How To Handle Bad Class Readings

By Olive Nugent

We’ve all been there. You sit there every night, doing your other homework, trying to push down the niggling dread as your beat-up, dog-eared copy sits reproachfully on the corner of your desk. After math, you say, once I’m done that Spanish homework, I’ll get through Chapter 7. And so, after you’ve done all your other work, plus 30 minutes of internet procrastination, your inner panic bell starts trilling and you flop down into bed and set to it. Depending on what you’ve been assigned, you may lurch through it in frustrated confusion, slog through seemingly empty passages, or get indignant at the author’s message. One question, however, seems to be common to every negative reaction I’ve ever had to an assigned novel: Of all the books to pick, why this one?

Bad class readings are a pain. More annoyingly, they’re often also a disappointment, especially if, like me, you’re someone who usually enjoys them. It’s easy to get bitter and dismissive when what could have been your non-homework homework, something to look forward to, goes awry. However, in my modest years of secondary education, I’ve concluded incensed dinner-table rants to your mother full of pouty rhetorical questions don’t make reading a book you don’t like any easier. I have, however, found small ways to make the experience a bit easier to handle, and to take away from it something satisfying, perhaps even enjoyable.

As with any other kind of frustration, bottling it up or ignoring it will not help; the quality of the reflections and essays you’ll have to write depends on authenticity as well as critical thinking, and will suffer for bland, canned praise. No, frustration, I find, can actually deepen your understanding of the material, so long as you channel it productively. Ideally, each bad book should be an exercise both in empathy – for those who like it, for the author, for the teacher who assigned it – and in self-knowledge.

Identify and articulate  exactly what it is you don’t like about the novel – write it down, or explain it in a non-ranty way to your friends. Do you disagree with its themes, or are you unimpressed with how they and the characters are written? English curricula tend to go for novels labelled classics, meaning enough people saw something in them for them to have some staying power. So, try to figure out why other people like it enough for it to be foisted onto you. What are they seeing that you don’t?

If you genuinely have difficulty understanding a text (some, I know, really don’t get Shakespeare), that’s what your English teacher’s there for. In a pinch, the internet can be helpful, but only to clarify  content, mind you. Online analysis is almost universally terrible.

When it comes to the boring ones… actually, I don’t really have any helpful advice. Sorry. Just have fun missing it when your next assigned book makes your blood boil. Also, maybe try to find yourself a good page-turner to pick you back up when you’re done

Whatever your beef with the novel, the most important thing is that you keep an open mind about it; this whole empathy business won’t do you much good otherwise. Besides, endings often have a capacity for pleasant surprise.

I’ll end, rather unoriginally, with a quote I stumbled across on the internet. The poet W. H. Auden once wrote: “Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.” My first question, why this book, was the right one – just don’t let it go unanswered. ♦