Sunday, 1 June 2014

Reading Habits #11: Who did you read in school?

A few days ago, I visited ‘Landmark’ in my suburb. It's a leading chain of bookstores owned by one of India’s largest business houses. I was browsing through the books, with no intention of buying any, when I saw Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw in the Classics section. I’ve had an affinity for Shaw and his writing ever since I studied an abridged essay in high school. I don’t recall the title but I remember being highly impressed by his prose.

Many years later, Autobiography of Anthony Trollope by the English author had the same effect on me. This is how Trollope opens up on his life in the first chapter…

“In writing these pages, which, for the want of a better name, I shall be fain to call the autobiography of so insignificant a person as myself, it will not be so much my intention to speak of the little details of my private life, as of what I, and perhaps others round me, have done in literature; of my failures and successes such as they have been, and their causes; and of the opening which a literary career offers to men and women for the earning of their bread. And yet the garrulity of old age, and the aptitude of a man's mind to recur to the passages of his own life, will, I know, tempt me to say something of myself...”
The only way to enjoy reading the above passage, and the rest of the book, is to read it very slowly, pausing at just the right moment and then reading again, all along feeling and absorbing the rich texture of each word and sentence. Rapid reading simply won’t do with Trollope here.

The sighting of Pygmalion, which I also had in school, brought back memories of some of the finest essays, stories, and poems I’d the privilege of studying from my English textbooks. Until the late eighties, I think, English as a school subject was influenced by English literature based on a pattern of British curriculum. The textbooks have since been Indianised, in terms of both writer and content, and while they have retained some of the English and American literary heritage, they’re not the same anymore.

Who else did I read back in school? As far as I can recollect, besides Shaw, there was Chekhov, Kipling, Buck, Dickens, Maupassant, Shelley, Blackmore, Wilde, Sewell, Melville, Hugo, Bunyan, Swift, Doyle, Shakespeare, Twain, Verne, Carroll, and Dumas.


The best I can recall from my school days are the poems—Death Be Not Proud by John Donne, O Captain! My Captain! by Walt Whitman, Paradise Lost by John Milton, Daffodils (or ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’) by William Wordsworth, and The Lord of the Isles by Sir Walter Scott. I loved them but don’t ask me to recite from by heart.

A word about Charles Dickens and Mark Twain: for some inexplicable reason, I want to re-read Pickwick Papers and A Tale of Two Cities, and Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I delight in the mere thought of being able to read these books again.

Are there books that do this to you? Who did you enjoy reading in school?



For previous Reading Habits, see under 'Labels'

20 comments:

  1. Hi Prashant,

    Even though it was not my major, I really enjoyed my literature classes and took a lot of them. My favorites were the unknown writers. I had a great professor who wanted to highlight stories that were not so popular and diverse. I kept that literature book because I'd read almost all of it, the poems, the short stories in it. My well known favorite writers in those classes was William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Henry James for starters. There are more but those are the writers that stick out the most in my mind. The story I've reread recently was Herman Melville's Bartleby, The Scrivener where the protagonist would respond with "perhaps" anytime anyone would ask something of him. I never read The Great Gatsby but I've bought it and plan to read it.

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    1. Hi Keishon, I didn't have to major in anything in school. We'd a set of eight to nine compulsory subjects that included English. I'd excellent English teachers in high school, fifth standard (grade) to tenth standard (grade), secondary as we call it here. As part of the English subject, we also had a Dictation class once a week that I looked forward to. It helped build our vocabulary and spelling. I have not read either Tennessee Williams or Henry James but now that you mention them, I'm sure I studied them in school.

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  2. Sadly I had none of those reading experiences in school. I went to a private school where Pilgrim's Progress was the highlight. Later, on my own, pretty much most of what you have mentioned here.

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    1. David, I read some good authors back in school even though most of it was abridged. It got me interested in reading as I grew up.

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  3. I generally didn't like the stuff we were required to read in school, The Grapes of Wrath, Silas Marner, etc. I was already doing a lot of reading on my own and much preferred my tastes to those of the literary curriculum

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    1. Charles, I don't think I read either Steinbeck of Eliot in school. In fact, I don't remember the last time I read anything by Eliot, in spite of having a couple of her books in our collection.

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  4. Not much at my school - Dickens (Great Expectations), Shakespeare (Julius Caesar), JM Synge (Playboy of the Western World) and possibly EM Forster ( A Passage to India) - but on that last one I could be mis-remembering

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    1. Col, I have no clue who JM Synge is, but thanks for mentioning a new author to me. I'll check out PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD. I also need to revisit E.M. Forster's books.

