Semi-Dorky Poll: Best and Worst Required Reading

Sort of in the same spirit as yesterday's summer reading post, another book-related question:

What's the best book you were ever forced to read for school? What's the worst?

The best, for me, is probably The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, a sort of metafictional Vietnam novel in stories. I had a loaner copy of this when I took a class on Vietnam in my junior year of college, and after I returned it to the lending library, I went out and bought myself a copy to keep, because it was that good.

The worst book I was ever forced to read for a class has to be Beneath the Wheel by Herman Hesse, which is about a young man from a small town who is an exceptionally good student, and gets sent off to college, where he gets utterly crushed by the pressure placed on him. This was assigned for 12th grade honors English when I was in high school, and it was excruciating. I have absolutely no idea why the teacher thought it was a good idea to assign this book to a bunch of really bright high-school students in a small town. I loathed this book even more than I hated The Scarlet Letter, and that's really saying something.

So, what are your best and worst required readings?


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Best: Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun, both assigned in the same course IIRC.

Worst: The Old Man and the Sea. I never got past the first page. (Faked the test and got an "A" anyway, which says something.)

Best: Anna Karenina AND War and Peace, both unabridged (10h and 11th grade, respectively).

Worst: Father Goriot by Balzac and 'Bakonja Fra Brne' by an ancient Croatian writer - they bored me to death.

Actually, there was a lot of other great stuff we read, e.g., Camus's Stranger, Kafka's Trial, Dickens' David Copperfield, Moby Dick (unabridged), etc.

I hated "The Scarlet Letter" too. Also hated "Less Than Zero" (which was a college assignment, not high school).

My favorites were "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and "Invisible Man" by Ellison.

Try: the bible's Book of Job, Voltaire's Candide, and Anthony Burgess's Clockwork Orange.

All for freshman orientation for Hiram College. Real eye-openers for a naive 17 year old.

For me, assigned reading in school always ranged from terrible to OK, so my memory slants towards the bad. Also, I didn't read about 25% of all books I was assigned. But,

"A Swiftly Tilting Planet" - 7th grade, it's the sequal to "A Wrinkle in Time" which I never read, and was terribly confusing.

"The Good Earth" - 10th grade, I've tried to block it from my memory.

"The Grapes of Wrath" - 11th grade. I know it's really long and fairly depressing, but for some reason, I liked it. It probably has a lot to do with having a much more entertainly teacher that year.

My favorite assigned books were Flowers for Algernon (high school freshman English; the first time I was ever assigned an SF novel for school, and the first time an assigned novel really hit me emotionally) and The French Lieutenant's Woman (high school junior English; the first mainstream novel I'd ever read to draw me in as much as SF).

My least favorite book is a close race between Naked Lunch (the result of an extremely poor class choice in college), A Prayer for Owen Meany (high school junior English; the book that made me switch from calling myself an agnostic to calling myself an atheist), and A Tale of Two Cities (high school freshman English; I stopped reading the dreadful, longwinded mess less than halfway through, but pulled an "A+" on the test through masterful bullshitting and soft grading).

I haven't reread any of those books since they were assigned, so my reactions are those I had at the time.

Do we actually have to have read the book? In college, I was assigned Cement by Fyodor Vasilievich Gladkov in a Russian history class, but I never read a word. Somehow I think it's one of the worst books I was ever assigned, though.

In HS science fiction class I was assigned A Canticle for Liebowitz and hated it (didn't finish it). I know a lot of people really like it, so I've tried to read it a couple times since, and have never succeeded in finishing it.

As far as "best" assigned books, I recall liking Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail by Hunter S. Thompson. In the Russian history class I also read biographies of Stalin and Lenin which were pretty interesting as well.

By Chris Goedde (not verified) on 07 Jun 2007 #permalink

The best, for me, is probably The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

Agreed - one of the best I've read. It wasn't assigned per se, but rather on a short list of books to read (ha! over the summer!), where we were required to choose two. I also enjoyed Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, for its conversational style and its agreement with my own feelings at the time.

I wouldn't keep reading a bad book unless it were assigned, so this qualifies as the worst book I've ever read: Ethan Frome. For most people who have read it, I think this needs no explanation.

