Of Broccoli and Books

Classics
When I was a kid, I was a notoriously fussy eater. I did not like foods that were too green, foods that were mushy, foods that looked weird, foods that smelled weird. I’m not entirely sure if I had a method for deciding which foods were unacceptable, but I do know that, among other things, it meant I did not like pickles or onions, lettuce or tomatoes, raisins or bananas. I was wary of avocadoes and I outright didn’t trust mushrooms. At some point in my life, I realized I was being ridiculous and that maybe some of these foods were okay for me, so I set about teaching myself to like foods I had previously hated. I taught myself to eat my vegetables.

Now that I’m all grown up, at least in terms of chronology, I enjoy all kinds of things that my six-year-old self would have sneered at disdainfully and I am of course a better person for it (though to this day, I still think tomatoes are completely vile, and I'm not eating mushrooms either, because come on, they're fungus). Take broccoli for instance. When I was a kid, there was no way anyone was going to get me to eat broccoli. And now, even though I freely admit that broccoli isn’t my favorite thing (I never find myself thinking “Gosh, I really wish I had some broccoli right now,” for instance), I can often be found eating it. And I don’t hate it! It’s actually pretty decent. It’s not ice cream, or anything, but that’s okay because as far as I can tell, no matter how much I’d like for it to be true, a girl cannot live on ice cream alone.

This naturally leads me to the subject of literature. When I was a kid, I was the opposite about reading as I was about food: I couldn’t get enough. I would read anything, from the backs of cereal boxes and labels on shampoo bottles to average children’s book fare to big heavy reference books (I once spent an elementary school vacation memorizing the bones in the human skull for no reason other than that seemed like a good thing to do). Anyway, I was a reader. A voracious one, even.

But as I got older, I started taking classes that had assigned reading, and for as many gems as I found, I encountered just as many (if not more) books that I never would’ve read in a million years if I didn’t have to in order to pass a test or write a paper. And suddenly I was reminded of being a kid again, staring down a plate of vegetables with a stubborn scowl, thinking “No way,” or perhaps the even more mature “Ew.”

I can think of all sorts of books I thought of as broccoli: Robinson Crusoe (not very adventurous and actually rather boring and full of disturbing racism even by 17th century standards), Aeneid (blah blah Troy blabbity blah), Heart of Darkness (the horror, the horror indeed), Lord of the Flies (oh just kill each other already), Paradise Lost (so dull I wanted to stick a fork in one of my eyes), The Scarlet Letter (Puritans were uptight, I get it). I could go on (and on and on), but I will be nice and not do that. The point, anyway, is that there were a lot of books I had to read in one English class or another, in high school or in college, that I couldn’t have cared less about if they were actually books about broccoli. Perhaps a lot of this stems from the fact that I have a weird rebellious stubborn streak that makes me want to do the exact opposite of what people suggest to me, and perhaps also it’s because being an assignment automatically makes something less interesting, but the thing is that just as I learned to eat and like vegetables, I came to appreciate (and in many cases, like) the books I’d previously been forced to read when I was free to pick them up on my own. (Except for Robinson Crusoe, because I just hate that book).

I do think that in many ways, it’s unfortunate that so much of the canonical literature that gets assigned in classes really is quite a chore. When it comes to Important Books, there’s just so much… fiber. Or so it would seem. But just as I discovered that hey, Paradise Lost is pretty good when I don’t have to rush through it so I can talk about it in class, there sure are a lot of great books out there that I would never have been taught in a class, be they too dark or violent or sexy, and thank goodness for them. I have some more thoughts about this, but I have a cold and I can feel the Sudafed kicking in, so I’m going to leave it here. I guess the main point is that just as I would die if I tried to live on nothing but broccoli (I would die), I wouldn’t like reading too much if everything I read was Important and Good For Me.

Stuff that’s good for me is necessary, but it sure does get boring after awhile.
12 Responses to "Of Broccoli and Books"

Since I have lived in France, I have eaten snails, rabbit, raw oysters, and all sorts of organ meats. I have also eaten lots of broccoli. Variety is the spice of life!

Your reading diet is like your food diet. A steady dose of only classics is not good for you. You need to throw in some contemporary stuff too. But, you need to read the timeless masterpieces. It's required. Some of the stuff grows on you. For example, The Illiad and The Odyssey were "required reading" for me in high school. But it wasn't until years later and several re-readings that I finally "got" them.

They should make all the canonical literature into graphic novels to make it more palatable the first reading, with pictures of the type you find in ADULT comics.

Jamelah, our difference in opinion on "Heart of Darkness" is well known, but now I see you are adding "Lord of the Flies". Clearly you do not like books that deal in heavy metaphors for human violence.

I insist that Joseph Conrad and William Golding are steak and potatoes, not broccoli.

I agree with the graphic novel idea. Like "Classics Illustrated" but with illustrations by say, R. Crumb.

Dude, I said:

...the thing is that just as I learned to eat and like vegetables, I came to appreciate (and in many cases, like) the books I’d previously been forced to read when I was free to pick them up on my own. (Except for Robinson Crusoe, because I just hate that book).

