I remember a high school English class where we were reading a Jane Austen novel about marriage and etiquette and social class -- maybe Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility -- and the teacher opened the floor for discussion. There was silence, until finally a student raised her hand and asked, "Don't any of these people have a JOB?"
When you're in school, it can feel like there's "reading for work" and "reading for fun." Maybe your teacher assigns you something from the 1800’s with a title like The Simply Marvelous Fable of the Aristocratic Daughter: A Novel in Seven Parts by Lord Duddlesbury Fudgewafer VI, and after the third line ("Hitherto she'd not known the constancy of an avuncular patron bereft of filial affinity" zzzzzz) you want to jump out a window, because at least there'd be more action.
Then there's the reading you do for fun, because you love it and you want to know what's going to happen next -- and, most of all, what's going to happen in the end. Maybe it's Lord of the Rings. Maybe it's Harry Potter. But the best of all worlds is what happens when reading for fun and reading for work end up being the same. I'll never forget two books I was assigned in English class, but which quickly became some of my favorite "reading for fun."
The first was The Crucible (okay, it's a play, not a book), by Arthur Miller. At first glance, you might think it's another one of these Lord Flooksbury Hitherteethither tomes, because it takes place in Puritan New England in the late 1700's ... but only a page or two in, I was hooked. This story was as good as any highly addictive TV show I'd ever watched. Who's telling the truth, and who's lying? And what are they trying to hide? And once the lies have started, will the truth protect them anymore? Wait till you get to the scene where Elizabeth has to decide whether to tell the truth or lie to a judge ... not knowing that the "right" answer might get her in even more trouble than she realizes. Take a back seat, "Game of Thrones" -- this story is a GUT-WRENCHER.
Then, there was Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky. I know, you're thinking, "Oh God, everyone's named Thisovich or Thatovna, and I can't tell them apart, and they're all just crying and drinking vodka all the time." Sorry, but NO. This was a heart-stopping thriller that I couldn't put down -- and oh by the way, it turned out to be ONE OF THE GREAT LITERARY CLASSICS OF ALL TIME. It's a murder-mystery novel where you know the whole time who the killer is. Spoiler alert: It's Raskolnikov! Except that's not a spoiler at all, because you, the reader, are with the murderer as he thinks about the murder, plans it, and executes it. And then you're with him for all that follows. This, of course, is where the palm-sweating comes in, as detective Porfiry Petrovich gets closer and closer to his prey, and Raskolnikov deals with the constant consequences of keeping this terrible secret.
So what's the point of all this? The point is that just because a book was assigned by your English teacher doesn't mean it's not going to be an incredible story. In fact, the reason most of these works survived long enough to be classics is exactly BECAUSE they are great stories: because they made people want to know what was going to happen next and how they would end. Charles Dickens might sound like a yawn to you right now ... but his novels were originally published in weekly installments in magazines, leaving readers dying to find out what happens next. Sound familiar? Kind of like ... how a TV show works?
So the next time your teacher hands you a masterpiece by Lord Siddleswich, don't moan and roll your eyes just yet ... it could well be the "Game of Thrones" of its time. And of yours.
-Adam O, Instructor