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January 2019



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Back To School Reading

I always feel sorry for people who say they ‘can’t read’ anything by Jane Austen, Dickens, To Kill a Mockingbird or whatever because the books were ruined for them by exam study. I’m very lucky in that respect. I don’t dislike anything I read at school and I’m eternally grateful for the good teaching I had at A-Level, which consisted of very little teaching and a great deal of making us do all the work.

Today, my indefatigable correspondents at Abe Books have pointed me at Required Reading Worldwide, lists of commonly studied books. The author, Beth Carswell, writes: Until my coworkers and I started talking, I didn't realize how many of the books I've loved best were originally assigned to me as a high school student. I wondered - are the same books assigned to high school students worldwide? So you can have a look at set books from the USA to the Philippines, to Germany and Russia. Intriguing. Very few books there I’ve never heard of and one of them is from the UK!

This is what I’m most pleased to have been introduced to at school; Hopkins is a contender for Top Poet for me. How about you? Love those set texts or hate them?


I was just too young for English literature at school. I loved reading and hated analysis. I could do it well enough to play the game and get good exam results but it never seemed to relate at all to my experience as a reader. And as a consequence I loathed many of the things we studied - The Go-Between stands out as a particular bugbear here. I remember the conversation with my English teacher about doing A-level in which she said something like, 'Well, you could do it, I'm sure, but I think you'd hate every minute of it.' Wise words. Now, of course, I'd love it.

So, I'm very glad not to have read Hopkins at school, and to have found him later in life when I was ready and able to fall in love.
I can understand that. Funny that you and lizarfau should comment at the same time about The Go-Between with such different views.
One of my miniature moments of rebellion at school was writing an essay on the significance of the cricket match in The Go-Between. I argued that it was intended to provide a moment of light relief in an otherwise unbearably tedious book. I didn't get a very good mark but there was an enormous amount of satisfaction in writing it.
I'll bet!
I loathed The Go-Between too. Tedious book.
Or for really tedious, there's Eustace and Hilda. Astonishing, the high reputation the books have had.
Like you, I was lucky with mine. I loved my A-level texts and O-level texts and with only two exceptions - Old Mali and the Boy and Lord of the Flies - loved all the books/plays/poetry we studied at high school. My favourite poet from school was TS Eliot; I also liked Philip Larkin and Louis MacNiece. My all-time favourite book is still The Go-Between, one of my A-level texts. And I still love Shakespeare, who I was introduced to at school (Macbeth in second year). Arthur Miller, too.
TBH English didn't seem like work to me so we seem to have had the same experience. But see what rosathome says about The Go-Between!

Edited at 2009-09-01 11:06 am (UTC)
Like rosathome, I loved reading and hated analysis. However, the great books that I studied at A Level are ones that I still love (like Emma and the Canterbury Tales, and the ones that seemed impenetrable to me then, like Paradise Lost, still are. A Level English did little for my appreciation or understanding of literature, looking back, but it didn't spoil reading for me either, thank heavens.
Enjoyment now is what matters, after all. I do appreciate Milton, but we didn't read any at school.

Edited at 2009-09-01 11:10 am (UTC)
I didn't like any of my O'level and A'level set novels, but I particularly loathed Kim, which was a surprise as I liked Kipling's poetry. I did like all the poetry and plays though, and I loved Chaucer.
I've never heard of anyone doing Kipling for an exam! Years since I read Kim but I don't remember loathing it. My favourites are Puck of Pook's Hill and Rewards and Fairies.
I'm sure that we read Kim long before School Cert - probably about Second Form, anyway when we were still young enough to be "reading round", so before Fourth
My favourite as an adult was The Ship That Found Itself - but Puck was a childhood favourite
I memorized the whole of the Deutschland without actually realizing that I'd be questioned about it for School Cert.
This probably lost me marks, because I probably quoted too much
That's quite a feat! Hopkins is particularly memorable though, isn't he.
I don't remember having that many set texts, because I was at school in the 1980s and it was all trendy and Meeja Studies. We didn't really study specific books until the GCSE years; the ones I remember are Twelth Night (loved), The Go-Between (loathed), Macbeth (liked), The French Lieutenant's Woman (didn't think much of), Translations by Brian Friel (loved). There must have been others but I can't remember now what they were.

