Literary B-Sides: 5 of the Most Under-Rated Books from Famous Authors
It's time to get over the trauma of high school English class. These wonderful novels won't bite.
October 1, 2011 - 12:00 am
“School ruined Catcher in the Rye for me.”
We’ve all heard it. You can replace the title with any other seminal book that’s been assigned in high school or college. Did you think you’d like Jane Eyre more if you hadn’t been required to write a monograph on “Birds as semiotic systems of delineating boundaries by transgression and submission”? Or that you might have enjoyed A Passage to India if it hadn’t been your rude introduction to the five-paragraph essay? Maybe you would have got more out of Moby Dick if it weren’t for that smelly kid next to you who kept raising his hand every frickin’ time the teacher asked a question.
I’ve conducted my own experiments on whether school ruins books. (As a side note, there is a faction that contends that books ruin school.) My experiment took the form of never doing my homework in high school. After finishing (and mildly enjoying) Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, only to discover that my thoughts and observations on the book meant little in how I was graded, I resolved never to read another book assigned during advanced English class. Instead, I would just memorize what the teacher wanted us to write about the books in our five-paragraph essays, and I would regurgitate my way to the top. It worked, at least superficially – I passed the class with flying colors, and I think the teacher is still a little afraid of me. It wasn’t until I read Jane Eyre as a young adult that I realized I may have passed the class, but I hadn’t won anything.
Soon I started rediscovering the books I had skipped in high school, in all their beautiful complexity, grittiness, fervor, and enchantment. Perhaps skipping these books in high school saved them for me; perhaps my period of rebellion is what I needed to grow through to appreciate them fully.
Sometimes it takes a new perspective on an author to rehabilitate their famous works for a reader. “B-sides” by famous authors are more than hidden treasures that can prolong your enjoyment of that person’s writing; they are keys that can unlock their more famous works. I was missing something in my required-reading days. It wasn’t the books I was missing. It was the piece of me that could read and love those books. Some of these b-sides planted the seed for that part to grow. Keep reading to learn more about the five best literary b-sides to rehabilitate literature for any English class survivor.
First: Gay Dudes Are What It Took to Make Me Love Literature
Maurice Hall dreams that one day, the perfect counterpoint to his soul will appear, and a voice will proclaim, “This is your friend.” While studying at Cambridge together, Maurice and Clive Dunham become more than friends, but the magic doesn’t last. Published posthumously, Maurice is E. M. Foster’s only novel about a gay relationship. In typical Forster style, delicate layers of feeling accumulate around a single era in a person’s life. The scenes in which Maurice and Clive experience their most happy day together are exquisitely sweet and painful, with the longing for that tender moment when first love and youth seem like they will last forever. Maurice is what gay literature should be: filled with sincere humanity and insight, not bitterness or political polemic.
Experts claim that in the original version of A Room with a View, E. M. Forster intended to write Lucy Honeychurch as a male character conflicted about a budding gay romance with George Emerson. I’m relieved he didn’t do that, as A Room with a View has a surprisingly subtle understanding of the relationships between men and women. On a more personal level, I identified with Lucy Honeychurch at a time in my life when I felt lost and confused in the same way she did, which is why, years later, I based my first novel, Queens of All the Earth, on the story of A Room with a View. But Forster’s other works, which are sometimes the fodder of high school reading lists, are considerably more pessimistic, thematically ambiguous, and generally a pain to read. A Passage to India and Howard’s End might be rewarding after a few stretches and some warming-up, but try to sprint through them cold and you’ll pull a muscle. Maurice, like A Room with a View, is a gentler novel, untinged by the bitterness that creeps into Forster’s more famous works. And it’s a refreshing break from the paradigm of current gay books and movies, which shout, “You have to accept me because I’m different from you and differences make us special.” Maurice is a quiet, simple statement: “I have a heart; I feel; I long for love and a stable life, like you.”
Foretopman Billy Budd is so handsome and well-loved on H.M.S. Bellipotent that the ship’s master-at-arms, John Claggart, absolutely must destroy him. This compact tale of envy, resentment, and injustice has inspired an eclectic array of adaptations, including an operetta by Benjamin Britten and E. M. Forster, and a film by French director Claire Denis. Melville’s thick vernacular style becomes suddenly more comprehensible when read aloud, like a sailor telling a story. And then, through the heavy ornate tangles of the prose, a seething spellbinding tale emerges that will grip readers to the very end. Sadly you won’t be able to use your copy of Billy Budd as a blunt instrument for effective self-defense in the same way you could wield virtually any hardback copy of Moby Dick, but its brevity has other advantages: when I say it will “grip you to the very end,” I mean it – you can actually get to the end of this one.
