1. October 1, 2011: Literary B-Sides: Five 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.
“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