So I've been tagged by C.B. James to do "over-rated classics." Never done one of these before, let's give it a shot!
What is the best classic you were “forced” to read in school (and why)?
I won't go cliche and mention Shakespeare, I'll say A Tale Of Two Cities. So much of the Dickens seems to revolve around the little orphan boy who ends up finding a family (Great Expectations, Hard Times, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist...), Tale really stands out as different from the rest. It also both opens and closes with some of the greatest lines in all of literature ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..... It is a far far better thing that I do than I have ever done, it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known." [To Kill A Mockingbird would have easily been a close second, but CB took that one already...]
What was the worst classic you were forced to endure (and why)?
Return Of The Native, by Thomas Hardy. I don't remember a single thing about it, except perhaps if that was the one about the red-faced man who just kind of walked around and showed up every now and then.
Which classic should every student be required to read (and why)?
Saying Shakespeare here would be a cop-out since most students are required to read him already. So I'll go geeky the other way and say Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, the story of a young boy who is bullied and picked on and basically has nothing but bad things happen to him, until he's put in a position to save the universe. It's important to read this one when you're a kid yourself.
Which classic should be put to rest immediately (and why)?
A number of choices by Ernest Hemingway, like Big Two-Hearted River. Seriously. I honestly don't believe that high school students are capable of grasping what Hemingway had to say. Here's what I remember about Hemingway - he spends 50 pages to tell the story of a guy standing in the river trying to catch a fish. Has no luck, moves to a new spot. That's it. 50 pages. Oh, and something about "inability to love." I remember writing that frequently in essay questions. Something something because of the war, inability to love, blah blah blah.
When I was in the first grade (that'd make me what, about 6?) I had to stay in the hospital for a little while for something. A well meaning aunt, knowing I liked to read, brought me some books. One of them was The Old Man and The Sea. I read it (honestly I can't remember if I read it then, or some time later). Know what it was about? Guy spends a long time trying to catch a fish, catches it, but it pulls him so far out to sea that by the time he comes home with his catch strapped to the boat, the other fish have eaten it anyway. That's what Hemingway means to a kid.
**Bonus** Why do you think certain books become “classics”?
I love to read compilations of classics, particularly on the net, because they fall into one of three categories: The stuff that "everybody" agrees is classic (like for instance dear Mr. Shakespeare), stuff that is far too new to be a classic and is simply popular right now so people want to force it to be a classic (DaVinci Code? Really?), and then the wide variety of stuff in the middle. It's the stuff in the middle that's most interesting to me, because not everybody agrees. I'll find plenty of items where I say "Yup, read it, liked it" (Heinlein, Asimov, Vonnegut, Simmons....) and others that I probably should, but haven't (Ayn Rand for instance just recently scored very high on Lifehacker's poll).
In short I think that the value of calling something a "classic" has become overrated, and is now more likely to simply mean "The stuff they made you read in high school." But that eventually backfires and you end up with people who think that the only reason to read Shakespeare is because they made you read it. Meanwhile other "classics" that might resonate more with you individually, like I, Robot or something, you have to go find on your own and read voluntarily.