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  5. I studied in a Convent! I read Jane Austen, Chekov, lots of Shakespeare and all the poets!

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    1. Mystica, I read more poets than I mentioned including Byron, Shelley, and Browning. Every now and then I pick up a book of poetry and read some of the poems randomly.

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  6. We read the typical stuff, I suppose. American authors in Junior year: Hemingway, Steinbeck, Hawthorne. International authors Senior year: Kafka, Chekhov, Dumas, etc. Some of it wasn't so bad, but it seemed liked the classes sucked the life out of them.

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    1. Kelly, the joy of reading literature in school depends a lot on how good the English teacher or professor is. In that sense I was lucky. I've read Kafka fleetingly. Ditto for Sartre and Camus although I've read a fair bit of Russell and Emerson.

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  7. I vaguely recall reading Dickens (which I didn't appreciate at the time), Guy De Mauppesant (whom I loved), O'Henry (whom I also loved), Edith Wharton's ETHAN FROME (which I reread every few years), Fitzgerald's THE GREAT GATSBY (which I also re-read every few years), Thornton Wilder, Eliot, Chekov, Shakespeare of course, poetry too. I too remember Oh Captain, My Captain and No Man Is An Island, that sort of thing. But I did a lot of reading on my own encouraged by my remarkable English teacher. I read Thomas Wolfe, Jane Austen, John Steinbeck, Konrad Lorenz, THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH by Wm. L. Shirer, tons of books (fiction and non) on Native Americans - I went through a phase. I also read Louis L'Amour and Zane Grey. I was a very esoteric reader. :)

    Prashant you have whetted my appetite for Trollope's autobiography. I am definitely lining up for that one.

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    1. Yvette, I think you're still an esoteric reader considering the impressive array of books you read and review at your blog. I haven't read a couple of authors you mentioned like Jane Austen and Konrad Lorenz. I have only ever read Shirer's mega work as a reference book in spite of having acquired a copy more than two decades ago. I have also read more novels by L'Amour than Grey. You will like Trollope's autobiography which is legally available online. I'm still holding on to my copy of the book and intend to read it again. The first time I read it I couldn't put it down. There was magic in his language, so to speak.

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  8. I'm often impressed by the ability to string together a large number of clauses in a single sentence without seeming to take a breath, while not losing me as a reader. Henry James and William Faulkner lose me, but I think I'd have no trouble keeping up with Trollope.

    My reading in (high) school was pretty lackluster (BEN HUR?), but we recently watched the recent new production of GREAT EXPECTATIONS, and I found myself wanting to re-read it again after 50+ years.

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    1. Ron, I'd a hard time understanding Faulkner's THE SOUND AND THE FURY which I read earlier this year. I found his characters, including the initial narrator, the young Benjamin, confusing. It also took me awhile to realise that Benjamin was mentally challenged. As for Henry James, I have never read the author formally. I read Trollope's BARCHESTER TOWERS a long time ago although I'm yet to read his THE WARDEN, the first in his "Chronicles of Barsetshire" series. I mention these books because I have them. Over the years I have been trying to read at least three to four books by each author, be it vintage, modern or contemporary.

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  9. It has been too long, I do not remember what I read in high school (for school assignments). I was a good student so I enjoyed some and some I just endured. OK, I do remember Silas Marner, and I think I must have read Thomas Hardy, because I remember introducing my (first) husband to Hardy when we were in college.

    Outside of school, I was reading Erle Stanley Gardner and I have been reading Rex Stout by then. I don't think I got introduced to science fiction until my college years.

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    1. Tracy, I didn't like school but I liked my English class. I don't remember if I read George Eliot and Thomas Hardy. I have never read SILAR MARNER or MIDDLEMARCH yet and hope to read them some day. I read Hardy in later years and liked his dystopian stories. I have a few more to read. My reading has varied through the years. Even now it lacks pattern.

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  10. We studied the Brontes, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen in lit classes, and I liked to read Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Scott Fitzgerald and Salinger in my own time. I also remember our reading a very short Simenon/Maigret book in French, which I still think was a great way of teaching us the language.

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    1. Moira, I'm catching up with a lot of authors I didn't read in my youth such as Austen and Fitzgerald. I didn't take any foreign language in either school or college so it was literature in English all the way. In fact, I haven't even read Simenon in English yet. I got to know of the author and his work only after I started blogging.

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