By Mike Saelim (not verified) on 07 Jun 2007 #permalink

I think the worse book I was ever assigned was "The Ox-Bow Incident". I can't even remember now who the author was. And the instructor thinking to make it more palatable had us watch the movie (equally turgid).

In High School - BAD: Anything by Chales Dickens, Turgid and BAD! The guy got paid by the word - and it shows! Moby Dick? PLEASE! Faulkner - bad writing, bad stories about cracker-ass-crackers BAD. Hemmingway - boooring. Come to think of it, ALL assigned writings were BAD! I read, and still read a book a week, but JESUS effing Christ on a stick, what passes for "good literature", I wouldn't put in a bird cage.

Worst: A toss up between Pride and Prejudice and Billy Budd. Objectively, P+P is probably worse because I ahve steadfastly refused to pick up another Jane Austen book, ever, whereas I've at least tried to read Moby Dick on my own.

Best: Hmm. Probably Julius Caesar, winning out narrowly vs The Canterbury Tales.

(Also, on Hesse, when I get around to it, I'll let you know how Glass Bead Game turns out. I have a suspicion that it's the major influence behind Banks' The Player of Games...)

By John Novak (not verified) on 07 Jun 2007 #permalink

I may have already answered that yesterday with summer reading :) Count of Monte Cristo was great... but another summer we read Goldman's The Princess Bride, which was also a lot of fun. And I greatly enjoyed Faulkner's Light in August, which I read for an English class. I enjoyed quite a bit of what we read for class, actually. Indeed, my second semester of my senior year, we read a lot of modern drama, and I was way into that kind of stuff.

Least favorite from high school is probably The Scarlet Letter.

Least favorite from college was Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Autumn of the Patriarch. This was a Faulkner and Garcia-Marquez course. I enjoyed a lot of what we read, and greatly enjoyed Garcia-Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude. But Autumn of the Patriarch was utterly unreadable. I don't think anybody in the class got all the way through it. I got something like at third into it, in that I looked at all of the words on those pages. I'm not sure I can say I "read" it.

At one point, sick of it, I decided I'd get to the end of the current chapter and quit. Looking ahead a few pages, I realized that was unrealistic, so I decided I'd get to the end of the current paragraph and quit. Looking ahead a few pages, I decided that was unrealistic, so I decided to get to the end of the current sentence and quit.

I quit before I found a period.


Worst: The Scarlet Letter and Ethan Frome, hands down... blech...blech...blech...*sputter*...blech

Best: The Crock of Mighty Crisco (surprised the heck out of me, probably read it another three times since) and Cry the Beloved Country

One year in highschool, the teacher decided to mix up the standard routine, and instead of Summer of My German Soldier (ecch!), we got Day of the Triffids instead. Fantastic book. It was just too bad that many people in my class didn't agree with my assessment. No respect for the classics...

As for plays, I was really impressed with Merchant of Venice. It was a favourite of another of my teachers, but wasn't able to use it as material in class for a long time due to the school board deeming it anti-semetic.

Ha, I actually *liked* reading _Tale of Two Cities_ in high school.

Best: Cry, the Beloved Country, Kon Tiki

Worst: The Hunt for Red October (couldn't finish)

Best: A tossup between "Brave New World" and "Candide"
Worst: Another vote for Dickens: "David Copperfield" is the ONLY assigned reading I can remember ever just plain not being able to finish. Ugh. Glad I'm not the only one who noticed the "paid by the word" thing...(I'm told they were originally published as serials, too, explaining why they go on and on and on...) Runners up: Hemmingway and Steinbeck. Ugh. (Actually "Cannery Row" wasn't THAT bad. I didn't actually LIKE it but didn't end up feeling it had been a total waste of time.)
What is it about American artistic tastes that seems to automatically deem extreme mopery "fine literature"?...

My favourites: Kon-Tiki, Brave New World
My least favourites: Moonfleet - We studied it in Grade 8 and the damn thing just seemed to go on and on and on. I just read a plot synopsis on Wikipedia, and didn't recognize a thing. Actually, it now sounds like a good read, so I may get a copy for the beach this summer!
We also had a reader of Canadian literature, and I remember one appalling story about a young man who was considered a "half-breed", and spent the whole story trying to prove he was not, and finally "triumphing"! That one must have gone down well up north. Fortunately, we weren't assigned that story.

