Ok, strictly speaking, I didn’t “hate” any of these books – but my classmates certainly did! It will come as a surprise to no one that I was a huge bookworm all through school. Even after I finished high school and studied journalism, I always packed a book with me on the train.
Whether you were a big reader or not, we can all agree that reading books of your choice is different from being made to read one for school. Class book lists involve taking notes, analysing passages, writing essays, and very rarely, actually enjoying the book. I will always be an advocate for critical literacy skills – it’s essential to understand nuance in what you’re reading, be it fiction or not – but even I admit that the way schools treat reading can ruin the whole experience.
Giving students research and a set of themes before they’ve even started reading limits their understanding of the book. They’re positioned to take the view of the coursework from the beginning, which makes them think there’s only one correct way to read a text.
So, here are five books that I didn’t enjoy reading in high school, but have returned to since and loved!
1. Jane Eyre
Jane Eyre was on my year 12 booklist for Literature, and my experience with it then was … not great. The teacher wanted us to read it three times during the holidays, taking a different set of notes each time. This made me see the book as a massive word search and stopped me from enjoying the story for what it was.
Truth be told, I never actually re-read it outside of high school, but I came to appreciate the story and Charlotte Bronte’s writing a lot more.
2. A Doll’s House
A Doll’s House by Henrick Ibsen is a play, not a book, but I had to read and analyse it. I was a major theatre nerd; I’d been in Production every year and I was obsessed with musicals. A Doll’s House was nothing like that. It’s in the theatrical style of naturalism, meaning it tries to be as close to reality as possible. The script isn’t overly dramatic, there’s no music except when a character is literally playing an instrument, and it can seem like you’re just eavesdropping on a married couple’s bickering.
But like so many theatre pieces, watching the show is an entirely different experience than just reading the script. Seeing the play performed added a whole new layer of nuance and really helped me understand the importance of the protagonist’s decisions. The actress’s subtle changes in body language and voice made me feel sympathy for the character in a way that I hadn’t before.
The thing with Shakespeare is that you either love his work or hate it. I love it, but in high school, Macbeth was rather intimidating. We only read it once during class, taking turns to read out loud. I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I’d been able to take the script home and think about it in my own time. We were lucky enough to have a group come and perform the play at our school, and once again, the script changes entirely when there are people to act it out.
I’ve studied Shakespeare a few times in my education. My theatre studies class was full of his plays, and I did an online course about him before online classes were the norm. It definitely helps to have a modern translation to read alongside any Shakespeare scripts.
Frankenstein is a book that I had the pleasure of reading in high school and university. In high school I found it confusing. A good portion of the book is about Victor Frankenstein’s life before the monster, and a smaller portion isn’t even about the doctor or his creation at all! I didn’t understand the need for the story-within-a-story device and I found Frankenstein’s biography pretty boring.
But through reading it at uni, I came to appreciate the story on a deeper level and realised that the plot devices I hated before weren’t just thrown in as filler; they were integral to the plot. My re-read took me from a theoretical interest in Gothic literature to a practical one.
5. The Iliad
I took Classics in high school because I loved Greek mythology. What I didn’t realise was how much of that class would be focused on war tactics and politics. I was interested in the gods and monsters, but the chapters we read in class were all about soldiers in conflict, the political power plays between the different sides.
At the start of this year, I read the Iliad front-to-back, and I enjoyed it immensely. Having the entire picture – and some of my own research – I understood better the motivations of the characters, and was able to see how the actions of the gods affected the lives of mortals.
I think the main reason I didn’t enjoy these books in high school was a matter of maturity. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand the themes or messages, I just didn’t find them compelling. For whatever reason, I’m much more open now to these kinds of readings. I have the time and patience to draw out my own meanings.
If you found this interesting, I’d highly recommend going back to your own high school books and giving them another read!