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.