I don't hate Heart of Darkness, but I don't think it's The Best Book EVAR or anything. The same with Lord of the Flies. I think I was not in the right headspace for it when I first had to read it, but I can appreciate it now. I don't love it and want to marry it, but I can appreciate it.

And it's fine if you want to think of Conrad and Golding as steak and potatoes while I think of them as broccoli... but it's not like you can live on steak and potatoes either, unless you want to die of a coronary.

by rubiao on

From an early age, I had such an aversion to assigned reading that I would always ask my teachers if I could read other books of my own choice. A request that was almost always declined. I devoured literature on my own from an early age, yet never enjoyed a book I had to read for school. Instead I chose to learn to take tests and write papers about books I had not read. Since then I have gone back, read some of the books, and enjoyed them. A strange phenomena indeed.

One time during college I took a modern literature course. When presented with the syllabus I cynically assumed the worst, and went to the professor after class. (On a side note, one reason I assumed the worst was on the first day we went around and named our favorite books. More than half the class named perennial assigned reading from high school, including more than one for Tom Sawyer. Now I love Mark Twain as much as the next guy, but c'mon! We both know thats the only book you've read. Be a little creative with your answer!) We talked about what I planned to read and he told me to write papers about those books, also suggesting a couple of books on our syllabus that he thought I would like. First time ever, but it also turned out to be the worst time ever. Looking back on it, he had put together the most creative reading list I have ever seen. The most famous author on the list was Aldous Huxley, but it was his first novel, CROME YELLOW, that we were reading (hilarious by the way). The rest are now a list of many of my favorite authors including Steven Millhauser, Flann O'Brien, and Coleman Dowell. Rounding out the list as I remember were Olive Moore, Diane Williams, Carole Maso, and a few others. Funny that the one teacher who agreed that I should read what I want to read was the one teacher I should have listened to. I still think I enjoy books better when I read them on my own, but I thank that professor for the most creative course list I've ever seen.

Speaking of food, does anyone here know if thin people sell more books?

I ask this because, after a torturous bout with sensible eating and walking, I have decided just to remain fat. After all, Ray Bradbury and Benny Hill are both portly fellows and this fact has not diminished their popularity with the young people. Perhaps a short/fat distinction would even assist future cartoonists when called upon to depict a round-table summit of word movers and genre shakers. You’ve seen those caricature: Cocktail patrons, variously resembling a lightning bolt, a brick wall, a giant egg, and a pterodactyl all wearing suits and sneakers, trading bon mots.

I had hoped to enter the literary arena while still a slender man, possibly ballooning later in the game, like Brando, after my first Hugo Award. Ultimately, as a symbol of protest against the spiraling cost of property insurance, I would send an amphetamine-crazed homeless woman to accept my PDK trophy as she clawed invisible lizards off the podium and raved about having gold in her cooch.

Alas, it is not to be. I cannot be expected to write, lose weight, AND entertain guests, not with these pansy-ass HMO doctors, anyway.

by thebes on

I find, as I suffer the flu, that I have had a similar experience. I had a poetry teacher who was an acidhead and pretty fried. She was dead-on with recommendation for my education in Lit, but I didn't listen for a good ten years. I wanted to read and write what seemed to be good for me, not what I was told. Nevertheless, all that rhymed verse helped--and all the prose, too, but I'll never care for some of the classics just because their introduction was forced.

In college I was told to think for myself and prove my point only to be smashed down when I did. Had to pass the test of regurgitation instead of education, I guess. Now this old rebel is a teacher--go figure.

by mtmynd on

No tomatoes... no mushrooms. A pity. Shortens the Italian menu considerably. Wine perhaps?

by Cal Godot on

A diet of classics isn't good for you? What a revolting and insipid idea. Easier-to-read graphic lit - why exactly? Because the atrophied minds of today's readers, even an ostensibly literate crowd such as haunts this place, simply can't parse a sentence without a few likes, uhs, and whatevers?

Spin it how you will, TV-heads. The "classics" are classic because, alone, they do comprise a balanced literary diet. While I enjoy Stephen King as much as the next reader, I am not so enamored of being a blue-collar poseur that I fail to realize just why some works are "great." They are so because they encompass the world.

(Bill: Send the guests home. You can't write with a crowd of revelers all about. As for the weight, all the thin writers [like me] had TB [like me]. Better to be chubby and happy than thin and consumed.)

by JDS on

teaching books to kids is so much dominated by the idea of "books they SHOULD read" rather then books they might really enjoy to read, to push them towards greater or better reading choices(what ever that might be) later on. In high school who the heck cares about books you have to read, high school is just about dealing with getting out of high school and sex.

by BradyDale on

The writer that was really ruined for me by being assigned was John Steinbeck. He's so straightforward and good and deep and interesting. I didn't read him until I was 27 because we had been assigned so much of him in high school (I don't count what I did then as really reading him). Even when I sort of got into it I wasn't really into it because I was mad about being forced.

Don't really know what else schools would do, but it does have the effect of tainting some great writers.