4 Books We’re Glad They Forced us to Read in School
Now that the schools have settled in for a new school year, we have been reminiscing about our own school days here at Scottish Book Trust HQ.
Recent topics for discussion have included, ‘Did you cover your books in sticky-back plastic, or brown paper?’, ‘Did you always buy new stationery every single year or just dredge up whatever was left over from the year before?’ and the classic ‘What books did they make you read in school?’.
What we learned was, although our schools may have had wild and varied ideas about how to approach the curriculum (for example, in my school we spent two years studying the film Strictly Ballroom) many of us really loved the books we read in school. Here are our top picks from a very multi-national staff!
Miriam Johnson chose Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
As one of the longest books I was forced to read in high school, Gone with the Wind is a southern staple of literature that everyone loved and no one read. Why would you when there was the movie version? But reading a couple of chapters per week opened up a world of old southern charm that the movie couldn’t possibly showcase in the same nuanced fashion. Not only did the book bring alive the history we studied in school (the American Civil War - I’m from Alabama), it was set in locations that gave the physically historical sites in my immediate vicinity a new relevance. Plus, the vivacity of the characters you love to hate, the action-packed plot and memorable lines make the book flow in a way that few books are able to achieve, while still dealing with controversial topics, the remnants of which are still pertinent today.
Kirsty Sinclair chose Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
I was about 11 when I read Tess for the first time, which, to be honest, was probably a bit young. I remember skim reading all the ‘scene setting’ and feeling so outraged by Angel’s behaviour towards Tess – I just couldn’t understand it at all. But when I came to study it in 6th Year English, its true delights were opened up to me. It’s a book that improves from the study of the themes and the language, and of course I came to understand that it was far more complex than my 11-year-old self had fully appreciated. Angel was a victim of the social beliefs of the times, from which he couldn’t waver. And of course, it wasn’t just scene setting either.
It’s such a beautiful, sad and textually rich book, and one of the reasons I chose to study English at University. And why I ended up choosing the Thomas Hardy module and studying Tess again!
Philippa Cochrane chose To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
We read To Kill a Mockingbird in 3rd year at school, in Mrs Campbell’s English class. Mrs Campbell was American and I have very clear memories of her reading passages aloud to us in a pitch-perfect southern accent (I don’t think she was from the south). This was the first time that I was so emotionally involved in a book that we read in the classroom. I still re-read it regularly, still with Mrs Campbell’s voice speaking Scout’s words in my head, and even though I know how Jem’s arm gets broken, who Boo is and what happens to Tom Robinson, I am still moved to laughter and to tears every time.
Sasha de Buyl-Pisco chose the poetry of Seamus Heaney
I realise that I am cheating by choosing an entire poet, rather than one book, but that was how we did it in Leaving Cert English in Ireland. Over the course of two years, you were given six poets whose work you would close read, learn by rote and then write incredibly vaguely about when it came down to the final exam. The poets rotated year-on-year, but the one who always made the cut was Seamus Heaney. Seamus Heaney was a huge part of my teenage life and I had poems of his plastered all over my room. As a Belgian growing up in Ireland, his poems opened up a world of Irish history and heritage I had previously felt unconnected to, and whenever I go to write anything I think of him. To me, he was the master of putting words together because they sounded really good, and I was astonished to learn that those words could also say something important while they did it. He was the first poet I ever really loved, and I am incredibly sad that he is no longer with us.