Friday, April 15, 2011

Books I had to read in high school

One of my high school teachers has been on my mind lately. It's probably because Braiden has been telling me about a book he had to read - which he loved, of course. Even though I always loved to read, I was never so thrilled with the books that were assigned. But Miss Haltiner assigned stuff like Madame Bovary and Wuthering Heights, and boring authors like James Joyce. I'd usually read the Cliff's Notes instead, but Miss Haltiner could never be fooled. I'd often get my book reports back with comments like "Next time please read the book." Needless to say, I didn't do so well in her classes but I liked them just the same. I liked them because we spent a lot of time discussing the books and talking about what the authors were trying to say, and the clever ways they said it. I still remember listening to a song in her class that was popular at the time, "King of Pain" by The Police, and how she pointed out that part of that song was talking about Oedipus, another book we had to read.

I still love to read, and although I mostly read histories now, I find that I need a good novel every once in a while. The problem is that years ago I read all the Tom Clancy and Stephen King and John Grisham I could stand! Sure they're exciting and kind of fun, but they're not very... satisfying. So, I find myself reconsidering some of those books from high school. I still haven't touched Madame Bovary or Wuthering Heights, but I have read Animal Farm and quite a number of others which are often considered "classics." Although not books from high school, I've read two by Sinclair Lewis, who was known for his satirical views of American society and values. While I enjoyed Main Street (1920), I found Babbitt (1922) intolerably dry. It's the story of a successful but mundane businessman, George F. Babbitt, who finds no joy or satisfaction in his civic and business accomplishments. It's probably meant to be a satirical poke at the "American Dream," but there was just no cleverness to the story. His comparisons are blunt and obvious and lack any creativity, and try as I might, I just couldn't enjoy it.

Lewis: Main Street and Babbitt (Library of America)Main Street, on the other hand, is the story of Carol Milford, a free-spirited young woman from St. Paul, Minnesota. She marries Will Kennicott, a country doctor from the town of Gopher Prairie, who is several years older than she is. After she moves to Gopher Prairie she is shocked by how backward the town is and tries to make some changes: she holds creative parties for their circle of friends, tries to renovate the city hall, and starts a drama club. In all her efforts she is derided and criticized by the townsfolk. She only finds the kind of companionship she seeks in some of the town's misfits and lower-classes, but even that is unfulfilling.

While it deals with social issues significant at the time (there are frequent mentions of socialism and worker uprisings coupled with criticisms of capitalism) it's mainly a portrayal of small-town life, which even then was idealized as simpler and slower-paced. However, Lewis renders the townsfolk as provincial and petty in their gossip and back-stabbing. He isn't always kind to the city-dwellers either, but his societal critique makes the book an interesting read. He also makes frequent contrasts between how people view things differently. Carol revels in the spring wildflowers, but a passing farmer sees only the new wheat crop that is almost 5 inches tall. After Carol and Will return from an extended trip away he notices several improvements that neighbors have made, while Carol sees only the shabbiness of late winter. And Carol reflects on how proper and prim the Main Street storefronts are, while their backs are weedy and full of rotting wood and vegetables, an allusion to the hypocritical townsfolk. But one of the enduring messages by book's end seems to be that change takes time.

I was initially put off by this biting portrayal, and didn't want to like the book. The plot seems thin and lacking in direction, and subtlety wasn’t one of Lewis’ strengths. But I was surprised to identify with some of the characters: sometimes Carol, sometimes Kennicott, sometimes others. There seem to be many layers to the story, as well: social and political criticisms, differences between men and women, and observations about marriage and family. Many of the aspects of the story are still very pertinent to our lives today, and I ended up enjoying it more than I had anticipated.

So Miss Haltiner, who knows? Maybe I'll yet get around to reading Madame Bovary or Wuthering Heights, but I can't ever imagine wanting to read James Joyce.

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