In sixth grade, I did not read My Side of the Mountain, though it was assigned for class. In eighth grade, I did not read Little Women and in ninth grade I did not read Great Expectations and The Good Earth. As I passed through high school, I worked my way through much of the western canon, not reading The Scarlet Letter, Bartleby the Scrivener, The Return of the Native, and dozens more. In eleventh grade, we were assigned two books by Steinbeck, two by Hemingway, two by Sinclair Lewis and two by William Faulkner. I did not read the Steinbeck, Hemingway or Lewis but for some long-forgotten reason I violated years of established tradition by tackling the Faulkner — specifically As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury.
As I Lay Dying went down pretty easily, but I remember many nights struggling my way through The Sound and the Fury, Cliff notes at my side. It felt like scaling Everest, and the vistas at the top were worth the climb.
A couple of weeks ago, as part of my ongoing project to read great novels, I decided to revisit The Sound and the Fury, and I’m more than glad I did; I finally have an answer to give the next time I’m asked what one novel I’d bring to a desert island. But what I’m flabbergasted by is this: How did this book ever get assigned to high school students in the first place? I ask for at least two reasons:
- The story is saturated with sex and racism (societal racism, that is, not Faulkner’s). It’s all “whore” this and “nigger” that, to the point where I’d have thought the PC police — you know, the guys who banned Huckleberry Finn — would have intervened long ago. (Come to think of it, high school was long ago. Maybe they have intervened.)
- What high school student has the patience to figure out what’s happening in a book like this? The first quarter is narrated by an idiot with no sense of time, so that he jumps back and forth between periods of his life mid-page, mid-paragraph, and sometimes mid-sentence, as he starts describing one event and finishes describing another similar event that took place twenty years earlier. Nobody (except maybe the Cliff Notes) ever warns you about the ever-shifting time frame. (I have no idea how the Cliff Notes people figured it out.) The narrator of the second quarter is no idiot, but seriously disturbed, and obsesses on events that are never described, but which we have to infer from the obscure references in his internal monologue. There are multiple characters with the same name, and single characters with multiple names — and not a shred of of warning about all this.
As I said, my high-school-self relied on Cliff Notes for guidance. I am not ashamed to tell you that my adult self required Cliff Notes, Barron’s Notes, Spark Notes, and the full power of the Internet. My strategy was to read a few pages, then seek help to find out what just happened, then reread. When I got to the halfway mark, I went back to the beginning and read the book straight through (the second half is mostly downhill). I am eager to return to the beginning and read it straight through one more time.
Make no mistake; this is perhaps the best novel I’ve ever read. The rewards are surely commensurate with the effort, but I can’t help believing that few high school students would invest enough effort to earn the rewards.
And yet—something magical did happen to me back in high school (belated thanks, Mrs. Schreiber!), something that left me with a decades-long intention to reread this book someday, and now I have, and I’m about to read it again. Maybe I should have also dipped into the Hemingway.