Reflections on Assigned Reading for 2021

“Assigned reading” was as much a dreaded phrase when I was young as it was to my high school students’ ears when I taught several years ago. Everyone pretty much agrees that there’s a much better chance you’ll enjoy reading if you choose the books yourself, rather than read from a prescribed list. But in 2021, I assigned myself several books that belong to the great cannon of literature, books that I’d somehow never read.

Determined to make up for missed opportunities, I began the year ambitiously with a pretty formidable list: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Shakespeare’s King Lear, Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. I read many other books as well–fiction and nonfiction, but I’m proud to say I read the books–for the most part–and I have a new set of reading ideas for 2022.

Should I hang my head and confess that I didn’t enjoy Pride and Prejudice? I’ve seen the film versions and the play and loved both of them. The characters were interesting and sometimes even funny, and I did admire Miss Bennet, but Austin’s prose left me flat. I suppose it was her style that I didn’t like–so full of descriptions and long sentences. I read up to page 200 and then put it aside, feeling like I’d had my fill of Austen for a time.

I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as an adolescent because my mother recommended it, but I re-read it in 2021 just so I could appreciate it as an adult. I loved the story of Francie and her family. Smith writes realistically about tenement life in New York city at the turn of the 20th century, capturing the grit and desperation that people like the Nolans must have felt as they worked just to survive. Many situations ring true today–women staying with charming men despite serious drinking problems, families scrambling to feed children, and a young girl nurturing a dream of something much grander for her own adult life. I was actually surprised by how much I enjoyed the book and found myself wishing I could remember what I thought about the story when I was a girl more like Francie Nolan.

I read several acts of King Lear before finally giving up and watching a movie of the play. I appreciate more than ever, the kids who hate reading Shakespeare, but love the stories when they come alive on a stage or on the screen. I remember seeing the play at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival a number of years ago, and the scene that stands out for me is the king with his fool in the rain. But I must have been so caught up in the spectacle of the play in Oregon that I forgot that nearly everyone dies.

Edith Wharton’s prose in The House of Mirth was exceptional, and I was pulled into the story from the start. I loved Lily Bart and rooted for her to find someone she genuinely loved who could help her financially as well. And The Odyssey--I think I would have enjoyed it much more if I’d been able to take a course with a Greek scholar, like Emily Wilson. I enjoyed the parts that I was very familiar with–the adventures with Polyphemus, Circe, and Calypso and the homecoming. But I found the repetition and long rambles about banquets and strategy to be boring. Still, I’m glad I stuck with it and read the entire epic poem, and Emily Wilso has my undying admiration for her translation and depth of knowledge.

I’m still forming my list for 2022, and may explore more Wharton. I’ve decided to listen to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein because I often find I enjoy listening to some older forms of prose more than I enjoy reading them.

There are always so many more books that I want to read than I actually complete–I often wish I could just swim in a pool of stories!