By T. Bruce McNeely (not verified) on 07 Jun 2007 #permalink

Oddly, my favorite book I had to read is probably from the 5th grade: The Phantom Tollbooth. I'm sure I could pick it up today and still enjoy it. In the summer between 10th and 11th grade, we had to choose 2 books from a list of maybe 20 for summer reading. I chose 1984 and Johnny Got His Gun. I also had a similiar list for European History (just not over the summer), where I read The Stranger and Utopia. Oh, I can't forget The Grapes of Wrath. Amazing book.

The worst books? The Woman Warrior and The Great Gatsby. Some of my classmates had to read The Color Purple, which I'm very thankful I didn't.

I just looked back at some comments and can't believe I forgot Candide. Read that for European History as well.

I was in CIS this year so I didn't get to read Brave New World (but I ended up reading it on my own and liking it nor The Scarlet Letter (whew).

Favorite: Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie. It reads like a children's fairytale but it has a lot to say about censorship.

Most Detested: Main Street. Sinclair Lewis. Paints a picture of Midwestern life in the...was it early 1900s? Dull as all get-out.

Responding to others, I loved A Prayer for Owen Meany, thoroughly enjoyed Brave New World, didn't think The Scarlet Letter was THAT bad, and believe "Charles Dickens" to be a dirty word.

Best: A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

And for John Novak (and anyone else who is wondering): The Glass Bead Game is GREAT. Best work by Hesse,(which is saying a lot), and probably my favorite book.

Best: I'll have to second (third?) The Stranger by Camus and Candide; I also really liked Dante's Inferno.

Worst: I would second Ethan Frome, I absolutely hated that book. And I'll add in The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, which completely annoyed the crap out of me.

Chad -- you actually had to read Beneath the Wheel in high school? That's horrible! I'm a fan of Hesse, but that's far and away one of his most depressing books (and only really worth reading for completeness); it's definitely not something high school kids should be reading.

The Glass Bead Game is GREAT. Best work by Hesse,(which is saying a lot), and probably my favorite book.

I'm in 100% agreement. But it's a dangerous book to read if you're in academia, or thinking about going into academia.

I think the best, for me, was The Grapes of Wrath. Probably the first assigned book that really moved me and made me want to check out other books by the same author.

The worst that I can remember is A Tale of Two Cities. I've read and enjoyed Dickens since then, but in ninth grade I just did not have enough patience for that kind of book. I suspect that if I were to revisit AToTC now I would not hate it so much.

By the valrus (not verified) on 07 Jun 2007 #permalink

I think the best, for me, was The Grapes of Wrath. Probably the first assigned book that really moved me and made me want to check out other books by the same author.

The worst that I can remember is A Tale of Two Cities. I've read and enjoyed Dickens since then, but in ninth grade I just did not have enough patience for that kind of book. I suspect that if I were to revisit AToTC now I would not hate it so much.

By the valrus (not verified) on 07 Jun 2007 #permalink

Candide all around. I also enjoyed Waiting for Godot, Catcher in the Rye, and As I Lay Dying.

Great Expectations was by far my least favorite book. Even The Fountainhead was more readable.

Best: We had a class where we read a ton of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe. It was fantastic.

Worst: Beloved, though obviously meaningful, I found it overwrought and poorly written. The symbolism in that book was like getting hit over the head with a hammer. It feels like one of those books you aren't supposed to criticize, but I thought that it sucked.

Best has to be the time that I had to do a report on a trilogy, and the list of choices included The Foundation Trilogy.

Worst is a tough call, but in the end it goes to Moby Dick. Reading Melville on whaling when one already has read the facts about whaling, and knows just how wrong Melville got it all --- utterly excruciating.

By wolfwalker (not verified) on 07 Jun 2007 #permalink

I usually lurk here, but...

Best: I couldn't pick one play, but I learned how to love Shakespeare in high school.

Worst: One Hundred Years of Solitude is well-titled. Here is what I remember of the plot: It rains. It rains some more. People die. It doesn't really matter, because their kids have the same names. It rains even more. Things that should be interesting happen, but it doesn't really matter because none of the characters care. It rains.

I hated Dickens at the time, but am willing to give him another shot. Not having to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one of my favorite things about being a grown-up.

