In my ninth-grade English/literature class, my teacher allowed us to choose a book to read and analyze. We weren’t given total free rein (she still had to approve our choice of book), but the impact was all the same. Up to that point, every single book I had read for school had been chosen for me, selected from a milquetoast curation of “American Classics.” This was the first (and last) time I could pick something that I truly wanted to analyze.
Looking back, I squandered that opportunity and chose "Anthem" by Ayn Rand. My choice wasn’t motivated by favor -- at the time, I knew nothing about any of Rand’s works -- but rather a random recommendation given by a list I’d read online. I could have picked so many other, better, more interesting works, but settled for "Anthem."
For those who haven’t read it, "Anthem" is a plodding, dystopia/utopia hybrid, written to throw Rand’s ideologies at the reader with the clumsiness of a drunken bear trying to paint a self-portrait. The themes are boorish, heavy-handed, but worst of all, they’re poorly integrated into the story. Ayn Rand might as well have written essays rather than fiction, perhaps her use of language might actually do justice to her ideas then.
Still, I learned a lot from "Anthem." Or rather, I learned a lot from the experience of reading it. To say that I learned anything from the book itself would be lying. By experiencing the hell that was "Anthem," I learned what not to do when writing. I learned how not to create sympathetic characters, an interesting world, or a compelling conflict. I learned from example, that is to say, a bad example.
Afterwards, when I presented my analysis and report on "Anthem," I could see the confusion present on many of my classmates’ faces. Why exactly, would I choose to read a book that I clearly disliked so much? Normally, our English curriculum had us analyzing how the elements of literature present in a story drove its message. I did what I normally did -- analyzed the themes, characters, language, except this time I drove it all towards my singular point: that the book failed to convey its intended message in any meaningful way
It was incredibly satisfying.
I believe that all students should be given the opportunity to tear into a book during their schooling, to channel all their feelings of frustration and resentment towards school into a project. Of course, the normal standards for English projects should apply; baseless rants have no place in a proper curriculum. However, I think it would help many students put more passion into their work, talking about why something is bad can sometimes be far more entertaining and illuminating than the usual.
Daniel Ma is a senior at Century High School. Send comments on teen columns to Jeff Pieters, firstname.lastname@example.org.