ve noticed is that my college professors actually try to provide that historical context in class.

  8. 8. Mary

    It is evidence of Shakespeare’s amazing genius that I could like him after learning him in English. There are books I’ve read before and after English class and liked, but never during.

  9. 9. donna

    Melville. Billy Budd. Oh dear god. The Lottery. Oh dear god. The Scarlet Letter. Oh dear god.

    For the most part high school English was a horrible and depressing thing I read so much for pleasure outside of class and hated the in class readings.

  10. 10. Marie Brennan

    Hi all,

    I’m traveling right now, so I’ll be slower than usual to respond to comments. Briefly, though, to Ziv:

    My problem with Salesman was not that it was slow, nor that it was hard. It was that I hated EVERY. PERSON. IN IT. I hated them, I hated everything they were saying and doing, I wanted Willie Loman to off himself already so I wouldn’t have to read about him anymore. I had zero sympathy for his plight. And while I don’t want things to be “dumbed down” to what kids can “manage,” I think there’s merit in choosing texts that kids might be able to care about, and teaching those texts in such a way as to help them see why they should care (those being two sides of the same coin). If you do this right, you broaden their minds, deepen their empathy, sharpen their understanding. If you do this wrong . . . you poison them to great literature, by cramming it down their throats at the wrong time.

    Shakespeare worked for me not because he was easy or fast, but because I’d seen some of his plays performed, and was able to see through the period-specific aspects to the universals beneath. Other writers, not so much. So it may in fact be better, from a pedagogical standpoint, to choose texts that for one reason or another face less of an uphill climb. Romeo and Juliet gets taught a lot because it’s about teenagers being dumb, and we can relate to that even if they’re Elizabethan teenagers. Or you can pick something set in modern times, but about less immediately relevant characters. Or whatever. But Salesman had absolutely nothing to recommend it, from the standpoint of convincing me I should care.

  11. 11. Breedeen

    The (private) school where I teach (math) has “Humanities” classes instead of your typical history and literature classes, at least for freshmen and sophomores. Afterwards, I believe all literature and history classes are somewhat electives, in that they can select which courses to take to meet their graduation requirements. A lot of power comes from being able to choose what you read and study.

    My own “broccoli books” are Great Expectations and Jane Eyre. I haven’t picked up anything by either author since I read these books in school.

  12. 12. Kenoryn

    Agree with Ziv. I think it’s not that we shouldn’t be teaching classics (if nothing else there’s value in being able to understand the references to them we encounter in the rest of our lives – e.g. Romeo and Juliet!) but we should choose the classics carefully, and you need good teachers to make them relevant. It does seem the curriculum leans toward depressing things, and I’m not sure why that is. But I don’t think the timing is the problem. For example, I think grade 9 is a good time to read Romeo and Juliet because then you’re the same age as the protagonist (Juliet). Maybe you’re able to understand the teen angst, whereas if you’re older you might just roll your eyes at these dumb kids doing dumb things. Death of a Salesman – not so much. It has characters you hate and who you can’t relate to because it’s about a mid-life crisis. So, it’s all about picking the right ones, I think, and you can’t rule out all classics as being non-teen-friendly. Fifth Business, which we read in grade 11, I think, is still one of my favourite books and was a favourite of lots of others in my class.

  13. 13. Scott Seldon

    I was a horrible student. Calling me strong willed would be an understatement. Consequently, I ignored many reading assignments, choosing instead to read Asimov or Heinlein. I can sum up my literature memory with three titles. One was a book from 8th grade about a young silver smith. the next was Huckleberry Finn. The last was in my SF Lit class (and yes, my high school had such a beast) and was a sort of time travel short story. I loved all three of those and can’t remember a single other book I may have been asked to read, because I probably didn’t even open it. Yeah, the grades suffered, but I have no literary scars from High School. When I got to Collage, I was scarred by Anna Karenina. I’ve learned I am not a big fan of Russian literature. Big fan of Chaucer and Shakespeare (who should be watched, not read).

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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