For A-Level we had four exam texts: Antony and Cleopatra (can't bloody stand it), As I Lay Dying (found totally incomprehensible), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (adored), and the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (quite liked). And then we did a lot of other books for coursework, so only spent a week or so on each.

Studying English at university put me off reading for pleasure for a long time, because I couldn't get my head out of critical-reading mode, but these days I'm quite glad I did it.
That's interesting because it shows how things have changed. At our school, although we read and discussed books and wrote essays about them, we didn't actually take Eng. Lit. O-Level; they probably thought it was a waste of time. You had *four* A-Level texts? We had a full Chaucer/Shakespeare paper which meant two plays, the Prologue and one of the Tales in detail. Plus five or six texts for the other paper, which gave us a choice of questions when it came to the exam. No coursework in those days, of course, although we did read a lot of other stuff.
I did GCSEs in English and English Literature (two separate qualifications, both entirely coursework-based). For A-Level we had four set texts which we studied for an open book exam, plus a second exam which was basically practical criticism (poetry unseen); between them those accounted for 50% of the mark and the remainder was based on a coursework portfolio.

Even my degree was more than half assessed by coursework essays rather than exams.

Mind you, I gather that things are going the other way now and there's a move back to exams because of concerns about cheating on coursework...


*is shocked and feels old* :-)

We did do English Language, just not the lit. Between then and A-Level absolutely everyone had to do a thing called Use of English.

If you've ever read what Susan Hill says about mail she gets from students, it's easy to see why there's some worries over coursework.


That was me! Can you believe it, I'd already amde a comment elsewhere and LJ said my log-in cookie had disappeared. Grrr!
Sheesh, it still doesn't want me to comment in my own journal!
For A-level English(taken in 1980), we studied two novels (Tess of the D'Urbervilles and The Go-Between), two Shakespeare plays (Measure for Measure and King Lear), Chaucer's Prologue plus The Pardoner's Tale, Edward II by Marlow, Ted Hughes' poetry and The Waste Land by TS Eliot. I think that's all of them, but I might have forgotten something. I vaguely recall there was some some sort of prac crit paper as well, involving a text you hadn't prepared for. And there was a creative writing component - I wrote a poem about the Soviet gymnasts!!

I really enjoyed all the analysis as a teenager. I used to sit with my friends at lunchtime and we'd analyse books to bits. However, when I got to university, I tired of it somewhere in the second year, and like White Hart, it put me off reading for years.

In retrospect, the teaching at our school wasn't very good, but our English teacher did take us to see plays and so forth, so that we had a wider knowledge of Shakespeare, etc. I think that made up for what she didn't teach us in class.
I mainly remember two instances of the dreaded in-depth analysing, both from Dutch classes: the teacher going on and on about the symbolism in W.F. Hermans' novella Het behouden huis (The House of Refuge). I just found it impossible to believe that the author had consciously put all the symbolism in. I loved Hermans (still do), I chose him as one of my subjects for my Dutch exam (which meant reading at least 15 books by him, plus secondary literature), but I've never felt the need to reread Het behouden huis, and I'm pretty sure I never will.

A short story by Gerard Reve, Werther Nieland, was also studied at great length. I hated that story so much it took me almost 20 years to get over my aversion and read other titles by him. They were in fact brilliant.

Other titles that were read in class, without too much analysing, I remember affectionately: Hamlet, Macbeth, The Catcher in the Rye, The Seeds of Time by John Wyndham, the Arthurian myths by Roger Lancelyn Green, Room at the Top by John Braine, The Sandcastle by Iris Murdoch, Bahnwärter Thiel by Gerhart Hauptmann, some Latin and Greek texts, and some poetry (mainly Dutch and English).

For my modern language exams I had to read a total of 60 books and although I was a voracious reader, it really put me off reading for a while. Children's books were finally able to lure me back. (If it had that effect on me, just think how someone who wasn't that fond of reading would react: he'd never touch another book again!)
That all sounds extremely rigorous!
I was lucky enough to have a wonderful English teacher - it was my favourite subject at school and didn't feel like work at all. It helped that we were studying 'Pride and Prejudice' I think. My teacher had a great love for the work of Thomas Hardy too, and I still enjoy his poems now. I don't know if I have the stomach for his novels any more though. I remember that feeling of gloom and helplessness as the Mayor of Casterbridge met his fate, and thinking 'no, you fool!'.
Glad to know another lucky one. I'm keen on Hardy's poems, too. His novels seem to have been a prime hate for study.