I read this great post on John Green's Tumblr, titled Famous Novelists on Symbolism in Their Work and Whether It Was Intentional:
"Reading is not a game of Clue; books are not a mystery that you have to solve by putting all the pieces together. That’s not the point. Find the meaning you want to find in it. That’s what we do with books because that’s what we do in life."
[John adds this:] If the point of reading is merely to understand precisely what the author intended, then reading is just this miserable one-sided conversation in which an author is droning on to you page after page after page and the reader just sits there receiving a monologue.
That’s not reading. That’s listening.
Reading is the active co-creation of a story, complete with all its symbols and abstractions.
I thought about what John said. It set a small fire in my brain, and this is what came out:
English teachers who forced me to find symbolism and meaning in books make assigned reading in high school absolutely miserable. It was bad enough that I couldn’t just enjoy the story and spend time with the characters, but they also made me go on some kind of treasure hunt where I had to find something the teacher/school/board of education/someone-who-was-not-me decided was the “correct” thing to find.
As a result, I hated many classic works of literature, and actually resented them and the people who wrote them. I'm pretty sure that's the opposite of what any teacher would want their students to take out of any class, especially an English Literature class, but it's what happened to me.
Years later, when I was in my mid-twenties, I spent the summer rereading the books I’d hated in high school, because I figured they were classics for a reason and maybe as an adult, I'd be able to see why. I read:
Great Expectations - still hated it.
A Separate Peace - liked it, didn’t love it, but that’s a big improvement over how much I despised it when I was in school.
1984 - Loved it. Loved it, loved it, loved it.
Brave New World - Read it just after 1984. Loved it.
Romeo and Juliet - Hated this when I was 14 (who, at 14, is mature enough to appreciate it? What a huge FAIL it is to teach this to 9th graders), and was moved to tears by it as an adult. Went on a bit of a Shakespeare tear as a result, and did Julius Caesar, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, and Macbeth. Still didn’t understand all of it, but loved every second of it.
All Quiet on the Western Front - When your authoritarian Cold Warrior English teacher isn’t somehow making this book all about how fucking great Reagan is, it’s just amazing.
There were others, but you get the idea, right? I even grabbed the Cliff's and Spark Notes to get some "education" from the books when I was done reading them, but I can't recall anything the notes said, just what the book gave me when it was all done... I think that says a lot.
When I was a kid, I was already an avid reader, so these (hopefully) well-intentioned teachers couldn’t turn me off from reading in general and forever, but both of my siblings still won't pick up a book if you gave them a hundred dollars to do it. I understand that educators want to encourage students to dig into stories and see what they can find in them, and that’s a great exercise, but forcing them to find what some board of education has decided is the One Right Thing To Find does those kids (and did this kid) a huge disservice.
And not that it matters, but I'm going to reread The Great Gatsby just as soon as I finish A Clash of Kings, because it feels like the right thing to do.
Afterthought: I love teachers. I'm on record stating that my heroes are teachers, and I believe that teachers do not get the salary or respect by American society that they should get. I'm not attacking teaching or teachers at all with this post; I'm just recalling the experience I had with a small number of teachers in the 80s, who I'm sure were doing their jobs they way they thought was best for their careers and their students.