Why I (A Voracious Reader) Hate English Lit.

DISCLAIMER: This post was written a little over six months ago: I was stressed, I didn't really know what I was doing when it came to reading critically, and mostly I was just fed up with having to explain Shakespeare to my desk partner when I didn't really get it myself.

Call me crazy, but this year I'm applying to do English Lit at college. Voluntarily. All I'm saying is that your relationship with a subject can change drastically if you start looking at things from a different angle, and I'd feel hypocritical if I didn't acknowledge that.

I'm probably making myself a bit of a black sheep within the community here, but I feel like it's time to come clean:

I really, really hate English Lit.

It's terrible, I know, because English Lit is, quite LITerally (hardy hardy ha ... I like my puns, okay?) reading made into a qualification. In theory, I should love it. It should be my favourite thing. I should run into that lesson - which, joy of joys, I get to have FOUR TIMES A WEEK - with my face split in a grin and my notes at the ready.

But ... meh.

I can practically hear the English Lit students about to stone my windows, so I guess I'm going to have to justify myself. Here goes:

#1 ~The reading style is super, super awkward.

I genuinely can't think of another aspect of life in which we read like an organised literature class, and this is probably for good reason. Where else would you carry a book to read only in a certain setting with certain other people, read in tiny short bursts, and then get wrenched from the page to discuss constantly, at the whim of somebody else? Where else would we be expected to form a critic's-level opinion immediately after finishing, and be able to present it to others?

It has to be this way, of course - English Lit requires you to get a lot more information out of a book than you would reading for pleasure, and having to come up with opinions on the fly does help in high-pressure exam situations. But I'm not built for reading a book over a series of weeks or even months: I find myself forgetting details, not to mention the fact that it makes getting immersed in a setting or burrowing into a character's head incredibly difficult. And trying to keep it all in my head long enough to get a handle on over-reaching themes?

Forget it.

#2 ~ The pressure makes relaxation pretty much impossible

If you ask a reader why they enjoy reading, most of us will say something along the lines of 'it's relaxing'. I mean, I don't know how true this is - sobbing over character death is the very definition of stressful - but opening a book does tend to give me a feeling of calm.

Apparently, when I'm being marked on my efforts, that feeling pretty much flies out the window.

I was working on one of my set texts today, and quite frankly even reaching for it gave me a sense of dread. I try to keep the stress out of my mind as much as possible, but I often catch myself worrying that I haven't interpreted something the best way, that my notes aren't detailed enough to be helpful during revision, and then I remember that these quotes I'm analysing are all going to have to be memorised by exam time.


Granted, this pressure isn't an absolutely necessary part of the studying process, but I am one of the worst people I know when it comes to self-expectation and stress. And, no matter what I do, it's always worst in English Lit.

#3 ~ I don't get to choose what I read

What do you mean I can't DNF this book? Not even if I throw it at my teacher's head?

*throws hands up in derision*

#4 ~ I worry about disappointing my teachers

I want to be clear that my feelings about English Lit are not down to bad teaching of any description. My teachers are awesome.

The thing is that when an amazing teacher is presenting something to a class, they are doing it in an absolutely amazing manner. Their arms are moving around everywhere, they know exactly how to explain a complicated concept so that it makes sense to a bunch of hormonal teenagers, and I know that if I went up there and tried it, I'd be falling flat on my face.

It's a fact of life in a wheelchair (and life as an incredibly conscientious if seething student) that I end up in the front row pretty much all of the time - in most classrooms, that's almost directly under the teacher's nose. And I don't know about you, but if I was one of these incredible teachers, I'd be pretty downtrodden by someone right in front of me looking like they wanted to jump out of the window. Especially if they were the kind of person for which jumping is an interesting exercise to begin with.

So I have to look engaged, which I absolutely, desperately want to be. It's just that swallowing stress about whether or not I'm going to remember any of a lesson is an involved enough process without having to plaster a smile on my face as well.

#5 ~ Listening to other students' opinions can suck

This is, unfortunately, one of my incredibly anti-social "ugh, people" moments. I'm sorry. And if you're in my Lit class, you probably know what I mean.

It's not that I dislike listening to other people's opinions in general. Class discussions are, if nothing else, an excellent way to steal great interpretations of text. But - and this is true of every lesson I have, not just English Lit - any classroom will always be filled with its fair share of Those People.

And Those People, in my considerable experience, really really don't like being told how to interpret anything. In order to get out their deep and intense frustration, they use class discussions to do what it is they do best: disagree with everything everyone else says.

If you are one of Those People, then fine. I completely understand that English Lit is as much about coming up with your own theories as it is learning the more established ones, but teachers tell us the most common interpretations of a book to HELP us. From a purely theoretical viewpoint, if you're going to take a poem written from the point of view of a controlling (and eventually murderous) husband and argue that the wife's death is her own fault because you think it's been taught in a biased way, I'm gonna be cross. Particularly if you use the phrase "she deserved it".

