The Lord of Confusion

lord_of_the_flies2I know I’m probably going to be flogged by English teachers from around the world, but I’m going to challenge this famous piece of literature up against today’s publishing process. In today’s market, would Lord of the Flies be published?

During my four years as an English Lit major at UCLA I read my share of complicated literature and I have a solid shelf of Cliff Notes to prove it. But what I’ve never understood is if you need a translation tool to understand what you’re reading, how do we decide these are great works of art, specifically for our high schoolers? How do they get on that elusive approved list that never dies?

On that note, I’m reading Lord of the Flies (another word for Satan as it turns out) with my high school freshman and neither of us are completely clear about what’s happening. Golding uses about four pages to describe kids playing on a beach with language that manages to complicate the picture so thoroughly, we have to read back over it. We sense there are hidden Highlights messages (I mean you don’t have to hit us over the head with a conch shell to see that), but what they are, we’re not entirely sure. That’s how secret they are.

Now, I know what I would do in a situation like this–I’d head straight for the Cliffs. But would this be okay with the teacher? Would my name come up in the staff lounge while discussing “bad parenting?” Should we be promoting translation tools to our rosy face youth who can’t even drive yet?

If I’ve learned anything from being a teacher myself, and having two kids go through lots of school, it’s that teachers can’t read minds. So I shot the teacher an email and told her we were both having problems understanding the–eh hem–decorative language and guess what she said? Get the Cliff Notes and use alongside. (Keyword: alongside.)

Sweet. Off I went to find said Cliffs and discovered them online–for free. A whole new world of literature translation. Each chapter was broken down with quizlets at the end and I thought how helpful this would have been when I was throwing back 15 novels in 10 week trimesters (often in Middle English) back in the day. I was thankful we had found this tool and that my son may actually be able to understand this famous novel before we just decided it was crap.

On the down side, understand that we just doubled our reading. First we read the summary, then the book, then the analysis. My son’s response? “How many more pages? This is taking too long.”

It’s not flawless, but at least we understand it’s an allegory written by the most likely depressed Golding, wrapped in his post WWII pessimistic view of human nature as savagery. That makes sense considering Hitler just took out six million Jews and 2 atomic bombs were dropped. Golding was grouchy and was certainly not seeing the Universe as a friendly place. But since he was Oxford grade and an English teacher to boot, we throw him a bone by passing his darkly penned novel on and on and on, all the while sharing his deep pessimism with our young adults. Fortunately, sense they don’t really understand it anyway, it doesn’t rub off that much.

But back to my original point–is there an editor out there in today’s market that would confidently take this to Acquisitions and lobby for it? From my limited corner in the literary world, I hear editors wanting clear language that gets to the point…characters the reader can keep track of…a readable text. I know. I know. Language evolves and it was different then. But here’s my follow up question. If that’s the case, and with all the new amazing literature that’s been written over the past ten years, why is it we make our high school students read the same five novels over and over? (All people under 25, exactly how many times were you assigned The Giver?)

Maybe I’m just missing something here. And just to clarify, I don’t feel like this about all novels deemed high school curriculum worthy. But I definitely think we have lots of amazing choices (which don’t require translation tools) that may be passed up in the name of what we’re supposed to revere.

6 thoughts on “The Lord of Confusion

  1. I was a lazy reader in high school, sorry, Jamie but I was. Even CLiff notes didn’t help much. It wasn’t until I learned the joy of reading did I realize the treasure of books. Now I wonder how many kids are lost to the joy of reading by the assigned reading list?

    • Soooo many. And teachers are as frustrated by this as anyone because they want kids to love reading. I guess it’s a rite of passage–having to read a bunch of crap books to get to the ones you love to read. What’s your most favorite recent book?

      • I read The Round House by Louise Erdrich last year, it is a favortie I recommend it often. Also on my favorite shelf, Tatoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle (the only book that actually brought me to tears) No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Me Before You by Jojo Moyes.

      • Cool–thanks for these! I’m going to check out the one that made you cry.

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