A Life in Literature: School

Richard Bateman 7 June 2014

A frequent question to self in the early stages of my PhD has been ‘why am I doing this, exactly? So far in these columns I’ve focused on authors I read out of choice, but answering that question necessitates a look at a few that I read because I have to.

My relationship with the books I was forced to read at school got off to a bad start with Year 1’s Look, a thrilling roller-coaster ride of a tome with twenty dazzling pages consisting of pictures of elephants/trees/handbags and one word on each page: ‘Look’. Given that imposing inheritance, its primary school successors have largely slipped my mind. 

Not all children's books are as gripping as this one seems to be.                             Credit: ThomasLife

The same is true of years 7-9, with the sole, shining exception of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I could attempt to make a case for its memorability being a by-product of my first encounter with the glorious iambic pentametrics of old Bill’s prose, but that lie would fail to take account of the truth, which is that I thought it was hilarious that there is a character called Bottom in it.

The later syllabi are more ingrained. I had a lunatic teacher for GCSE English but he made it memorable. Hobson’s Choice gave me the opportunity to perfect my impression of Geoffrey Boycott, while reading The Mayor of Casterbridge provided a useful grounding in obsolete arable economics.  

At A-level we embarked on Othello and Measure for Measure. Michael Gove wants newborn babies to be given a copy of King Lear before the umbilical chord is cut. My view is that teaching Shakespeare is pointless before A-Level, and then only really worth it if you get taken to see a good production of the play you’re studying, while you’re studying it. Shakespeare wrote that stuff to be seen and heard, not stared at in print. I read Lear in year 10 and didn’t have a clue what was going on. I saw Lear at Stratford when I was in year 11 and was utterly mesmerized.

Shakespeare's plays were written to be seen.                                                      Credit: David Stanley

Away from the Bard and momentarily off my hobby horse, I wasn’t then and am still not convinced about studying the poetry of World War One. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue was more like it, though a bizarre piece of marking denied me the highest mark in the country for 2003 A-Level and thus put me off the Geoffster for life. I’m not bitter. Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, meanwhile, has given me an enduring fear of falling hot air balloons. 

But despite the grumbles about the content, I did enjoy the processes that studying these things brought me to. There’s something indescribably rewarding about discovering you can extract six different meanings from a sentence, or better still a single word, and that no one can tell you are wrong about any of it. There is also no better way to understand human nature. And that’s why I’m still doing it.