While browsing a used bookstore in my hometown of Roswell, Ga., I couldn’t help but notice a teenager donning a “Class of 2010” t-shirt standing next to me in the literature section. She seemed to be struggling, so I figured now would be a great opportunity to show of my newly learned English Literature major skills.
“What are you looking for?” I asked her, completely prepared to show off.
“To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s for summer reading. Have you read it?”
I was appalled. Although I attended a prestigious and competitive private school I had never read the classic. My high school had never required it, and with the rigors of applying to colleges, summer jobs, and finally, my freshman year at the University of Miami, I had never thought to read the book on my own.
“What else are you looking for?” I asked, hoping that the next few novels she mentioned would be more familiar. They weren’t. So I left the literature section of the store and approached the “Summer Reading” table at the back. While thumbing through classics such as Fahrenheit 451, In Cold Blood, Lolita, and finally, To Kill a Mockingbird, I realized that despite attending my expensive college preparatory school, I had significant holes in my education.
I decided that between summer jobs, vacations, and family obligations I would attempt to go back and read the classic novels that had somehow eluded me. My first task: To Kill a Mockingbird. It was brilliant—I genuinely enjoyed the interesting storylines, impeccable vocabulary, and the tie-ins to Southern history. But the whole time I was reading, I couldn’t help asking myself how watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail in its entirety during high school English was more educational than Harper Lee’s classic.
What else had my high school neglected to teach me? In a world of standardized testing and SparkNotes, was it really surprising that my overall literature education had been watered down?
But as I started In Cold Blood, I realized by reading these novels on my own, I was free to complete them at my own pace. I didn’t have to boil everything down to New Testament biblical references, and there was not a single pop quiz. I could get more out of them and enjoy the overall process as a leisurely activity. I now appreciate how the holes in my lackluster summer reading lists of the past will continue to directly benefit my interesting and exciting summer reading in the future.