The next installment of books my schools recommended to me in my youth:
The Hobbit is awesome. I was assigned to read it for school by Ms. Howe in Seventh Grade.
All of a sudden, The Hobbit didn't seem fun anymore. If I called the teacher Broomhilda, then that would probably give you a better visual of her: round body, curly orange hair, drawn on eyebrows. One time she put us in groups and told us to choose someone in the class and write a poem about that person so the rest of the class could guess who the poem was about. She told the class it was "all in fun" so not to be offended by unflattering remarks.
Big mistake! Of course, we chose to write about the teacher. I can't remember the actual rhyme, but I distinctly remember the line "She looks like a corpse from Alcatraz." All in good fun. Anyway, just because I really like The Hobbit does not mean that I would like to discuss my enthusiasm with Ms. Hag and some dumb-and-ugly classmate in a focus group.
I think that the Hobbit should have been the first book of the actual "Lord of the Rings" Trilogy. Some of the books read like this: They walked, they ate, they slept. They walked, they ate, they slept. They walked, they ate, they slept. Then Strider said, "I am Aragorn, Son of Arathorn, but my friends just call me 'The King'."
If you cut out 60% of the walking, eating and sleeping, you can easily cut the number of books from 4 to 3. But really, I grew up on that old Rankin-Bass cartoon version of The Hobbit. The book had little to add to the story, just a few clarifying details. But the movie is a masterpiece. The characters don't move very good, but the drawing style is cool, their interpretation of Gollum is the coolest character of all time and captivated me as a kid, but the best thing of all is the way they adapted Tolkiens words into songs.
Fifteen birds in five fir trees. Their feathers were fanned in a fiery breeze.
When my wife was pregnant with our first son she told me about a study where you can sing to the baby in the womb and then, later in life, that same song will be calming to your offspring. So when Ethan was in the womb, I often sang to him the song from the opening of The Hobbit:
"The Greatest Adventure is what lies ahead
Today and tomorrow are yet to be said
The chances, the changes are all yours to make
The mold of your life is in your hands to break...
A man who's a dreamer and never takes leave
Who thinks of a world that is just make believe
Will never know passion, will never know pain
Who sits by the window, will one day see rain"
Then I slapped Ethan on the butt and pushed him out the door.
I think that even Peter Jackson knew that he could not top the Rankin-Bass Gollum. Thinking of the growling upright salamnder as a former hobbit/human was a trip. The only part of the book I read for Ms. Howe was the chapter "Riddles in the Dark" where Gollum and Bilbo face off with riddles and Gollum plans to eat Bilbo regardless of Bilbo's sharp intellect and luck. Coolest. Character. Ever. My Precious. We loves it, forever.
The Red Badge of Courage
More like "The Red Badge of Boring." I've been trying to force myself to read this book for the past three months. I couldn't do it when I was twelve and I still can't do it now. Who knew war could be so boring? If I remember my literature, Stephen Crane also received criticism for writing a book about a prostitute, Maggie of the Streets. He TRIED to be interesting but I think he summed it up best with his own poem:
A man said to the universe:
"Sir I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."
So maybe I did not publish any books, let alone classics, by my mid-20's, but I did live to see my 30th birthday. Maybe Crane would admire ME for that.
The White Mountains
I was not assigned to read this book. My 5th grade teacher chose to read it to us and I think of it as a book that shaped my life. It kind of smacks of "War of the Worlds" but I didn't know that at the time.
For those who are unfamiliar, "The White Mountains" is the first book of a trilogy. It seems like the setting is the past but it is actually the future after aliens have taken over the world. Technology is scarce.
At the age of twelve, the aliens hold a large ceremony where they take up the birthday kids, shave their heads and fuse a brainwashing web of wires to their skulls. The main character, Will, is apprehensive to have this done to him but everyone, even his parents, tell him it's the greatest thing ever. That it will make him a man.
Will has a cousin who he deeply admires. After his cousin is "capped" it seems to have sucked the life out of him. After some thought, Will decides he will go against everything and everyone he knows and run away to avoid the lobotomy and maintain his own identity and values.
When I was young, the thought of leaving a loving family and a comfortable future for the sake of your own freedom-of-thought blew my mind. What if he was wrong? But then again, what if he wasn't wrong? Will was right to run away.
He faces a greater challenge later, when he becomes very ill from mal-nourishment. He is warmly received into a small society: A small royal family that lives in a castle. A castle where young men become knights and have jousts and spend their days hunting. The princess is Will's caretaker. They become fond of eachother. While Will is there, the princess becomes "capped." The promise of this situation tempts Will to become capped himself and continue living in the castle as the kings adopted son, or son-in-law. It is a very hard decision for Will but is soon resolved when the princess wins a beauty pageant. Her prize is to be taken to the alien city, never to return. So Will continues his journey to The White Mountains (The Swiss Alps) to find the rumored haven of freethinkers. In a later book, Will finds the princess's preserved but dead body on display in an alien museum of Earth stuff.
The Red Badge of Courage is about some lame kid who endlessly debates with himself whether or not he will run from war. Wuss. But I still get nervous reading the White Mountains and I always hope that I would have the courage to do what the character in The White Mountains does. A very good book. I would especially recommend it to kids in Utah, where freethinking tends to lead to "excommunication" and head-shaking looks of disgust by all of those who are in The Club.
In Utah, I frequently hear statements along the lines of:
"He is so spiritual. He does everything he's told without questioning it."
Those aren't the words people use, but that it is the truth beneath their words and there is nothing admirable about it. Maybe it's just easier to see that when you are 12.