The book I hated at school

Literary Blog Hop

A question from the Literary Blog Hop:

Discuss a work of literary merit that you hated when you were made to read it in school or university. Why did you dislike it? 

I suspect that many people who studied GCSE English in the north of England (and, for all I know, further afield) had Barry Hines’s 1968 novel A Kestrel for a Knave (filmed the year after as Kes by Ken Loach) as one of their set texts. This is the story of Billy Casper, a young lad living in a South Yorkshire mining town. His father has left home, his older brother is a bully, and his mother has no time for Billy, being more occupied with a string of affairs. School is no better: Billy can barely read or write, is often picked on by the other boys, and the teachers (with the exception of one) treat him as a no-hoper. Although he’s about to leave school, Billy has no idea what he’ll do next. But there is one good thing in the boy’s life: Kes, the kestrel Billy has trained himself and is highly adept at handling.

‘Hate’ is perhaps too strong a word for my reaction to the book at the time, but certainly I didn’t get along with it. I think this was because it was so much the opposite of the fantasy I was particularly into reading at the time, and I just didn’t know how to appreciate novels like A Kestrel for a Knave on their own terms. Yes, I could interpret the book well enough to write an essay on it, but I could see nothing beyond that other than a rather miserable story that had nothing to say to me.

I re-read A Kestrel for a Knave a couple of years ago, to see what I could get from it now I was a better reader. There was no dramatic change — I didn’t suddenly fall in love with the novel — but I did find more in it to value. It wasn’t quite as miserable a book as I’d remembered, and I could appreciate it as a study of a character who’s been prevented by circumstances from making the most of (or perhaps even recognising) his talents.

I have a question for anyone reading this: did studying literature at high school help or hinder your love of reading? For myself, I wish I had been as open to different kinds of literature as I am now. Of course, I can remind myself that developing as a reader is an ongoing process, that where I am as a reader is more important than where I was… but, still, it would have been good if I could have seen more back then than just another essay to be written.

10 Comments

  1. Studying literature at school turned me off a lot of books – I think that is why I avoid the classics now.

    I read Kestral for a Knave a few years ago and loved it! I’m sorry to hear that school ruined it for you. 🙁

  2. I remember in high school we had an exam based on The Brothers Karamazov (which I had loved) and we were supposed to know—for instance, among other stupid things—the exchange rate between the ruble and the dollar. (The instructor told me I “should’ve gotten curious.)

    It didn’t actually manage to turn me off Dostoevskii, but I did leave high school.

  3. Despite studying English Literature at A-level (UK schools from 16-18 years old, pre-University) I still love to read, although not always such ‘classic’ books and maybe more modern stuff like JJK Rowling / Harry Potter and Lee Child / Jack Reacher books.

    The worst book I had to read/study was Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf … pure mindless drivel!

    All the best, David.

  4. despite my teachers best efforts, they never put me off literature.In fact they drove me further into it’s embrace as a refuge from all that they represented.

  5. Since I really read no great literature in high school classes, I have a different perspective. It seems so many people hate what they were assigned by their teachers and I do feel glad I still have my love of books intact–but I really wish I had learned earlier to read more critically and understand literary contexts!

  6. I hate the thought of school or teachers ruining books for people!

  7. My English teacher ruined A Passage to India for me. But I did read it again and found it to be a great novel!

    Here is my Literary Blog Hop: Disliked Book post!

  8. My read was STONEHENGE DECODED…uggh. Did anyone else have to suffer through it?

    Stop by my blog if you like…I also have a giveaway that isn’t very literary, but check it out.

    http://silversolara.blogspot.com

  9. High school lit was really hit and miss for me. Some classics I hated but others I really loved. I’m sure it was partially my taste in books, but also partially due to the teachers presenting the books. The books I loved were assigned by teachers I got along with.

  10. Hi David.

    I did Kes too. I happened to be a bit obsessed with falconry at the time, so that kind of counter-weighted by dislike of book, but I don’t think reading books in school had much influence either way on me, as I read a lot outside.

    Two that stand out as bringing me down though were ‘The Chocolate War’ by Robert Cormier (plenty of people love this one) and ‘Go Ask Alice’, another depressing American book the author of which I can’t be bothered to look up. If you thought A Kestrel For A Knave was depressing, trust me, steer clear of this one.

    I’m happy to have been introduced to Shakespeare in secondary school though. Would have never come across him at home.

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