Next: The Ayn Rand Novel Ayn Rand Doesn’t Want You to Read
Luddite riots in a Yorkshire factory town provide the backdrop for a love quadrangle between a shy local girl, a rugged factory owner, a fiercely independent heiress, and her penniless tutor. Bronte’s work on Shirley was interrupted by the deaths of all three of her siblings. The break is evident. After 50 pages that set up the bones of the plot, the novel resumes with a low, melancholy wail. Shirley‘s characters tread uncertainly where Jane Eyre’s bold heart carried her through in Bronte’s more famous novel. This is evidence of a writer whose world has just been shaken. But Bronte’s attempt at a “large-cast” tale is engaging, with the personal depth and optimism of Jane Eyre and the proto-feminism of Villette.
The Bronte b-side college professors love is Villette, Charlotte Bronte’s autobiographical tale of the bitterness of an Englishwoman’s life in Europe teaching spoiled French girls in a boarding school. Perhaps the professors have given up on Jane Eyre because the idea of a marriage making an ending happy is hopelessly passe. Villette is devoid of such naiveté, along with anything else that might make a novel enjoyable. If you’re ever assigned Villette in a college course, bring in Charlotte’s tragically neglected b-side Shirley and quote its scenes of passionate love and longing. It’ll be the most satisfying F you ever earn.
Kira Argounova, daughter of a bourgeois family in St. Petersburg just after the Russian Revolution, is the passionately strong-willed witness to the horrors of communism in Ayn Rand’s first novel. Rand wrote this autobiographical tragedy before she’d disciplined away the last of her pity for her own characters. Though it’s less focused as a political critique, it contains more emotional insight than the famous Atlas Shrugged. The love triangle between Kira, a cynical aristocrat, and an idealistic Communist Party member explores realms of moral ambiguity that Rand later rejects in her black-and-white worldview. We the Living is a chillingly real portrayal of life under communism, physical and spiritual, written at a time when little information on the brutal Soviet regime was available to the West.
Next: The Best Literary B-Side
Franny Glass, disappointed by her phony boyfriend and hypnotized by an obscure book on spirituality, sinks into a wordless, coma-like torpor that only her brother Zooey can wake her from. Franny and Zooey is a distinctly feminine take on many of the same inner conflicts that rage through Catcher in the Rye. This slim novella encapsulates a world of disaffection and confusion in only two dialogue-driven scenes that unfold like a play. Readers turned off by the caustic Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye may find themselves drawn to ephemeral Franny.
I remember Catcher in the Rye was one of the few assigned books I’d enjoyed reading in high school. That’s why I tried as hard as I could not to pay attention during class discussions of it. I also remember being a little afraid of the book; a fear that kept me from falling entirely into it until much later. I bet many young readers have felt that fear, even when they won’t admit it to themselves and others. It’s because Catcher in the Rye was never written to be a “young adult book” as we understand the term today. The “young adult” book market barely existed when Salinger wrote his most famous work, and an honest look at the book reveals that it was probably meant for adults, if it was meant for anyone. Young adults, in Salinger’s estimation, would have been just that: young adults. In today’s literary market, “young adult” fiction is written for children; and teachers make a mistake when they assign Catcher in the Rye to children. Franny and Zooey skirts that ambiguity: it is obviously not a book written for children, and that’s why it’s rarely, if ever, assigned to them. Many fans of Salinger value Franny and Zooey higher, however. It’s a more delicate, but harder to digest, book, and it also reveals a side of Salinger that may come as a surprise to those who clutched Catcher in the Rye as the flag of teen rebellion.
Reading is not, as we’ve been told, a solitary enjoyment. Reading is not a self-contained activity. School can and has ruined books, but they can be saved. And books are sometimes only waiting for you to grow into them; that’s why it’s said you never read the same book twice, because you’re a different person each time you pick it up. If you read Pride and Prejudice in a surgical waiting room while a loved one was dying, you may not come away with fond memories of that book. If you had The Greatest Thought Ever on Leaves of Grass but you never got to tell the class because the doofus next to you squealed all the answers before anyone else got a chance, you might feel bitter about the book afterward. Sometimes it takes many books to rehabilitate “ruined” literature in our minds. In the meantime, Pride and Prejudice and Leaves of Grass are still waiting for you to come back to them.