I recently re-read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, after it was featured on this season of Crash Course: Literature. The first time I read the book, I was 12 years old, in middle school, doing the honor-student-athlete balancing act, and to say that I hated this book would be wildly unfair, because I did not, in fact, finish reading it. Halfway through I noped out and convinced a classmate to summarize the rest of the plot for me so I wouldn’t fail the test.
Now I am a 24-year old college graduate with a degree in English. Of the 23 books I’ve read so far this year, 3 of them were by Nigerian-born authors, like Achebe. I’ve become much more interested in the world at large and non-western cultures than I was at the age of 12, and so when I was reminded about this book, I decided I should give it another shot. This time around? Well, it was pretty alright.
In terms of cultural impact and influencing future generations, Things Fall Apart is an incredibly important book, particularly if you want to establish a beginner’s understanding of what colonialism has done to African nations, and what western versions of history have erased from that narrative. It’s about 90% culture study, detailing the daily lives of Okonkwo and his wives, and it’s not until the last 10% that Brits show up and everything goes bottoms-up. You get so firmly established in the tribal culture that you feel colonialism and the establishment of Christianity as a personal affront, and in that way the novel is incredibly successful.
It’s also kind of boring, and Okonkwo is a huge tool. I can see why I declared it unworthy as a 12-year-old. My teacher had good intentions in picking it–we were smart students, and it certainly wasn’t above our reading level–but she didn’t properly contextualize it, and I remember being bored to tears by the slow exposition. And really, when you think about it, what’s a white 12-year-old upper-middle-class American female going to glean from a book like Things Fall Apart? Very little, as it turns out.
Having not hated this book the second time around, though, I’m now looking back over my old course curriculum with some curiosity. There were a lot of books assigned to me in middle school that I didn’t care for–books held in high esteem by the wider literary community, and not just in that obnoxious old-dead-white-guys-write-important-things way. Shabanu by Suzanne Fisher Staples and Octavia Butler’s Kindred come immediately to mind. What would I think about those books if I read them now? Maybe it’s time to find out.
I’m curious: have you ever re-read a book you hated reading in school? How was that?
Yours in revision,
“There is no story that is not true.” –Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe