I know that I'm not unique in having hated nearly every work of fiction I was ever required to read in school. It's why I encouraged my daughters to read "The Great Gatsby" and "To Kill A Mockingbird," among others, before the act of dissecting every paragraph, seeking out every bit of symbolism, of seeking the archetype of every character wrings the life out of books that really should be read and enjoyed. (A number of other required books, however, are perfectly eligible for wringing, in my opinion, and while I'm as proud as anyone that Herman Melville grew up down the street from our ballet academy, even over-examination cannot wring the pleasure out of books that, to the modern mind, have very little of that quality to begin with.)
For the most part, I've refrained from picking up the deathless/deathly prose that my children are assigned and seeing if it compares favorably to my memory. I got through "Ethan Frome" once, I don't intend to get through it again. That's my narrow worldview, and I'm clinging to it. That being said, there have been exceptions, always books that I remembered fondly, and it's interesting to read them again and see if they really hold up. Does "Fahrenheit 451" still present such an apocalyptic vision as it did in the midst of the Cold War? I'm not sure. "1984" is still bleak with a thin edge of terror and the very ending you're afraid will come. "Brave New World" struck me as a little more antiquated in its vision of the future than either of those others.
There really wasn't such a thing as kidlit or teenlit when I was growing up, nothing remotely like the gazillions of books aimed at the youth market today, but there was S.E. Hinton. Everybody knows "The Outsiders," but for reasons that weren't clear to me even at the time, I was utterly captivated by the world depicted in "That Was Then, This Is Now," about two friends (brothers in all but blood) who drift apart as their young priorities change. There are drugs and violence and girls – all things notably absent from my own adolescence. And yet I was fascinated by the book, and read it over and over. I knew those characters, and certainly believed I was one of them. My younger one read them both this summer, and was still moved by "The Outsiders;" I would have thought both of them seemed a little dated just by the ways they referred to gangs and drugs, but apparently the impact is still there. I never read "Rumblefish," and somehow I had never seen the Coppola movie until this week, when I realized I had missed a very cool piece of cinema all these years.
And it was Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" that prompted me to go back to Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," a potboiler written very much in the language of its time and yet still interesting for all that (but then I'm a big Arthur Conan Doyle fan and overwrought dialogue and elaborate description doesn't hurt a story in my mind – until, of course, it reaches Melvillian proportions). It's hard to read it now, though, without remarking on the genius of adapting it to a story about the Vietnamese War and yet keeping so much to both the narrative and mood of the original.
There have been others that I thought were good when I was required to read them that I can't begin to care about now – "The Pigman," for instance, or "Call of the Wild." If you base your life on that book and move to Alaska, you deserve whatever death-by-grizzly-bear awaits you. And of course, there were a number that I hated with a passion then and hate with a passion now (and yes, I'm talking about you, Pearl S. Buck – every moment of reading and discussing "The Good Earth" was like torture to me. I couldn't understand why we had to read it then, I couldn't understand why my daughters have to read it now).
Non-required reading is always the best kind. But even being optional can't save "Moby Dick." Sorry, Herman.