It’s the time of year when I’m forced to acknowledge the innate barbarism of boys.
I don’t mean the way our sons forget to unclot their balled-up, sweaty tennis socks or carry piles of clean, folded shirts five feet to their dresser drawers, barbaric as these things are in their own ways.
I mean that once again a person born to me has, when asked “What is your homework?” produced from his backpack a school-issued copy of Lord of the Flies.
Before I argue that this book is more poison than broth, I will present my credentials as a young reader who appreciated, even relished, a book about the utter destruction of one’s hopes for happiness.
Remember Ethan Frome? Ends with a horrible sledding accident? I actually liked this book.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles? Beautiful innocent peasant girl is raped by her titled cousin, loses the baby born out of wedlock, finally marries her true love, and is rejected by him when she confesses that she slept with the titled cousin? Ends with the line “The President of the Immortals had ended his sport with Tess?”
A Farewell to Arms? You know, the book Bradley Cooper throws out the window in “The Silver Linings Playbook” in a scene that I truly love even though I've actually been the type of English teacher he's railing against and this was my favorite book for many formative years.
You see where I’m going with this. Sad = okay by me.
Lord of the Flies, mes amis, is another matter. I’ve kept my secret all this time, but I’m telling you now in a low whisper: I have never been able to finish reading this book. I always plan to do it, if not for myself, for the Children. Specifically the ones who live in my house and say, “I have an essay on this book due in 15 minutes. Can you read my rough draft?”
Plus there’s the matter of it being a Modern Classic. As of today, this book has 1,327,932 ratings on Goodreads, where the plot description is truly enticing: “At first, it seems as though it's all going to be great fun; but the fun before long becomes furious & life on the island turns into a nightmare of panic & death.”
Help me, Rhonda. The rough draft, I remind you, is due in 15 minutes.
I will report back, I promise you, when I’ve finished reading the book and somebody's rough draft, but first I’m going to say a few words--posit, as we used to say pretentiously in grad school-- about why children read, why teenagers read, why adults read, and what you should put on your bookshelf right now to help you recover from Lord of the Flies.
Children read to be someone and somewhere else. Ditto teens, except here I would add that they also read to learn about sex and to see if other people feel as worried and embarrassed and left out as they do all the livelong day. Adults read for the same reason, if they still read anything at all, having learned that most books make them feel the way Bradley Cooper feels when he throws A Farewell to Arms out the attic window. To be elsewhere, elseone.
But what about books that are published for young people to read on their own (hopefully), and books that are assigned every year, year after year, in school? What are adults up to when they set those gigantic machines in motion?
I would argue that the motive is the same in the marketplace as it is in the curriculum: to teach kids something we really want them to learn. You’re still going to go elsewhere and be elseone, estudiantes, because that’s the nature of a book (or movie or video game) but we want to make sure you learn something we’re trying to teach you right now about justice, sexual identity, loving yourself as you are, and Socialism. (This is also the time of year when someone born to me is likely to bring home 1984 and Animal Farm.) Is this instructional motive bad? No. It’s inevitable. School is for teaching our kids to be exactly like us only nicer and smarter, though not too much better, because we work really, really hard and by God when we were children nobody unclotted our balled-up socks or paid for this many tennis lessons.
If school is for teaching kids to be smarter and nicer than we were at their age and, hopefully, than we are now, it’s important to ask what role pleasure has in reading, even in compulsory reading, and what kids gain from being in the particular elsewhere of a book. I don’t mean we should ask, “Hey, how are you kids liking this book? Should we finish it?” We don’t do that with Calculus or chemistry, and we shouldn’t do it with Macbeth. But the thing is, reading started out differently from those subjects. Stories were fed to us in the beginning because they were, at some level or every level, fun. Books exist as a recreational device, and all of the books that are widely assigned in schools--Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby--started out not as a cog in the educational machinery but as novels that were bought voluntarily by adults.
If that’s true, then Lord of the Flies was published because a for-profit company thought adults would willingly pay to immerse themselves in that experience, and it’s now taught in schools because we believe it will teach kids to be smarter and nicer.
Before I read beyond chapter three (the farthest I’ve ever gone) and see how it does or doesn’t do that, I’ll say this: I believe that the reason I have never finished Lord of the Flies is that you can tell in chapter one that you are living in a world where the cruelty of boys is innate and unstoppable, and where you cannot take the supreme and only comfort that art offers when the innocent die or are unjustly destroyed, which is to inhabit the mind of an empathetic character.
Secondly, I suspect that the number one reason we teach Lord of the Flies is that it punctures the fantasy of the young that they would be much better off without us, that if they could go to a tropical island without teachers and parents and coaches they would be FINE. So much happier, in fact. This book says, No. You would not be fine. You need us to keep you safe.
I’m definitely going to admit it if I’m wrong in Part Two of this post, or you can tell me why and how I’m wrong now. But meanwhile, here’s what I would set on the bookshelf or nightstand if you, like me, are about to join Ralph and Piggy on the nightmare island of panic and death for the first time:
Could someone handle the laundry for a while? Make the boys turn their own socks right side out first if you can.
I’m going in.
Books by Tom and Laura McNeal