Ask anyone who, like me, was a kid in Australia the 1970s, “What were the books you read at school?” and we’re likely to recall at least three novels. There may be more, but for me, these three are the classics, the ones I had to read, analyse and write essays on in English. And, in their different ways, they left a deep impression on me. Perhaps that’s why I still have copies of them in my bookcase – though none are school days’ originals!
There were two English classes at my school. One read Animal Farm in Year 11; the second, my class, was scheduled to do so in Year 12. However, I left school after Year 11, so my school days’ knowledge of Animal Farm comes from disturbing feedback from friends in the Year 11 class who read the book:
It’s like a children’s story, about animals on a farm. The animals learn to talk and walk on two legs. But it’s not any of these things, either. It’s a metaphor, for the evils of communism, I think. And [spoiler alert] it’s sad. They send a lovely old horse to the knacker’s yard!
It wasn’t until my mid-thirties, when I was living in England that I belatedly read Animal Farm. By then, I had lived and travelled the world a little, visiting places like East Berlin, before The Berlin Wall came down, and Russia, after Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika.
Setting aside references from my fading school days’ memories, when I opened the book, I thought I’d know it, at least from its place in popular culture.
And yet, I didn’t. George Orwell’s text was more dystopian than I’d expected and it had a profound effect on me. To be honest, I wouldn’t have understood Animal Farm as a seventeen-year-old schoolboy. I needed my adult and backpacker years to get its historical and political context.
Though one thing’s for sure: the chilling mantra of “two legs better than four” and the murder of the old Boxer would have freaked me as much as a teenager as it did when I was a thirty-something!
A workmate of my father’s with older kids gave him a box of second-hand textbooks that he thought might be useful for my senior high school years. Among them, I found a copy of The Old Man and the Sea and, as I loved reading, I got stuck into it and finished Ernest Hemingway’s short novel long before I had to open the book in my English class.
I thought it was a good yarn, about an old, leathery, down-on-his-luck fisherman, who hooks the biggest catch of his life and then battles with the fish and the sea, only to eventually get back to shore and find sharks have stripped it to its bones.
And then I had to read and analyse the novella in English, and by the time we’d pulled it apart for similies, alliterations, onomatopoeias, metaphors and its Christ-personification, the book felt as gutted as the old man’s fish and I hated it!
Recently, I bought a copy of The Old Man and the Sea from a second-hand bookstall and had another go at reading it. The middle-aged me bristled at the occupational health and safety issues of the old man setting off on his own in his fishing boat, letting himself be pulled out of sight of the shore by the fish, and not having any food or water on board.
Yes, I know, it’s set in a different time and culture, AND it is Hemingway, but the book still annoyed me – I didn’t even get to the Christ-personification part before I put it away to read later … maybe!
Harper Lee’s classic was another book I found in the box of second-hand textbooks and read well before I had to study it at school. And again, I was fortunate it was scheduled for my class in Year 12, and I left school after Year 11. So I never “analysed” the book in English (that is, pulled it apart!), as I had The Old Man and the Sea.
I loved reading To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout and Jem’s childhood adventures, Atticus Finch’s determination to defend Tom Robinson regardless of race, and the maligned Boo Radley’s bravery, resonated with me as a teenage boy and again when I read it much later as a middle-aged man.
In truth, over the years the book and the 1962 film version may have blended in my memories. For I can’t think of Atticus with picturing the quiet strength of Gregory Peck and the commendable restraint he shows in the scene where the weak, racist Bob Ewell spits on him.
I like to believe To Kill a Mockingbird would have “survived” my reading of it, analysis and essay writing in English. So many people I know read it in their schooldays and still love the book.
Perhaps that’s what marks a great novel? It survives the passage of time, the changes in our lives and viewpoints, and the analysis of our school days’ English class!
© 2018 Robert Fairhead