Required reading: The good, the bad and the ugly

Throughout my formative years, I came to regard two words taken together with a mix of excitement and skepticism.

The educational system, in its infinite wisdom, has designated certain tomes as “required reading.”

I recall the excitement of seeing identical volumes stacked neatly in a box, each copy marked with its own number in case the borrowed book police had to come looking for it later. I’m kidding. Kind of.

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And if it was a brand-spanking-new required read, well, all the better. Glossy, unblemished covers, pages that clung to one another as you flipped through them for the first time … heavenly.

Some of these books I devoured, reading ahead even if the teacher told us not to (and why not?!). Others, well …

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Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, I give you my first installment of the good, the bad and the ugly of required reading as I know it.

(I tried as much as possible to come up with a list of books that’s a bit unexpected. For example, of course “To Kill a Mockingbird” is on the good list. Of course we all hated “Old Man and the Sea.” That goes without saying.)

The good

the-beggars-ride “The Beggars’ Ride” by Theresa Nelson

In eighth-grade language arts, our teacher set out a box of assorted books and let us choose one to read. How often does that happen?

At the bottom of the box was a lone copy of “The Beggars’ Ride” that no one else wanted. But I was intrigued. A runaway girl fending for herself in Atlantic City? Squatting in abandoned houses on streets featured in the Monopoly board game? Falling in with a rag-tag group of delinquents with nicknames like”Shoe” and “Top Hat”?

Heck, yeah.

The best part was coming up with a book report. Our teacher challenged us to think outside the box … so, no diorama this time.

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For this particular book report, we had to fill a paper bag with items that were relevant to our book.

Easy peasy lemon squeezy. I tossed in some Monopoly money, player tokens and plastic houses and hotels. I designed a game board based on events within the book.

My classmates loved it. And clearly, I got an A.

So thank you, Ms. Nelson, for writing a story I vaguely remember but should consider re-reading again. I owe my best book report ever to your clever story.

The bad

a-separate-peace“A Separate Peace” by John Knowles

This is the first of two terrible novels I was subjected to as a freshman (see below for “the ugly.”) Come to think of it, our freshman English teacher was pretty terrible as well. Most of the time she wasn’t even in the classroom – that was the same year and the same class during which one of the boys lit a girl’s hair on fire.

But I digress.

In retrospect, “A Separate Peace” was actually not half bad. However, I personally think it was a little advanced for our age group. The consensus was that this book sucked, although the boys enjoyed some of the male stupidity that abounded in the preppy boarding school setting. So maybe it was just us girls who hated it.

Several years ago, I picked up “Phineas,” Knowles’ collection of short stories, at a used book sale. The title story was the inspiration for “A Separate Peace.” And, wonder of wonders, I didn’t throw it across the room.

The ugly

Through the Ice.jpg“Through the Ice” by Piers Anthony, Robert Kornwise

As I mentioned above, freshman English was dismal. So was this book, also assigned that year.

To this day, I still can’t believe I’m the only one in my class who didn’t like “Through the Ice,” the story of a high school boy who escapes a group of bullies by slipping (gasp) through a sheet of ice and into a parallel world. Maybe all my classmates were closet fans of cheesy fantasy novels.

I’m not a teacher, but it seems to me that if you’re going to assign a book, said book should possess some literary value. “Through the Ice” was poorly written schmaltz that I could have read on my own time if I felt like wasting several hours of my life.

I’m not sure where our teacher found this novel, but I wanted to pitch it, well, through the ice. In the far corners of Antarctica. Or at least out a window.

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So, there you have it. Just a slice of the good, the bad, and the ugly of my required reading list. What do you guys think? Am I totally wrong about “A Separate Peace”? Was “Through the Ice” a diamond in the rough? Did anyone else ever read “The Beggars’ Ride”?

On that note, I’m going to try to finish “Darkness Falls” by Joyce Anne Schneider before I head for bed. It’s totally goofy and (so far) predictable, and I have to admit I’m OK with that.

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2 thoughts on “Required reading: The good, the bad and the ugly

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