Another Year, Another Five Books

It’s that time of year again!  That’s right! I look back at all the books I read for AP English!  I’ll give a brief paragraph to summarize each book, and then for those of you who really want JUST THE BASICS, I’ll write a TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read) for the book.  Then, I’ll talk about what I managed to learn from it.  Additionally, I’ll be paying special attention to the question, “Why do people feel the need to express themselves?”   It should be noted that there are SEVERAL SPOILERS, so if you want to read the books, don’t read this.  The first book I read for the school year was…

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain 

Huckleberry Finn, usually referred to as Huck, is a boy that lives in Missouri, by the Missouri River.  He’s simple and not very imaginative; he just enjoys life.  In a previous book, Huck finds a gigantic stash of gold and the town bank is holding on to it for me.  Two women, the widow and Miss Watson, adopt Huck in order to protect him from his abusive father.  Then, the story really begins.  Pap (Huck’s dad) shows up and kidnaps Huck.  He locks him into a cabin every day to prevent him from leaving and nobody knows.  Huck eventually escapes and then runs into a friend of his named Jim, a black slave who’s trying to escape from his master.  Huck considers turning him in, but he just can’t bring himself to do it.  The rest of the book is just Huck helping Jim escape from slavery.

TL;DR: Huck Finn is a simple boy that helps his slave friend Jim escape.  

I read this book over the summer and to be honest, I didn’t really take much away from it.  It was written while racism ran rampant throughout the entire South, so I think the book mainly addresses that.  Racism is still relevant today, but not nearly to the same extent.  Huck isn’t really one to express himself, however, he does write the novel which is a form of self expression.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Easily my least favorite book of the year.  I’m sure I couldn’t do the book’s fans any justice by doing an in depth summary of it, so I won’t.

TL;DR:  Hester Prynne cheats on her husband with a pastor and has a child.  The townspeople (early puritans in America) put a big scarlet “A” on her dress for adulteress, and then Hester must overcome this while simultaneously raising her daughter.  Her husband seeks revenge against the pastor.  

This is really going to upset somebody, I’m certain of it.  I learned next to nothing from this book.  I’m sure it’s incredibly complicated, and it’s all about human nature and sin and what not, but that doesn’t interest me yet.  If there’s anything I managed to learn, it’s that we determine our identity, not those around us.   So, despite this being my least favorite book, it actually is the most related thus far to my question, “Why do people feel the need to express themselves?”  In Hester’s case, it’s to keep on going, to survive and hopefully lead a normal life one day despite wearing the scarlet “A”.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby is all about a man named Jay Gatsby (as you probably could have guessed).  Formerly Jimmy Gatz, he used to be a poor man with little money.  After changing his name and becoming involved in illegal businesses, he becomes filthy rich.  He moves to West Egg on Long Island and so, the narrator of the novel, Nick begins his story.  He describes Gatsby as an illustrious man, who is “gorgeous.”  Quickly, Nick discovers that Gatsby moved to Long Island for a particular reason; to reunite with a woman named Daisy.  Unfortunately, Daisy has already been married.  So, Gatsby became rich and handsome in order to impress Daisy, but he ultimately fails.  Completely miserable, Gatsby is then killed by mistake through a complication with Daisy’s husband, Tom, and his mistress.  Nobody shows up to his funeral except for Nick and one other person, solidifying Nick’s belief that rich people possess a disgusting type of carelessness.

TL;DR:  Jay Gatsby’s life goal is to win over a woman named Daisy.  He doesn’t.  He dies.  

This is an excellent example of why people sometimes desperately want to express themselves.  Gatsby’s sole purpose in life is somebody else.  He expresses himself as a different person in order to gain her favor.  As charming as he is,  Daisy is unable to leave her husband for Gatsby, hinting that maybe people shouldn’t change who they are for the sake of somebody else.  A lot of other themes in this book as well, it’s definitely one of my favorites out of the books I’ve read in high school.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

I really didn’t enjoy this book, but I managed to read all of it and there’s a lot to be said about it.  Unfortunately, not much of it really has to do with expressing yourself, so it’s not terribly relevant.  The story starts in the dust bowl where there’s been a horrendous drought and farmers are quickly being replaced by men with tractors.  The majority of the farmers head west with hopes of being hired on a farm or even owning their own farm one day.  The conditions that they travel in are unbelievably terrible, cramming entire families into cars meant for four people.  The Joad family is one of these several families.  The book details their journey across the country with several intercalary chapters that often have some sort of symbolism.  The Joads are repeatedly let down by family after family, and they’re turned away by people who are looking out for their best interest.  It’s ironic because the Joads are looking for their best interest as well.  They eventually make it to the promised land, California, and they’re disappointed to learn that life is equally bad in California.  That’s pretty much it.

TL;DR: The Joad family sells everything they own and they head to California seeking opportunity.  

This was a very difficult read for me.  It always felt like I was missing something.  A story was being told, but there’s more to the book than just a story.  In my English Class, we divided intercalary chapters into several categories that represent their significance, for example, social commentary, historical background, etc.  Even then, it’s still hard to tell where Steinbeck was going with this book.  My expert (not really) opinion is that the book’s underlying theme is to treat others the way you wish to be treated.  It seems like if everybody followed the golden rule, life would be a lot better for the Joad families.  I know there’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s the beautiful thing about literature; it’s open to interpretation.  As stated earlier, it doesn’t really relate to self expression.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

My favorite book of the year.  Nobody in my class thought that this book was alright.  It was either incredible, or horrible.  It definitely fits into my question, and it probably provides the best answer.  Holden Caulfield is the narrator of the story and the story itself is about Holden.  He attends Pencey, a boarding school.  However, he is quickly “axed,” and expelled from the school due to his poor grades.  He passes English though.  So, not wanting to confront his parents, Holden goes off on an adventure and travels through New York for a while.  Along the way, he talks to a bunch of people about nothing.  Holden is always borderline about something.  He loves something while simultaneously hating it.  He never knows why either.  So, the book is all about him going on a quest for answers about himself.  He despises phonies, but ironically he is a phony.  The reader gets a sense that Holden has some serious issues.  He’s constantly depressed, he goes out and gets drunk more than once, he’s a terrible conversationalist, but he doesn’t seem like that bad of a person.  At the beginning of the novel, he says that adults have touched him about 20 times and you’re sort of unsure as to whether or not he’s telling the truth.  However, towards the end of the novel, it’s certain that he was molested as a child after an encounter with one of his old teachers.  So, that’s likely why Holden has so many issues and why he’s so obsessed with protecting children’s innocence.

TL;DR: A 16 year old teen named Holden travels on his own for a few days to understand himself.

Holden expresses himself because….. well… he doesn’t know how to express himself.  He doesn’t know why he should express himself.  He is the embodiment of the question.  He has all these fanatical ideas and philosophies, but he doesn’t really know what to do with them.  The entire book is just him trying to find the answers, to move forward in his life.  What’s best is, in the end, he doesn’t even really find an answer.  He just decides that he’ll do what he wants to do.  He’s the loophole, he doesn’t feel the need to express himself.  He’s also easy to relate to for a majority of teens, because a lot of us don’t know what we’re doing or where we’re going.  That’s why it was my favorite book of the year.

Alright well I hope you guys enjoyed reading that wall of text, thanks for sticking with me through all that.  To all my fellow students, enjoy your summer break!  To anybody who doesn’t have a summer break, enjoy your summer!

-Chris

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