Z at school 13 – school books

I found reading in class horribly dreary and dull – the bits where everyone had to take it in turns to read, that is.  Some children found it quite challenging and stumbled through, few read aloud well, with expression, and it was so much slower than reading to oneself.  I wasn’t alone in reading ahead, keeping one finger in the page we were on.  Of course, the teacher was wise to that and would snap out “next word!” to someone she spotted engrossed in a later page.

On the whole, though I disliked the books we were given to read.  I can only remember a few, but was completely put off the author in every case – until I got to the age of public exams, that is.

The first was A High Wind in Jamaica – which must have been very well written, because I still remember much of it, much as I disliked it.  I’ve been trying to analyse why, without actually having to read it again.  For a start, I don’t think it helped that I came from a small family – the sort of banter that went on in large families was outside my experience, not in a good way … I remember a conversation about telling whose clothes were whose by their smell, and about catching ringworm by riding horses bareback, both of which rather revolted me.  The only character I liked, John, was killed off, and then his siblings put him right out of their mind and blanked the accident from their memories, which I found peculiar.  Emily herself, the main character, I disliked.  I’m sure I didn’t understand the undertones of the captain’s advances towards her, but probably found it disturbing – and it was again when Emily stabbed the Dutch captain, and when she condemned the pirate captain to death by crying in court about the blood when he died.  Even the end, when she was portrayed amongst other blameless children of her own age, I found creepy.

Nada the Lily.  Another horrible one, as far as I was concerned.  A lot of brutality, which I wouldn’t necessarily have minded (I remember taking A Coral Island in my stride and in that, a boat was launched using live – for a while – humans as rollers to haul it down to the sea) but I found it unpleasant – the narrator was accused of lying and had to put his hand in the fire.  If he’d cried out and snatched it out, it would have proved he was lying so he didn’t, even though he was.  Nada’s death was terrible, holed up in a cave with a rock trapping her.  I disliked it and was also bored by it and have never read anything by H. Rider Haggard since (he lived very near here and I know his family and would never dare admit that to them, especially to the one named Nada.

Worst of all must have been Redgauntlet, because I don’t remember anything about it at all.  Even reading the synopsis doesn’t remind me, and I was the sort of person who quoted lines from books and could place them – ‘near the bottom of a right-hand page, about two-thirds of the way through the book’ and so on, after a first reading.  Again, I’ve never read any Scott first, not even Ivanhoe.

Things looked up considerably when I was taking O Levels.  Inexplicably, the set book was Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals.  Having loved it from when I was a small child and read it many times, I already knew it well and it was certainly a doddle.  Hardly great literature and I’m not sure why it ever made it to the public exam syllabus.  The poetry was First World War, which was much more demanding, and the Shakespeare was Richard III, which I also loved.

There were so many good books about when I was in my teens.  Writers such as Nevil Shute, Monica Dickens, A.J. Cronin, Daphne du Maurier, Iris Murdoch, Kingsley Amis, JD Salinger, William Golding, Joseph Heller – and they’re just the first that spring to mind.  I read classics too, of course, from Conan Doyle and Tolstoy to Thackeray and Horace Walpole and lighter stuff such as Dick Francis, PG Woodhouse and Georgette Heyer.  Mark Twain was a favourite (our dog was called Huckleberry, though the cartoon hound had something to do with that, I admit) and so was Saki, whose levity and wit, interspersed with the deftly sardonic, still appeals to me no end.  We named another dog Bassington and a third Clovis, after Saki characters.

Oddly, I’d never read Jane Austen, which was very lucky because I came upon her at just the right time, when I was sixteen and taking my first A Levels.  Emma was the set novel and we studied Romantic poets, particularly Wordsworth, Keats and Coleridge.  Also Hamlet – now, who can go wrong with the Prince of Denmark?  And the blithe Wife of Bath, for the Chaucer.  How lucky I was.  I swept through the syllabus and took the exam after one year instead of two.

6 comments on “Z at school 13 – school books

  1. Mike Horner

    I started reading, real addictive reading that is, with Treasure Island at the aged of seven, loved it, and then read all the R.L. Stevenson’s I could find. You mention The Coral Island by R.M. Ballantine – I re read that a year or so ago, and found, rather to my surprise, that it’s still very readable. Went through Dickens in my early/mid teens – found the earlier ones best, then discovered Jane Austen. I still find that Mr. Bennett’s dry sense of humour can make me laugh. I think Emma is my favourite Austen book – the people in it are so REAL – there’s a Miss Bates in every village I’ve ever known. Some books I have to reread about every ten years or so. One of the great literary characters of our lifetime is, I think, Adrian Mole.
    Sorry, waffling on now.

  2. Z Post author

    Some of those authors I found a lot younger than my teens – the advantage of having a sister five years older and parents who were voracious readers meant that I had plenty of choice and age-appropriate wasn’t an issue in the way it is now – if it was too old for me, it simply went over my head. I loved Treasure Island too. And I read my way through Austen most years.

  3. kipper

    I cannot remember any assigned books other than Shakespeare. I read more on my own than ever required by the teachers. Harriet the Spy, Treasure Island and Encyclopedia Brown were preteen favorites. My father gave me his Signet classic hardback book collection with books by Addison, Ben Franklin, Poe,Scott, Hawthorne etc. and I read them all voluntarily. He also gave me The Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes which I read one summer break and loved. Later on I read a lot of Dickens,Jane Austen, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie and Steinbeck.
    Did you have Classics Illustrated to read as a child? They were comic book versions of classic literature. A great way to encourage a love of reading.

    1. Z Post author

      No, I didn’t come across anything like that. We had a pretty well-stocked library at school and a lot of books at home, I always had several books on the go.

  4. Liz

    “I wasn’t alone in reading ahead, keeping one finger in the page we were on.” Yep, that was me too, circa 1982 while bored in CSE English lit class.
    Do schools still make kids read aloud like that? I was a reasonably confident reader but most children are not and some of the boys in the mixed ability classes I found myself in towards the end of my school days seemed to find it difficult to read at all. I remember cringing while some unfortunate soul struggled to pronounce fairly simple words.

    I read “Emma” by Jane Austin as an adult, probably in the mid 1990s. It was a bit gossipy for my taste and Emma herself is a character you could never tire of slapping. Apparently, Ms Austin wanted to write a heroine that only she could love. Well, she succeeded!

    1. Z Post author

      I don’t remember that we had to do that past the age of twelve or so. I’m sure the teachers hated it too. They asked for volunteers to read poetry aloud and we were given parts to read for plays.

      Reading around the class is done in small group work for children who need extra help with their reading, but that’s designed to help rather than torture or humiliate! I don’t know about general lessons, I haven’t been into English lessons much of late.

      I had rather more sympathy for Emma – she didn’t have much fun in life, with that dreadfully depressing father, who probably wasn’t even very old. Without a mother, she was pushed into the lifestyle of someone much older than her years. She was insensitive and thought she was smarter than she was, but what did she have to do with her time? That governess of hers hadn’t taught her to do anything much, she didn’t even seem to do sewing, music, painting, the usual things for girls, let alone riding or anything fun.


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