A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
The worst way to read a book is to study it in school. Until I was 16, my school forced me to study English Literature. I loathed, detested, abhorred, and despised the subject.
In a way, making me hate English Literature was a great achievement on the part of the educational system. Ever since I was a small child, I’d loved books, and spent every spare minute reading. I’d read books during meals, in the bath, and illegally late at night. Eventually, I’d become an author, and write books myself. It should have been impossible to make someone like me hate English Literature, but they managed it.
Now I want to make it clear that I’m writing about my personal experiences many years ago. It’s not just that teaching may have changed drastically, but my school was suffering a wide range of problems back then, so I would probably have had a much better time studying English Literature at a different school.
One clue to the fact something was badly wrong at our school, was that the last year or so of English Literature lessons was supposed to be building up to an exam based on a book and a Shakespeare play. In fact, that exam was also based on some poems, but since those got left out of our lessons, I found myself sitting in the exam guessing answers to questions about poems I had never heard of, let alone read.
I ended up with a rather pathetic grade in English Literature, and the grim suspicion that my grade would have been one or two higher if someone had given me a list of the poems so I could have at least read them myself before the exam.
So I’m looking back on those English Literature lessons with not just the usual selective inaccuracy of old memories, but with a strong negative bias as well. That makes it even more interesting for me to write about the book we studied for that exam. It was My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.
I was a fast reader, often getting through about ten books a week, so when we were handed that book, I naturally took it home and read it that evening. I thought it got a little self-indulgent in places, and the depiction of the author’s family, especially his sister, was a bit harsh. Still, it was generally good and enjoyable. I approved. I got a couple of other books by Gerald Durrell from the library that weekend and read those as well.
The following week, we started studying My Family and Other Animals in English Literature lessons. As I recall, we spent a torturous amount of time going round the class, making everyone read a page in turn. A process that made the book seem as exciting as reading the telephone directory. To remove any remaining enjoyment, we had to memorize what the teacher’s study aid considered memorable chunks of text and the officially approved opinions on them. This was as enjoyable as eating the telephone directory.
As a pupil, I felt that apart from making everyone hate the book (we said its title in the tone of voice usually reserved for swear words), there were three major problems with this approach.
Firstly, it felt like we weren’t studying a book any longer, just several jigsaw puzzle pieces of descriptive passages, each with their phrases labelled as metaphors or similes. Especially significant, according to the experts, were the encounter with the Rose-beetle man, and a fight between a praying mantis and a gecko.
Secondly, the experts weren’t always satisfied with analysing the text, but sometimes digressed into telling us what the author was thinking when he wrote certain passages. Unless they were telepathic, I felt they couldn’t possibly know those things. I sometimes wondered what Gerald Durrell would have to say about it if he stood in front of us. I suspected he’d say that they were wrong. Probably using some emphatic language.
Thirdly, having any opinions of our own on the text, particularly when those opinions disagreed with the officially held ones, seemed to be actively discouraged. I had strong ideas about the books I read, including My Family and Other Animals, but I had to keep quiet about them. The way to pass the coming exam was to memorize and regurgitate the expert views, not to have thoughts of our own. In private though, I stubbornly held on to my own, original views of the book.
I have a new perspective on those three problems now that I’m an author. Firstly, I feel that a book should always be approached as a complete thing rather than fragments, because an event late in the book can throw a whole different perspective on events at the beginning. That often involves complexities of book themes and character development, but I’d offer The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie as a straightforward example.
Secondly, I’m even more certain that experts can be wrong about what an author is thinking. As an author, I often don’t know what I’m trying to achieve when I write a passage, so I’m sure no one else does. In fact, I can only remember one such person flatly stating what I was thinking when I wrote something, and they were totally wrong. I saw a recent, relevant news story, so I’ll just quote a quick paragraph from The Telegraph.
“Ian McEwan, the award-winning author, has admitted feeling ‘a little dubious’ about people being compelled to study his books, after helping his son with an essay about his own novel and receiving a C.”
I had to laugh when I read that. Experts can’t know what an author is thinking when they write a passage, and it doesn’t matter anyway. Once a book goes out into the world, it takes on its own independent existence. The important thing is what the reader is thinking and feeling when they read it.
Which brings me to my current perspective on the third problem, which I think was an example of a wider issue. Experts can write interesting and informative pieces about books. Periodically though, someone will write a sweeping article saying people shouldn’t read books of a certain type. If you love reading those books, then ignore those articles. It doesn’t matter if they’re written by someone officially considered an expert or not. Never let anyone make you feel ashamed of reading something you love.
Once I escaped English Literature, I read several more books by Gerald Durrell, and I read most of them multiple times. I generally avoided reading My Family and Other Animals though. I still thought it was a good book, but I had far too detailed and painful memories of some passages.
Gerald Durrell’s books are still on my shelves. I don’t think I’ve read any of them in the last ten years, but recently My Family and Other Animals appeared as a TV series, The Durrells, and I bravely watched it. I felt a few frissons of horror, when the encounter with the Rose-beetle man, and the fight between a praying mantis and a gecko, were featured. For me, those incidents seemed rather artificially forced into the episodes, as if they actually had no place in the plot, just being wedged in out of deference to expert opinions. That may be just be the lingering effect of old negativity though.
Other than those moments, I was able to watch the TV series of My Family and Other Animals as something independent of painfully memorised text. It was good. It was enjoyable. I recommend you to watch it, and possibly read the book as well. Though I suggest you skip past the praying mantis and the gecko.
Website|Facebook|Goodreads|Twitter Janet Edwards is the author of the Earth Girl science fiction trilogy (Earth Girl, Earth Star, and Earth Flight) and related books set in a distant future where humanity portals between hundreds of colony worlds… except for the unfortunate few whose immune system can’t handle living anywhere else but on Earth. The Earth Girl series centres on Jarra. Abandoned by her parents at birth, and regarded as less than a second-class citizen, she’s fighting back.
Janet also has a new Hive Mind series, which is set in a different future, and centres on the life of a telepath whose job is to catch criminals before they commit their crimes.
Earth Girl was voted an American Library Association Teens’ Top Ten Title. Find out more about Janet and her books at www.janetedwards.com