December 2003

Michael Schaub

hundred books

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

Reading Sister Carrie has led me to remember and relive the three most boring experiences of my life. Allow me to recount them for you:

1. San Antonio, Texas, 1989. I go on a field trip to a local college with my seventh-grade earth science class, where we learn about the Edwards Aquifer. If you don't know what the Edwards Aquifer is, and why it is very important to the people of south central Texas, I will gladly put you in touch with a geologist who, if he is still alive, will explain it to you in heroic detail.

2. College Station, Texas, 1996. I take an introduction to geology course in a valiant attempt to fulfill a college science requirement. I learn about aquifers, among other things.

3. Houston, Texas, 1998. For reasons that remain unclear, I see the musical Rent.

I might have to wedge Sister Carrie in there, perhaps between my geology course and Rent. Then again, even my geology professor said something amusing once in a while. Come to think of it, the only reason this novel isn't number one is because it has nothing to do with limestone permeability. I'll warn you right now that drinking does not make this book any better, and I doubt drugs would either. Sister Carrie is just irredeemably boring, and there's nothing any of us can do about it.

I should have known. The only person I had ever heard recommend Sister Carrie was a substitute English teacher we had to endure in high school (number five on the above list, incidentally). She told us more than once that it was the greatest novel in American literature. I remember her going on for at least ten minutes about how the name of the character Drouet was a clever, uniquely Dreiserian play on words, recalling the word "roue," which is sort of a slightly less cool synonym for "ne'er-do-well." As it turns out, Drouet really is a roue, thus rendering Dreiser's literary device all the more revolutionary, I suppose. You've got to admit it's a little unsubtle. It would be like a contemporary author naming an unsympathetic character "Dick Basshole."

But let's focus on the plot of Sister Carrie.

And now that we have done that, let's turn to the issue of why the hell this book in being taught in American high schools. I guarantee you that no one besides that substitute teacher and a handful of other profoundly boring people has ever been turned on to the joys of reading by reading Sister Carrie. It's like trying to get kids interested in history by teaching them a yearlong course on the Teapot Dome scandal. Or trying to win over students to geology by teaching them anything at all about geology. Take, for instance, the testimony of this young, wisely anonymous Amazon customer: :This book is so boring. The bastards at my school made me read it. I want to assassinate them all. Chupacabara [sic]!!"

See what happens? We teach Sister Carrie and students turn to posting their death wishes on the Internet. No one needs this.

Look, I'm not saying that no one will like this book. It has proven appeal to students of naturalism; people easily swayed by H. L. Mencken's recommendations; readers who are stranded on a remote island with nothing except a copy of Sister Carrie; and aspiring historians who are interested in late-nineteenth-century industrial Chicago, but who find the prospect of reading books of statistics to be just a little too exciting. The rest of us should feel no need to wade through Dreiser's clunky, uninspired prose.

I can't believe I'm not getting paid for this.