Thursday, March 31, 2011

Goddamn Book Reports!

As a young teen I enjoyed reading enormously but I disliked being told what to read. This opened up a roomful of problems whenever those goddamn book reports were assigned. A list of five or six books would be presented to the class and from that list we could pick the book we wanted to read and write a book report on. But it would invariably be boring books like SILAS MARNER or IVANHOE and the prospect of reading these particular classics usually interfered with my regular reading schedule of important works such as THE AMBOY DUKES or BLACKBOARD JUNGLE. Those books—even hip ones like CATCHER IN THE RYE (too many dirty words) and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST (too subversive)--never appeared on these lists and I felt it was criminally unfair to exclude them. But my protests were dismissed by bored and indifferent teachers. One time, in the eighth grade, after seeing Paul Newman in THE HUSTLER,  I snagged a paperback copy at the local drug store and devoured it. Man, what a book! Almost as good as the movie in fact.
 So I quickly dashed off a book report on it despite knowing that it would no doubt be handed back with a stern reprimand. Which is exactly what happened as I recall. I was then offered the chance to reclaim a passing grade by agreeing to read Mark Twain's HUCKLEBERRY FINN and submitting a book report on it in one week. One week to read it and write a report. Sure thing. So the night before it was due, I dug out my old cardboard box of CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED comic books from an earlier period of youthful mania and pulled out my ratty old copy of Twain's timeless tale of misspent youth--#19 in this awesome series, "featuring stories by the world's greatest authors."  I had forgotten how utterly enjoyable these brightly colored comics were; tons of great literary violence and passion. Finished it in twenty minutes and hastily
scribbled out a five page report with lots of adverbs and exclamation marks. I was in like Flynn and I knew it. Several hours later I found myself still buried in these great comics, gleefully  revisiting so many terrific stories like FRANKENSTEIN, ROBN HOOD, and THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, that one being an especially exciting, thrilling saga of violence and vengeance. Even nutty and obtuse ones like Hugo's THE MAN WHO LAUGHS was a turn-on and it astonished me to realize that my favorite J. D. Salinger short story, "The Laughing Man" was clearly inspired by it! Incredible!

Two days later my report on HUCKLEBERRY FINN was handed back to me with a red F emblazoned on the top of the page with the accompanying request that I refrain from ever relying on comic books to fulfill my book report requirements. Damn, where did I go wrong? How did she guess? I followed that stupid comic book like a Triple A road map. Turns out that so-called map took a number of liberties with the story, so much so that it must have appeared to old Mrs. Goldsmith that I had read an entirely different book. Believe me, I learned a very valuable lesson that day: comic books, even brainy ones with great covers like CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED simply couldn't be trusted when it came to book reports. And that's why they invented Cliff's Notes. Goddamn book reports.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this. We're probably roughly the same age. I resonated with a lot of this, and marvel at how much different the ratios are of media respectability these days. Read _Maus_ and write a book report on that, Teach sez. Or even Allan Moore or Grant Morrison. And turn your cell phones off in class!

    Man...the accelerated acceleration of technological culture!

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