Sunday Musings: Back to School
The list of 300 Books Everyone Should Read At Least Once rolled around Facebook earlier in the summer. Without counting the books on the list that I totally plan to read within the next year or so, I managed to score a pathetic 87/300 books read. I’ve read lots of books, but I guess these are the ones that make me look intelligent and cultured, so clearly, I’ve got lots of reading to do before I die in order to upgrade my reputation!
Examining the list, I noticed that a lot of the books that counted towards my read pile were books that I read in school. A lot. The Shakespeare titles accounted for a quite a few, but there were others, such as The Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace, books I likely would never have read if the education system hadn’t forced me to. But, grudgingly as I may have flipped those pages, I do have fond memories and still treasure the fully dogeared and underlined and notes-scribbled in the margins copy of A Prayer for Owen Meany on my shelf.
Prior to checking out that list, I had already embarked on a little reading challenge related to my school days. I’ve been rereading some of the books that really stood out for me, though at the time, I probably didn’t understand why.
First up was The Handmaid’s Tale, which I reread last year, prior to learning about the show. I’m glad I did reread it, as it makes the show that much more interesting. But the reread opened my eyes to one particular element of the book: sexism. I mean, obviously, the concept of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian future where women’s bodies are a commodity and fertility their only purpose is pretty messed up and I would like to think that my teenaged brain picked up on that. But upon rereading the book, it struck me that this was not the topic of any of our classroom discussions. In fact, there were also no discussions about the sex and displays of sexuality that occurred within the story. Granted, talking about sex with teens in our immature society would probably lead to lots of stifled giggles, but that’s part of the problem our society faces, isn’t it? Too afraid to talk about sex, making it taboo and causing books like this that should offer opportunities for healthy discussion to end up on banned books lists instead because they are too explicit and immoral and blah blah blah. Obviously, since I read it in high school, it wasn’t banned by our school board, and it’s great that we got to read it, but I fear much of the purpose of including a book on the curriculum is lost if all of its issues, including the controversial ones, aren’t actually addressed in the discussion.
Still, I must of gotten something out of it. And I don’t just mean two of my favourite quotes:
“Pearls are congealed oyster spit.”
This quote comes back to me now and then to remind me not to put too much value in items of status.
“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum”
Now more than ever, this Latin phrase has come to mean so much, as has the book itself as well as the show since Trump’s inauguration…
Much like The Handmaid’s Tale, Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World‘s sexual content shocked me — not because sex is shocking, but because when I first read it, I didn’t really notice it I guess, and again, it never came up in our discussions. But I really loved this book. Probably because I watched Demolition Man shortly after. There’s nothing like relating something pop culture-y to homework to get a kid like me invested. That was also the year I tried to work the Terminator saga into every project I possibly could.
I didn’t manage that with A Brave New World, but I fondly remember the related group project I did with three other classmates where we created a heretical magazine that would have been banned within this dystopian utopia for all of its blasphemies. Oh yes, we dared to suggest cross-caste dating! We got an A- on that project and I couldn’t have been prouder of our work.
We railed against the classism we encountered, but we didn’t notice the sexy stuff. And we also didn’t notice the complete lack of diversity. Both of these books made a big point of shipping off people like me to colonies. Because too often in science fiction and fantasy, people of colour and other marginalized groups don’t get to live happy or even unhappy dystopian lives. In science fiction stories like these that intended to show us a world that could be if society continues careening on without any kind of empathy and understanding of each other and our diverse experiences, it sometimes becomes tedious to keep reading about a society where marginalized people still have to struggle for acceptance. Science fiction — and most certainly fantasy — have the opportunity to step beyond the boundaries society places on such things, and yet, too many authors continue to fall back on perpetuating what already exists.
The recent screen translations of both stories try to do better with diversity, at least. And now that I’m older and wiser, I can appreciate the sexuality and the more explicit and controversial themes, even if I remain disappointed that my high school teachers didn’t stray from the assigned curriculum enough to discuss such things back then. Discussion opens the door to greater understanding, for those who are willing to listen, and through that, we may all just start getting along a little better. And who doesn’t want that?