I love the beginning of the semester. I love the first week back when there’s no work and all of Cornell’s teeming masses slowly trickle back; I love reuniting with everyone I care about; I love the sight of Louie’s Lunch being towed back into position across from Risley; I love endlessly toying with my schedule until I find the perfect combination of classes. But my favorite beginning-of-semester ritual has to be heading over to the Cornell Store, printing out my book list, and loading up bag upon bag with all of my assigned reading for the rest of the year.
I absolutely love assigned reading. It’s so exciting to pick up all of these books, often things I never would have given a second glance on my own, and pore through them, discovering the worlds hidden within them. Furthermore, I always gain a much deeper understanding of a book when I can discuss it in class than when I read it on my own. In other words, it’s just plain fun and often I actually look forward to doing my nightly reading assignments.
The strange thing is that this is a complete reversal of the attitude I held through middle school and most of high school. Back then, I would go out of my way to hate a book simply because it was assigned for class. This was due to a rather simplistic bit of sixth-grade logic on my part: Any book assigned for school was work; I hated schoolwork; therefore I hated any book assigned for school. As a result, the first time I read a book for school that I actually allowed myself to enjoy (Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons), it threw me into a bit of a crisis.
What was it that made me change my mind about assigned reading? I can attribute a good part of it to an increase in maturity; I no longer felt the need to maintain my feeble attempt at a rebel image, and could evaluate the books I was assigned on their own merits rather than how much I could piss off authority figures by claiming to not like them.
Yet just as I was changing, so too were the books I was assigned. In early high school, most of what I was assigned to read came from the so-called literary canon: Shakespeare, Homer, The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, etc. In other words, I was assigned to read the books that everyone is assigned to read. It didn’t particularly interest me to analyze the same themes that had been analyzed to death by thousands upon thousands of high school students before me; when I read these books, I felt as if I wasn’t discovering them for myself, but rather simply being presented with what had already been discovered by others.
Part of the reason Fathers and Sons excited me so much when I first read it (other than the fact that it’s a damn good book) was that it didn’t seem like part of this canon. Although it’s regarded as a literary classic, I had never heard of it before, and to me this made it something special. When I read that book, I didn’t feel like I was just regurgitating the same thoughts and opinions that every high school student churns out, but rather that I was coming to brand new conclusions. This, of course, wasn’t true, but it certainly felt like it was, and it caused me to change the way I thought about reading completely.
This, I think, is why I enjoy assigned reading so much more in college than I did in high school: the books aren’t assigned just because they’re part of some list of books everyone is supposed to read, but rather because the professors legitimately believe that there are interesting things in them. The books I’ve been assigned here have come from all over the world and all different time periods; they’ve ranged from books that are on every bookshelf and best-of list to obscure texts forgotten by all but the most obsessive literature geeks; they’ve come in all different media, from plays to novels to poems to comics. Had my assigned reading in high school been more like that, I probably would have gotten a lot more out of it.
This isn’t to say that the conventional literary canon should be abandoned — when I’ve gone back and reread the books I hated in high school, I found most of them to be quite good, though I still can’t get into The Scarlet Letter — but rather that the idea of a literary canon should be abandoned, at least in the realm of high school education. The purpose of reading literature at the high school level is to discover the joy of finding something new about a book and about the world, and it’s impossible to find something new if you feel like it’s all been found before.
Aidan Bonner is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at email@example.com. The Weather Report appears alternate Mondays this semester.