At my brother’s house recently, I started talking books with my younger niece. “Have you read this?” “Oh yeah!” “And this?” “Certainly!” What was funny was a young girl looking at her 54-year old uncle, with three books to his credit, thousands read on his shelf, and even more in boxes, this whole incredulous bit when she found a book I haven’t read. Yes, there are some.
I’ve read another of Shelley’s works, The Last Man, and really liked it. And I thought I knew about the story of Frankenstein. But I hadn’t , not really. She gave me her copy and begged me to peruse it (old books get me writing in bygone styles. Gotta shake it with contractions. Shouldn’t. Couldn’t. Don’t…)
The thing was, her copy was really, really marked up. Four colors of highlighter and ink notes all over the place. After a while, I got to the point where I didn’t notice them (yes, the story gripped me). But eventually it even got so I’d read an interesting passage and then check her notes to see what she thought.
The monster warns: “It is well. I go; but remember, I shall be with you on your wedding-night”
And the niece inks: “Oh no, the wedding!”
Where the monster seeks justification for what it’s done follows the sarcastic comment “yeah, it was your fault” When Frankenstein, in a moment of tormented anguish, falls senseless on the ground, my young reader notes “passed out again” with a trace of smiling weariness.
Still, I got that she liked it. Really liked it. In fact, I know that she’s giving it to her mom for the Raymond Christmas Book Exchange (this goes online after Christmas, so I’m not spoiling).
But there was something else – yes, she liked it, but because she was assigned this book, she felt the need to mark it up, focusing on words and foreshadowing and such, rather than simply enjoying it. Would she have enjoyed it more if she’d just been given the chance to read it rather than dissect it? But if she hadn’t been forced into it at scholastic gunpoint, would she have touched this classic at all?
I’m really not sure here. I know that plenty of kids read Harry Potter and that’s fine (in a numb sort of way). But in pursing Frankenstein, she got a look at something more than a boy wizard and his plucky friends. He saw a man torn between duty to self and duty to race, a man struggling (literally) with his own personal demon. She saw the world through the eyes of a horrible twisted creature, considered its justifications and found them wanting.
So should books be assigned and highlighted and tested? Or should they be chosen with the reader’s own tastes in mind? Will forcing a reader into as strange classic fire them towards greater heights, or extinguish their passions forever?
I don’t know. I do know that we had a great chat talking about That Scottish Play* and laughing at the main character’s doom when he realized a forest had shown up outside his walls.
And if you know the reference, then maybe your reading was sparked, too.