Though reading for homework isn’t exactly a blast, there are some books we persevered through during high school that were worth our time. Our worlds were opened to new lands, time periods, ideas and ways of thinking. But then there were those books—the ones we finished and thought, “This is considered a classic?”
1. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
With that in mind, we rounded up six classic novels that the folks at Paste agreed were painful to read. Check out the list, and then vent in the comments below about the terrible books you suffered through for school.
There are some individually compelling moments in Things Fall Apart, like when Okonkwo dances around in the mask and the villagers know it’s him, but they don’t want to spoil his fun. And when we first come across the white missionaries, Okonkwo is so flabbergasted that he doesn’t know what to do. But two scenes out of an entire novel don’t cut it.
What strikes me the most about Things Fall Apart is its preachiness, Okonkwo’s one-dimensionality and the fact that innocent kids get really screwed over. I believe the theme is about culture always being in flux, which is admirable, but the novel’s execution isn’t admirable at all.
2. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
I can’t fathom how Hawthorne managed to make a book about sex this boring, but he did. We get 200 pages of blazing fire and raging river comparisons (seriously, man, change it up), and there’s no subtlety—every point gets driven home with a page of explanation, throwing subtext and quiet symbolism to the wind. There also isn’t a single character I’d want to root for; Dimmesdale, Roger and the villagers are just annoying.
When Hester Prynne (finally) died at the end of the book, I remember being thrilled. I mean, what could drag the story on longer after her death? An umpteenth reinforcement of the already-reinforced moral of the story, that’s what.
3. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
I’m sorry, but no matter how many Best American Novels lists it’s ranked on, Moby Dick will never fascinate me. Sure, Melville’s extraordinary powers of observation and description have garnered accolades in literary circles—and maybe they’re right. He does describe everything, but all too often his descriptions lapse into dullness. We slog through 700+ pages searching for the whale, learning about the whale, obsessing over the whale and then “We-found-the-whale-and-it-pulled-us-overboard!” The end. Wait, what?
4. Pamela by Samuel Richardson
So this wasn’t actually high school (it was college). And it wasn’t actually me (it was my roommate). But after recalling the three straight days we spent throwing the book across the room, I felt it had to be included. It’s creepy, the characters are horrible and repeated sexual harassment is a central plot point. There’s stalking, abuse—basically everything we don’t want in a relationship.
The book would be redeemable if it delved into the ramifications of these actions, but it doesn’t. Instead, it mocks Pamela, the victim of the harassment, calling her a slutty social climber. When creepy Mr. B and Pamela actually get married (I’m going to say CREEPY again), we’re treated to numerous chapters on how to be the perfect wife. Really, it’s more of a how-to guide than an actual piece of literature (actually, that was Richardson’s original intention before he switched it to a novel at the last-minute).
There are some books where you know you’re going to miss the characters when you finish reading. This is not one of those books.
5. Beowulf by Unknown
At its core, Beowulf is a tale of heroic people doing heroic things and making heroic legacies. But what I remember about Beowulf is that the men constantly drink mead in the great halls; a mead legacy does not an epic poem make. I also remember finding it strange that I was supposed to accept that the beast killed people—for no apparent reason.
In short, Beowulf shows up, kills a beast named Grendel, kills Grendel’s mother and then gets killed by something himself. Great, now you don’t have to read it.
6. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
The characters in Wharton’s tale of a gloomy New England town are passive-aggressive, angst-ridden and suicidal. The titular Ethan is trapped taking care of his ill wife Zeena. When Zeena’s cousin Mattie comes to visit, the outsider starts to represent a life beyond Starkfield for Ethan. Is he in love with her or just with the idea of her? We never find out, because the most exciting thing to happen between them is that Ethan kind of makes out with a scarf.
The novel randomly shifts its tone near the end when Ethan and Mattie decide they can’t be without each other. What do the lovebirds do? They try to kill themselves by driving a sleigh into a tree. But, in a blatant moment of literary symbolism, Ethan thinks he sees Zeena in the tree and steers away so they don’t die. They end up crippled, and Zeena has to take care of them for the rest of their lives.
So … love hurts? Was that the point? We’ll never know.