Broccoli Books

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


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?