Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Old School by Tobias Woolf (4/5 Stars)

Old School is the perfect book for those who truly love literature. The story takes place in an all-boys private school in the late 1950's. This book features appearances by Hemingway and Frost, discusses the philosophies of Ayn Rand, and traces one boy's evolution from impressionable and easily impressed youth to a wizened, free-thinking adolescent. The boy's education comes mainly from the literature he so reveres. I loved seeing his evolution portrayed in the scene where he becomes disillusioned with Ayn Rand.

While Wolff obviously has reverence for authors and literature, he also can't help but poke fun at the personas and characters of the authors featured in the book. Robert Frost is portrayed as a pseudo-intellectual; a case of the emperor having no clothes. Wolff raises the question of why "great literature" is considered great. Is it truly great or is it imbued with greatness by what the reader reads into it or assumes was the writer's intent?

Wolff’s gift for arranging words is a true talent. Each word seems carefully chosen and gives the novel an old-fashioned feel. Wolff’s writing is gorgeous.

While Old School is a novel about literature and writing, it is also a comentary on class, religion, social acceptance, and truth and consequences. Wolff navigates the murky waters of social injustice, class consciousness and anti-semitism with grace.

There isn’t a book lover alive who would not be enchanted with the idea of living in a place where literature is treated as a religion and writers as gods. There is one unforgettable scene where the headmaster is announcing to the boys that Hemingway will be visiting. In describing the scene, Wolff writes, “The headmaster watched us, enjoying the shock he’d produced. Then someone yelled Bravo! And the room went nuts – whistles, shouts, feet drumming the floor, fists pounding tables.” In Old School writers are contemporary rock stars.

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