I believe I have uncovered a great mystery. When I was in high school I hated reading. This is baffling to me because these days it’s one of my favorite pastimes. But back in high school I’m fairly certain that my reading speed must have been reported in standardized tests as “slower-than-molasses.”
Here’s what I’ve determined. The problem with my reading speed was not the quality of my skill but the literature that was presented to me. Because a “classics” girl I am not. That was my revelation this month during my quest to read Stephen Crane’s classic novel, The Red Badge of Courage.
Let me begin by telling you why I even picked the book up in the first place. On New Year’s Day when I was busy choosing a word for 2015 and setting new goals I wandered around on Facebook for a bit (as I have a tendency to do) and found this list for choosing 26 books to read in 2015. It looked like a fun list that would challenge me to diversify my standard reading fare. Why not try it?
I asked friends for some suggestions to fill the slots and now have enough ideas to last me for at least two years! One of the books suggested to me was The Red Badge of Courage and realizing that it’s always been considered a classic I thought it wouldn’t hurt to see what all the fuss was about. To be honest, I wasn’t 100% convinced that I’d enjoy reading it but in an effort to move outside my reading comfort zone I downloaded it to my Kindle. Thankfully the classics are offered free of charge on most e-readers.
For those of you that don’t know the book, it is the story of a young man (whose name is Henry but he’s most often referred to as “the youth”) who decides to join the battle during the Civil War. My first issue with the book is that I couldn’t determine if Henry was fighting for the Union or the Confederates. Of course, had I read the book summary ahead of time I would have been certain from the get go but as it was I didn’t figure it out until I was over halfway through the book. So as not to leave you hanging, it was the Union. At the first sight of battle however, Henry, and a number of his comrades, got scared and high-tailed it out of there. Eventually he is reunited with his regiment but is left with great shame over his cowardice. In an effort to eradicate his guilt Henry is determined to incur a battle injury thus earning his “red badge of courage.”
This book is often assigned to children in high school, and possibly junior high as part of their reading curriculum. I don’t recall it being assigned to me but if it was I assure you, I only read enough to pass the test. Listening well during class discussions was a skill I honed early on to make it through school with reasonable grades. But seriously, who thought this would be good fair for junior high and high school kids? In addition to the swearing, the lying, and the gruesome details of war, there’s this line: “A dog, a woman, an’ a walnut tree; Th’ more yeh beat ‘em, th’ better they be!” (And oh, those are not spelling errors on my part. A good portion of the book is styled in the same manner of speech.) Is this really something we want impressionable young men to read?
I have to admit, it was rather a torturous two weeks for me. Yes, it’s true. It took me two weeks to read a 159-page book. My “slower-than-molasses” reading speed made a special comeback appearance! Maybe this line from the book will help you understand the slow down. “He bethought him of certain meals his mother had cooked at home, in which those dishes of which he was particularly fond had occupied.” (I’m pretty sure my brain just set off sparks even as I typed that sentence.) I wasn’t just reading a book; I was doing road construction in my brain! New roads had to be built for what was basically a foreign language to me.
Sure I could have given up and moved onto another book, but I’ve got this going for me; I’m stubborn. Most days it’s a hindrance but in this case, it was a benefit. As I finished the final paragraph of the book I let out a “Woo Hoo!” and decided I too had earned a badge – a “Reading Badge of Courage.”
There must be somebody somewhere who loved this book. How else would it have become a classic? But I think Mark Twain says it best: “Classic – a book which people praise and don’t read.”