High school English class is a strange and sad place.
Because every student had to take the early survey courses, where 500 years of English literature are covered in a school year, you got a wide variety of student interest in the subject. People like me, who loved it, couldn’t express our love for particular books or poems without being ridiculed, but those who hated it had no problem complaining loudly. In fact, they were usually encouraged. Then there were those who liked some of it — the Romantic authors, say — and not others, like the realists. It wasn’t until you were an upper classman and took an elective devoted to, say, Shakespeare or the art of the novel, when you got a class with most of the students on the same page. (That’s a pun, people.)
I don’t remember what class it was or what year, though I remember Miss Washington was the teacher, but we had to read Albert Camus’ “The Stranger.” I’ve thought about this little novel with such big ideas a lot since then, which is why I’ve chosen it for the Classics Challenge 2016 category: A book you were forced to read in high school.
Most of the class, of course, hated the novel, so maybe I was just being contrary to show I was a deeper thinker than they were, but I was captivated by Camus’ bleak outlook on life.
Looking back, I can see how it appealed to me as a teen. Let’s just be honest about something: I was a loser in high school. I was not a jock. I was not one of the smart kids. I was not a burnout. I was not popular. I was just your averaged bullied kid who tried hard to be liked. Still, nothing I did would be enough to help me break into that upper level and have friends in the cool crowd. I don’t say this for pity, it’s the same story millions of people tell—or hide—as adults. I say this because, like an existentialist, I felt that nothing I could do would matter so what was the point of doing anything.
Perhaps I’m not remembering correctly (or perhaps the teachers didn’t know any better) but Camus, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, was presented to us, along with Beckett, as an existentialist. Camus, however, did not consider himself an existentialist, but an absurdist: “Basically, at the very bottom of life … there is only absurdity and more absurdity. And maybe that’s what gives us our joy for living, because the only thing that can defeat absurdity is lucidity,” he wrote. But he also rejected that absurdist label and said his life was devoted to the fight against existentialism: “The modern mind is in complete disarray. Knowledge has stretched itself to the point where neither the world nor our intelligence can find any foothold. It is a fact that we are suffering from nihilism.”
From what I remember, “The Stranger” is about a man who kills another for no real reason, but when he is put on trial, he is judged on his previous actions, especially his seeming indifference to his mother’s recent death. I remember being drawn to the main character’s indifference. Let’s see how I feel, reading the book more than 30 years later.
My wife has chosen “King Lear” because one of our sons is reading it for class. In part, the choice is to help our son, but she’d also like to hear from him what the teacher has to say about the work.
The point of this category is to see whether a book you liked in high school has no appeal to you as an older reader, or a book you hated in high school makes sense to the adult you. Will you find more in the novel now than you did as a teen? Will you discover your teachers were geniuses (or idiots)? Does literature say different things to you at different ages? Are you a different person (or reader) now?
I think this will be an interesting experiment. I hope you do, too.
What will you be reading and why? Share your thoughts in the comments below.