Ah, school. For all the highs and lows long years can inspire in our lives, one good thing about school is that it opens up a world of literary possibilities to us as we grow up. More often than not, this brave new world of assigned reading is filled with books from that expansive, nebulous genre known as “classic literature.” While the designation itself is contested, the most popular books that define this genre have impacted multiple generations of readers… particularly here at Bookmarked/WWAC.
So, inspired by a recent Twitter prompt, we’ve invited our lovely team of writers to a quick roundtable discussion about this very topic. Check out their responses below, and see if your favorite childhood classic made our list!
Bookmarked: What was your favorite classic book/story that you read in school?
Wendy Browne: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I read this in Grade 9. It wasn’t on the syllabus, but I was determined to read it for school anyway. I really don’t know why except that it was a book that my brother loved and, since he was the one who inspired my love of reading, I figured I would love it too. I was right. I really don’t know how many times I read it after that, but it was more than enough that all the dog-eared pages and disintegrating covers prompted me to recently get a new copy to sit in an honoured place beside my reading chair. Did I understand all the themes back then? Probably not. Do I understand them all now? Maybe; I still have flies in my eyes. But not a week goes by that something doesn’t trigger a memory or quote from this book, from stewed tomatoes right down to my lime-coloured panties. I’m not really sure what that says about the kind of person I am…
Lisa Fernandes: I read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott when I was roughly eight for class and I fell in love with the story. I’ve always been some kind of unholy blend of Jo March and Anne Shirley, and every time I reread the book it takes me back to the taste of crisp fall apples, the smell of winter snow, and the reason I still love the March sisters after all these years.
Amanda Hardebeck: I read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald every year thanks to reading it in 11th Grade English class. My teacher at the time was an older man who’d been teaching the book for decades and tried to get kids interested in it, but everyone in my class hated it. I was his favorite student because I would answer all the questions during class discussions and engage with him. Besides that, what can I say about the book that hasn’t already been said? It’s the bittersweet American Dream story. Narcissism, denial, and the idea of love (Gatsby’s definition vs Tom’s vs Daisy’s) resonated with me. It still does. I knew I’d love it when I saw the blue cover with Daisy’s face amid the lights of Coney Island. This was the only book in that English class that I read ahead and finished basically in one sitting. When I reread the book every year, I get the same visceral, emotional responses as I did the first time I saw the cover 15 years ago. It’s timeless.
Cori McCreery: I have a severe soft spot for lawful good characters (Cori, never, I know, I know). And to be honest, some of my favorite portrayals of lawful good characters are when they are fighting against a corrupt ruler. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas fits this niche well, and it was probably my first exposure to this type of story. The edition I read first was the “Great Illustrated Classics” edition, a series for which I owned a great many books. But the two I’ve always returned to are The Three Musketeers and Robin Hood by Howard Pyle. It’s important to me to stand for the ideals that you believe in, even if it puts you at odds with those in power. Especially if it puts you at odds with those in power. One for all, and all for one!
Christa Seeley: Animal Farm by George Orwell was our assigned novel in Grade 9 English. I remember half the classes in my school read this and the other half read Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, and I am so happy I was in the Animal Farm group. I didn’t know anything about the book before we started, but I remember being struck by how different it was from anything I had read before. Previously assigned reading had always been so based in reality/history, and this was an entirely different genre to explore. And if that wasn’t enough, there was just so much to discuss. Our teacher was able to build so many lessons out of this slim novel, from Russian history to writing satire to political philosophy. I was always a reader but I think this was one of the first times I began to really appreciate how much could be communicated through fiction. It should be no surprise that from there I developed a lifelong love for experimental and genre fiction, went on to study global development (a mixture of history, philosophy, and political science), and spend so much time to this day wanting to talk about and analyze books with others.
Emily Stewart: I’m probably an oddball in that I genuinely liked most of the books teachers assigned me during school (except for a few stuffy CanLit titles that shaped my feelings on CanLit in such a negative way that I’ve only just come to realize that Canadians are indeed writing cool things – but I digress). Of all the books on the curricula, I think Lord of the Flies by William Golding stands out for me. I often read ahead in classes, and while LOTF was no different for me, it was the first time my classmates were eagerly reading ahead too. We all wanted to know what would happen next. It sucked us in with the promise of adventure, and then showed us all its hidden darkness. Even the least literary-minded of us knew that it was more than just a story about lost boys; it was social commentary. It also introduced me to the concept of toxic masculinity, though we didn’t use that term then. I think it’s been on my reread list in recent years as I’ve watched politics unfold. I’m afraid this may not say anything good about me…
Heather Wells: I think I read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury some time in middle school, though I know I picked it up two more times during my high school career. The writing is what caused me to gravitate to it more than anything else, and I distinctly remember picking up the floppy little paperback I owned and reading that first page over and over again. “It was a pleasure to burn.” There’s a cadence to Bradbury’s writing that just sucks me in every time I’ve read that book since my initial read, which was in one sitting. I’d dive in and wouldn’t put it down until I’d reached the end, repeating the phrases that stuck in my head. Fahrenheit 451 sparked in me both an interest in writing and an interest in the rest of Bradbury’s works, many of which I’ve gone on to like more than this one. Despite that, Fahrenheit 451 has a firm place in my memory and will remain one of the books whose quotes just pop in my head at random.