What do you mean, that was an oddly specific theoretical example? Just don't look at it too closely! I've got to go now, anyway.

In the comments: How do you guys feel about English Lit.? Do you feel similarly, or am I going to have to deal with an angry literature fan? Why do you think you feel the way you do?
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  1. I have a love-hate relationship with assigned reading, because I think it's a really cool opportunity for teens to read books they wouldn't have picked up on their own. You can see how literature has evolved and in what ways it hasn't, really. But then we also end up reading the SAME BOOKS over and over again and never looking at anything new. Modern books can have just as much literary worth as super old books that we're all sick of. But I do love learning about symbolism and hearing other people's takes on a story. (I totally agree with how frustrating it is not to be able to DNF a book. As soon as I'm forced to read something--for class, book club, etc.--there's a part of me that goes into panic mode about not being able to quit if I absolutely despise a book.)

    1. I will admit that (as much as I dislike them) syllabi have helped me read an awful lot of books that I wouldn't have any other way. I absolutely loved both Animal Farm and To Kill A Mockingbird, which I would never have read if it weren't for assigned reading. I think what annoys me is exactly that - the fact we're reading the same sort of stuff over and over. Modern literature has merit too!

      I feel like we need to start some kind of protest over our right to DNF.

  2. Argh, some of the books I had to do for school! *screams* If someone tries to make you read Hard Times by Charles Dickens, just throw it at the wall. Throw the actual book at the wall. IT'S NOT WORTH IT!!! *ahem*

    That said, I now - after school - find myself loving books and authors that I wanted to go back in time to assassinate previously just so that they couldn't write it. I think it helps when they have awesome TV or film adaptations too! :)

    1. *Googles Hard Times and immediately wants to buy a copy only to throw at the wall*

      TV and film adaptations of a text definitely help make it more interesting / understandable, especially when it's a play to begin with - I think they're very difficult to 'get' on the page because that's not how the author intended their work to be taken in. Honestly, I've never re-read a book that I originally had to suffer through for school, but since I'm still there, I hope I'll get to that place eventually. It would suck to miss out on a really great book just because of the way I originally had to read it.

    2. The wall is where it belongs *nods sagely* ;)

    3. You're being charitable. If it were up to me, it'd be going straight out the window.

  3. Ugh. English classes. They can be great. But they can also be awful and assigned reading often kills the joy of reading for me. I took three English classes last semester and two of them were great. The third one was terrible and killed reading for me. The classes I actually liked and wanted to do the reading for I often didn't get to read because of that one class.

    That's the thing. English lit classes can be great, but it's easy for teachers to go overboard with them. I loved listening to my teachers' insights (except for the one because well... she didn't usually offer them and the ones she did I straight up disagreed with but didn't feel like I could express that to her.)

    1. I will confess that English classes CAN be amazing. Sometimes. I loved An Inspector Calls, and this year I've had a great teacher ... but when they're awful, they're really, really awful. It's a real shame that the bad classes can corrupt the good ones like that. And the bad class was so intense you couldn't do your reading? Sounds grim, especially if you had a teacher who you didn't feel you could discuss things with.

      I rarely disagree, to be honest, but that's mostly because I'm pretty confused with the whole forming-opinions thing to begin with and I'm happy to have the guidance. That said, the teachers I've had thus far have been really good at encouraging my opinions while reminding me what the syllabus is looking for. By the sounds of it, I've been seriously lucky!

  4. Ohh man you are so right, high school English classes suck. And the people who always speak up in class and have all the wacko opinions that are so far off?? Yeah not fun. I think the only book I ever liked that I read in class was The Handmaid's Tale.

    1. I have no experience of any other kind of Lit class, so I can only hope that it's only high-school level English that sucks. Fingers crossed. Not to mention those people ... one time, someone actually started a whole debate about women's power in marriages, and then ended the lesson by saying "well that was fun, everyone was SO triggered" to all their friends.


      I've tried to read The Handmaid's Tale - on my English teacher's recommendation, actually - and it was amazing, but a little slow-paced. (I got distracted by other books and DNF'd, which I know is a terrible terrible thing.) Do you have any tips to help me get to the end?

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  6. I dislike English lit so much, I haven't touched my coursework and it's due in 3 days. I tell my friends I don't care about the subject so I'm not going to do any work, yet I can't write because I'm too ashamed at how bad I am at wording out stuff. Everytime I think of disappointing my teacher or even potentially dropping out because I don't do anything in class I get panic attacks, I thought I had finally gotten over my anxiety of school but as long as English lit exists I can't feel happy.

  7. I despised English and American literature. It was too time consuming to read for a tome that teaches absolutely nothing.


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