Would those of you who enjoyed The Glass Bead Game recommend an English translation? The one I tried (whose translators I can't recall), I found impossible to finish.

Best: The Egyptian by Waltari

Worst: I think I've repressed my memories of these, but possibly, maybe, Run Baby Run by Nicky Cruz. Or the Spoon River Anthology.

Up there: Shogun by James Clavell. Unusual choice for 12th grade English, but I learned a little Japanese.

Worst: You guessed it - Jackson, Electrodynamics

Most of the books I liked weren't assigned, per se; they were relegated to the "optional" section of the summer reading list, from which we were expected to pick two each year. Brave New World was one of those, I recall.

Frankenstein would have been excruciating, if it weren't so absurdly funny (though my teacher didn't appreciate how much I scoffed at it). Kate Chopin's The Awakening seems like it could have been a good book for another person; of Ethan Frome I remember almost nothing, except that Frome read a popularized chemistry book to try to escape from his daily life; Siddhartha I enjoyed, as I did The Stranger.

I had much the same reaction to Song of Solomon that David had to Beloved. It had a few nice touches which I couldn't make my teacher appreciate, and everything she thought was "deep" or "profound" or "insightful" about it I found uninspired and trite.

Shakespeare rocks.


Sorry, I can't remember the translation I read. It was a version with a green and brown spine, no Magister Ludi subtitle, and a graphic that was reminiscent of Chinese checkers.

Oh, god no, The Awakening was by far the worst book I've ever read, and I'm someone who thinks mandatory high school summer reading is a great idea. It was painful. Aside from being plainly boring, I kept waiting for her to wake up already and then she killed herself.

The best books were the ones I would have never considered reading on my own ... The Stranger, Medea (fine, not really a book, but still), things like that.

Best: Fifth Business by Robertson Davies, or Hamlet

Worst: Pride and Prejudice or Madame Bovary, both were pretty terrible

By Ryan Vilim (not verified) on 07 Jun 2007 #permalink

Bifurcated keyword analysis on "Beloved":

# 28 "... Worst: Beloved..."

# 16 "... Best: Cry, the Beloved Country..."

My wife and I hated "Beloved." This is not a Politically Correct position, given the gender, race, Nobel Prize angles. But it seemed to combine Old South Slavery horror and new age Supernatural stuff far worse than Octavia Butler, Stephen King, and others had done before. For that matter, we both like "The Color Purple" much better than "Beloved" even though it more obviously ripped off Octavia Butler. Is it even more Politically Incorrect to like Heinlein's "Farnham's Freehold" [1965]?

The worst for me was "Les Misérables" assigned as summer reading between 7th and 9th grade (I skipped 8th). I'm not saying it's a bad story or has bad characters, and I suspect it would make a fine Broadway show, but I nearly thre the book across the room somewhere between p.200 and p.300 where the translator or author broke the 4th wall and told me that everything so far was irrelevant. Which it wasn't, in fact. I did finish the book. But it seemed like forever.

The best? I got an A or A+ for my book review in High School of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

the best: Rachel Carson's Silent Spring with Thor Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki running a close second (yes, i know his conclusions werent factual but it was a fascinating read and gave me a lot of respect for "primitive" construction methods) ....i loved Brave New World and that was one i wasnt actually assigned but i picked up a HS friend's copy and then went out and bought the paperback myself

the worst: The Old Man and the Sea. i never finished it either

By brightmoon (not verified) on 07 Jun 2007 #permalink

Best: I loved Black Boy by Richard Wright and more recently for a graduate class I read Nickel and Dimed.

Worst: We had a unit on dragons in 8th grade and I chose an Anne McCaffrey book. Yikes that was boring. It probably wasn't the worst but I remember being sorely disappointed in it because I was excited about the topic. I took a Spanish Lit class and read 100 years of solitude in Spanish and was completely confused. I bought the book in English and re-read it and it didn't make any difference.

I think for me it was: Favorite: "The Hours" by Michael Cunningham; Least favorite: "All the Pretty Horses" by Cormac Mccarthy. Oddly enough both of these were assigned reading for the same class!!

Would those of you who enjoyed The Glass Bead Game recommend an English translation?

I would if I could find my copy. I may have had the same translation as jtdub -- it also lacked the Magister Ludi subtitle.