The Book I Wouldn't Read | Issue 14
on Farley Mowat's The Boat Who Wouldn't Float
When I was in grade six, I had to read a book that almost killed my love of reading forever.
It was The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float, a comedic book of nonfiction by Farley Mowat about his adventures in Newfoundland with a boat that sank more times than it sailed.
The assignment required that we read one of the four novels that we would borrow from the school. We then had a month to write a one-page report, which would include a plot summary and reading response.
The teacher placed a pile of books on a table, and students got to select the book they would read by taking turns walking to the front of the room in order of row and seat number. I was seated in the last row second from the back, and by the time I got to choose a book, there was nothing left but two worn copies of The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float, a book I knew from the cover, I would not enjoy.
I had been so excited at the prospect of this project and then so utterly disappointed in the book I had to read. I even asked the teacher if there was another book I could choose. She said, “No, but you’ll like this book. It’s a classic.”
She gave us some time in class to spend with our books. The cover of The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float had a picture of a sailboat with large white masts. The print was small and the prose contained many words I could not understand. Looking them up in the dictionary just was not something I was prepared to do for a book I knew I would hate. The back cover text referred to the ship as she. I didn’t get how an object could be a she which further annoyed me about this book.
The other students in the classroom began reading eagerly while I flipped through the pages uninterested, wallowing in my bad luck. Once I decided I hated this book, nothing would change my mind.
My mother wasn’t often involved in my homework, but because she was an avid reader and the project was a book of prose, she got interested in this assignment and reminded me over the month to read the book.
To get her off my back, I told her I was reading it when I was not. I would go into my room and pretend to read, but instead I stared up at the ceiling. It wasn’t until the weekend before the report was due that I finally opened the book and discovered it was unreadable to me. Something happened in my brain where I could not take in the words no matter how hard I tried.
I could read. In fact, I had just read The Hobbit and did a project on it, no problem, but I hated The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float and found the language so boring, that my brain completely shut off.
If I had lived in the time of the internet, I could have just looked up a plot summary and ended my suffering. Sometimes cheating is worth it. Cole’s notes existed, but at that age, I didn’t know about them.
When my mother came in to ask me how far I had gotten on the report, I confessed that I hadn’t started the book and proceeded to have a wild panic-fueled temper tantrum that involved me throwing the book across the room. I didn’t care that it was borrowed. I would have torn it up if I could. Why wouldn’t the words stick in my brain? It made me feel stupid.
My mother pleaded for me to, “Just try and read a page” like she was coaxing me to eat broccoli or liver. And I did try, but I couldn’t retain words long enough to be able to move forward in the story which was the source of my frustration. Not only did I not want to read the book, I couldn’t.
Finally my mother offered to read some of it to me, which helped slightly. But here’s where my memory fades. I have no idea what happened next.
Although I didn’t care about school or grades, I did care about getting in trouble and being humiliated by the teacher. Therefore not handing in this report was really not an option that I could entertain.
My mother would not have had time to read the whole book to me over the weekend. And she would never have done my homework for me—of that I am certain.
So there are only two plausible options of what could have happened:
It’s possible that I turned the book over, saw that the back cover summarized the story, and foolishly put that summary in my own words, handing in a shitty, plagiarized report for which I got a terrible mark.
It is also possible that I made up a story about what the book was about, again handing in a shitty fake report for which I got a terrible mark.
The terrible mark is a given, but how I arrived at that mark remains a mystery.
When I look at the cover of The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float, I am brought back to that horrible weekend and the feeling of desperation and helplessness of not being able to perform a task required of me.
I’ve never attempted to read Mowat’s book beyond the paragraph that I now share with you.
This experience left in me a hatred of reading for many years, which was not reversed until mid-high school when the V.C. Andrews books were all the rage for their titillating storylines and taboos, and I began once again to read for fun. Soon my English courses became my favourite, and by Grade 13, I knew I wanted to major in English at university.
But seriously that was a close call.
What is a book that you could not or would not read?
Here’s the opening from The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float:
1 Conception I HAVE an ingrained fear of auctions dating back to the third year of my life. In that year my father attended an auction as a means of passing an aimless afternoon, and he came away from it the bewildered possessor of thirty hives of bees and all the paraphernalia of an apiarist. Unable to rid himself of his purchase he became, perforce, a beekeeper, and for the next two years I lived almost exclusively on a diet of soda biscuits and honey. Then the gods smiled on us and all the bees died of something called foul brood, enabling us to return to some semblance of a normal life. Auctions remain associated in my subconscious mind with great catastrophes. I normally avoid them like the plague, but one April day not many years ago I too fell victim to the siren call. It happened in a sleepy little Lake Ontario town which once had been a major port for the great fleets of barley schooners that vanished forever shortly after the turn of the century. In that town there lived a ship-chandler who refused to accept the coming of steam and the death of sail, and who kept his shop and stock intact for half a century waiting for the day when a sailorman would again come knocking on his door. None did. He died, and his heirs decided to auction off the old man’s junk so they could turn the building into a pool hall. Read an excerpt from The Boat Who Wouldn't Float at Penguin Random House.
Issue #14 of Send My Love to Anyone
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