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Old School Paperback – August 31, 2004

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Editorial Reviews Review

Tobias Wolff's Old School is at once a celebration of literature and delicate hymn to a lost innocence of American life and art. Set in a New England prep school in the early 1960s, the novel imagines a final, pastoral moment before the explosion of the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the suicide of Ernest Hemingway.

The unnamed narrator is one of several boys whose life revolves around the school's English teachers, those polymaths who seemed to know "exactly what was most worth knowing." For the boys, literature is the center of life, and their obsession culminates in a series of literary competitions during their final year. The prize in each is a private audience with a visiting writer who serves as judge for the entries.

At first, the narrator is entirely taken with the battle. As he fails in his effort to catch Robert Frost's attention and then is unable--due to illness--to even compete for his moment with Ayn Rand, he devotes his energies to a masterpiece for his hero, Hemingway. But, confronting the blank page, the narrator discovers his cowardice, his duplicity. He has withheld himself, he realizes, even from his roommate. He has used his fiction to create a patrician gentility, a mask for his middle class home and his Jewish ancestry. Through the competition for Hemingway, fittingly, all of his illusions about literature dissolve.

Old School is a small, neatly made book, spare and clear in its prose. Each chapter is self-contained and free of anything extraneous to the essentials of plot, mood, and character. Near the end of the novel, the narrator, now a respected writer, imagines that he might one day write about his school days. But he is daunted. "Memory," he says, "is a dream to begin with, and what I had was a dream of memory, not to be put to the test." Old School enters this interplay between dreams and the adult interrogation of memory. Risking sentimentality, Wolff confronts a golden age that never was. From the confrontation, he distills a powerful novel of failed expectations and, ultimately, redemptive self-awareness. --Patrick O'Kelley --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

A scholarship boy at a New England prep school grapples with literary ambition and insecurity in this lucid, deceptively sedate novel, set in the early 1960s and narrated by the unnamed protagonist from the vantage point of adulthood. Each year, the school hosts a number of visiting writers, and the boys in the top form are allowed to compete for a private audience by composing a poem or story. The narrator judges the skills of his competitors, avidly exposing his classmates' weaknesses and calculating their potential ("I knew better than to write George off.... He could win.... Bill was a contender"). His own chances are hurt by his inability to be honest with himself and examine his ambivalent feelings about his Jewish roots. After failing to win audiences with Robert Frost and Ayn Rand, he is determined to be chosen by the last and best guest, legendary Ernest Hemingway. The anxiety of influence afflicts all the boys, but in crafting his final literary offering, the narrator discovers inspiration in imitation, finding his voice in someone else's. The novel's candid, retrospective narration ruefully depicts its protagonist's retreat further and further behind his public facade ("I'd been absorbed so far into my performance that nothing else came naturally"). Beneath its staid trappings, this is a sharply ironic novel, in which love of literature is counterbalanced by bitter disappointment (as one character bluntly puts it, "[Writing] just cuts you off and makes you selfish and doesn't really do any good"). Wolff, an acclaimed short story writer (The Night in Question, etc.) and author of the memoir This Boy's Life, here offers a delicate, pointed meditation on the treacherous charms of art.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 195 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (August 31, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 074326178X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375701498
  • ASIN: 0375701494
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (191 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #25,147 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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67 of 73 people found the following review helpful By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWER on November 4, 2003
Format: Hardcover
In this homage to literature, the literary life, and the power of literature to influence a reader's life, Tobias Wolff focuses his attention on a small New England prep school in 1960, a school in which students live and breathe "the writing life." The headmaster has studied with Robert Frost, and the Dean is thought to have been a friend of Ernest Hemingway during World War I. To the boys, the English Department is "a kind of chivalric order," where they practice the "ritual swordplay of their speech."

For these students, the highlights of the school year are the three-times-a-year appearances of literary luminaries. When a writer visits, one boy has the opportunity to have a private audience with him, an honor for which the boys contend in vigorously competitive writing contests. The speaker/narrator, a scholarship student, is desperate to win an audience: "My aspirations were mystical," he says. "I wanted to receive the laying on of hands that had written living stories and poems." As various writers--Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and finally, everyone's idol, Ernest Hemingway--are scheduled to appear at the school, the reader observes the growth of the boys, especially the speaker, as they are influenced by and react to the contest, to each other, to the visiting writers, and to the writers' speeches. In the contest to meet Hemingway, the novel reaches its peak, and in a shocking way, the speaker's life changes forever.

Wolff's novel is most remarkable for its point of view and for its conciseness. We never know what the speaker looks like or even his name, since it is through his eyes that the entire novel is filtered.
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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Matthew Krichman on June 17, 2004
Format: Hardcover
For the handful of impatient readers out there who have barked at me for recommending 500+ page epic novels such as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (three years ago) and Middlesex (last year), this book is for you. Weighing in at just under 200 pages, this novel is just as much a heavyweight as much lengthier works of literature that I have sparred with this year. John Updike's The Early Stories, for example, a massive and brilliant collection of some of the best short fiction out there, had me up against the ropes for the better part of two months. In contrast, Old School can be read in the better part of an afternoon. And yet despite its meager size, as quality literature this book could go toe-to-toe for twelve rounds with pretty much any book out there.
First and foremost this is a book for book-lovers, for readers who treasure literature and writing as essential elements of our humanity. It is a book about writers, about famous ones like Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway and Robert Frost and about young, aspiring ones at an east coast boarding school in the early 1960s. At this school, students compete for an individual audience with a visiting writer - the student who submits the best short story or poem, judged by the famous writer, wins the prize.
But this book is more than just an ode to great writers and great writing. It is a novel about morals and ethics, and about the gray areas that cloud our judgment. It is a novel about the development of human character, about the differences that separate us and the ties that bond us together. It is at times humorous, at other times tragic, and still at other times triumphant. But throughout, it is undeniably honest and human.
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22 of 25 people found the following review helpful By John Guzlowski on October 5, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Tobias Wolff's Old School is a remarkable book. It is smart about literature and reading and what those two things mean to us when we are young. Anyone who ever loved a book or a writer will find this novel/memoir dead on right. And this is the thing that will draw people initially to this fine book.

But this book offers so much more. It is also an excellent lens on a world where reading mattered. The 60's were probably the last great age of reading and writing in the US. First class writers like Frost and Hemingway were important. People felt that in order to understand what was happening in the world, they had to read the latest from Saul Bellow or Katherine Anne Porter, from Sylvia Plath or Robert Lowell. Wolff captures that feeling and also the gray regret that that world of books and writers is gone, and gone forever. It is the thing that is beating ceaselessly back into the past at the end of Old School.

Finally, Old School is a moving study of honesty and deception, truth and lies, and the consequences of both. I don't think anyone can finish this novel/memoir without a profound realization that often we will give up the truths that mean the most to us because we fear standing alone with those truths.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By C. Durkin on July 24, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Opening this novel, I already knew by the dedication (For My Teachers) that I would love it. I was not disappointed; this book is a paean to the printed page. Reading Old School, I enjoyed total immersion in an atmosphere where love for writing resonates in the strongest, yet purest tones with the capability of transforming people. As a high school English teacher in the public schools, contemplating the idyllic atmosphere of the old boarding school makes me giddy. I am indebted to Tobias Wolff for offering me the chance to experience this world, even vicariously. This sweet, nostalgic book is a treasure, a gem. I inhaled it like nectar.
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