The Test of Time
Anyone else agree that books chosen as texts for exams are the ultimate turn off for any young teenager?
Even as a keen reader I can still remember trying to trawl my way through ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ (Thomas Hardy) and being relieved to hear that the film was being shown on TV over the Christmas holidays – only to find it was scheduled to be broadcast on Christmas Day. That year I ate alone with my Christmas dinner balanced on my knee, watching the 3 hour long epistle as revision for my mock exams – there was no opportunity to record in those days!
Hardy never appealed to me much after that – at least not for a long time, and I am aware that the finer points of his narrative, the full descriptions and brilliant depictions of the countryside were completely lost on me. Maybe I was too immature to appreciate it, or just not paying enough attention but after reading other books of his since I am still taken aback by my lack of understanding or appreciation at that time. Did I even read the book?
Other texts I was directed to read for exams include ‘Great Expectations’ (Dickens), ‘Moll Flanders’ (Defoe), ‘Animal Farm’ (Orwell), and ‘Brave New World’ (Huxley). All of them opened my eyes to other ways of living or thinking but not in a positive way. The cruel world of Moll Flanders horrified the young me, Animal Farm and Brave New World suggested political ideals that I had no understanding of and Great Expectations? Well, who would want to have a convict as a benefactor or be left wearing your wedding dress until it, and you, withered away? The cruel world was attempting to infiltrate the safe world I envisaged first from digesting the Famous Five, Nancy Drew, and the Chalet School, then Agatha Christie and even Gerald Durrell’s animals mixed with the odd Mills and Boons. At that time there were few books actually aimed at the teenage reader.
Over the years, of course, I have come to appreciate the classics – well most of them! I still prefer to choose my books rather than be dictated to but being stretched by reading group choices has widened my literary horizons as the enthusiasm of others has rubbed off on me during animated discussions. In turn I have thrust my choices on others – most notably F Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night which I have subjected a number of groups to. I love the prose style, the depiction of the life of privilege so vividly portrayed along with the bright colours and flavour of the South of France in the early 20th Century. It is a book of its time with opinions and ideals common to the era so I appreciate that not everyone will enjoy reading it. For me though, the glimpse into a long lost world fascinates and intrigues - highlighting how differently we see the world now. Tender is the night : a romance / F. Scott Fitzgerald on the Libraries NI Catalogue
Dracula by Bram Stoker is another classic I came to late. I will admit to a leaning towards gothic novels of yesteryear – and thoroughly enjoyed the telling of this tale through the eyes of Jonathan Harker, a respectable English solicitor who travels across Europe to Transylvania to visit Count Dracula in his castle, setting in motion a terrifying sequence of events.
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen is another gothic gem – more genteel than Dracula of course, but the most atmospheric and dark of all the Austen books. It was the first of her novels to be completed though one of the last to be published. The story concerns Catherine Morland, the naïve young protagonist who views the world through lenses distorted by her fondness for Gothic novels coupled with a very active imagination. The reader follows her as she visits Bath, then Northanger Abbey and through the ups and downs of her romantic connections as she comes to a better understanding of herself and of the world around her.
Whatever your opinion of the classics, the mere fact of them having survived the test of time is testament to the telling of their stories and leads me to wonder which of today’s bestsellers will still be acknowledged by readers of the future. And of course, which of them will feature on curriculum lists in years to come.