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Old School by Tobias Wolff
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Old School (original 2003; edition 2004)

by Tobias Wolff

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Title:Old School
Authors:Tobias Wolff
Info:Vintage (2004), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 195 pages
Collections:Literature, Your library
Rating:****
Tags:prize, wite-a-thon, wolff, american, new england, humour, coming of age, vintage, fiction, faulkner award, northern california book award, random house, vignettes, reviewed, inscribed

Work details

Old School by Tobias Wolff (2003)

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English (57)  Spanish (1)  Catalan (1)  All languages (59)
Showing 1-5 of 57 (next | show all)
This book was chosen as "The Big Read" by the NEA, in partnership with a few other alphabet soup organizations. It is set in a boarding school for boys, many of whom are budding authors. Each year they submit manuscripts and have an opportunity to walk in the garden with a famous visiting author. The narrator of the story is one of those budding authors. His manuscript is not chosen when author Robert Frost comes to visit. When Ayn Rand is scheduled to come, he has become very ill and never gets around to writing anything. In his final year at school, the narrator learns that his hero, Ernest Hemingway is scheduled to visit. The narrator learns that his manuscript was chosen, BUT he "borrowed" all of the words on the page from someone else. His duplicity is uncovered, he is expelled from school, Ernest Hemingway commits suicide and never visits the school afterall, and the Dean resigns his position. By the end of the novel, you learn what became of this author. He eventually returns to writing, becomes famous in his own right, and is invited back to the very school he was expelled from for plagiarism. The novel comes full circle and the prodigal son returns home. ( )
  daatwood | Nov 21, 2013 |
I loved the cover of the book and felt it so accurately portrayed the atmosphere of the school. Heads bowed in unison but somehow also letting the reader know that each of these young men are individuals with their own stories. The is definitely a book for the lover of literature; otherwise, I don't see how anyone could understand the anguish these young men put themselves through attempting to gain the attention of a famous author. I loved the inclusion of real authors such as Frost and Rand. I loved the sudden and often unexpected small flashes of humor. I loved the ending which took the story into what seemed to be an entirely new direction but took the plot full circle.

I have never particularly liked or understood the parable of the prodigal son, but this book has cast an entirely new light on that story. The final sentence in the book is so powerful. And I can't think of any other novel that so well examines the consequences of acquiescing to a lie.

This isn't a book for everyone, but if you love literature and understand its grip, this is a book to explore. ( )
  maryreinert | Aug 17, 2013 |
Wow! Wish I could write like this! ( )
  nmele | Apr 6, 2013 |
I didn't know what to expect about this book but finally, it was a great read. Narrated from the perspective of a young unnamed boy attending an elite boarding school in the sixties, we can see him struggling to find himself and his voice as a writer. Sometimes touching, sometimes really funny (the part about Ayn Rand visiting the school is hilarious), the author manages to touch many different subject (identity, sexism, racism) without sounding like he’s giving a lecture. For me, it’s a great coming of age novel. I really liked the last part. Sometimes, the grown ups are not so different, after all... Never condescending but very honest.

For a more complete, more personal (and I hope better written) review – in French : http://moncoinlecture.over-blog.com/article-old-school-portrait-de-classe-tobias...> ( )
  Moncoinlecture | Apr 4, 2013 |
Meredith recommends reading [b:This Boy's Life|51722|This Boy's Life (Bloomsbury Paperbacks)|Tobias Wolff|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1231415430s/51722.jpg|1559134] or [b:In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War|11463|In Pharaoh's Army Memories of the Lost War|Tobias Wolff|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1166476866s/11463.jpg|1080034], parts 1 and 2 of this author's memoirs, instead of this fiction novel if you've never read Hemingway or Rand. That said, I've never read Hemingway or Rand but I've heard of their reputations, and really enjoyed this.


Does anyone remember getting a flier in high school saying you've been so successful that you're chosen to be listed in the Who's Who In American High Schools? I was too naive to recognize a scam when it was directed at me with flattery, and being a quiet nerd starved for recognition of my constant studying I begged the parents to pay the fee. It was a kick to see my name in the book...uh, one line within about a thousand rice paper-thin sheets. Or how about invitations to join honor societies in college, where if you paid a fee you could claim to be a member of Golden Key or Phi Kappa Phi or any set of Greek letters. These all meant well, I'm sure, having monthly meetings, community service events, and sometimes lectures with free pizza for an attendance bribe. Then a little later, I learned of the Order of the Engineer, formed after a tragic bridge collapse in Canada. The steel from that bridge was reforged into rings* and any civil engineer could make a personal vow to remember TEH CHILDREN, wearing a ring on the pinky of the writing hand as a reminder to always work conscientiously.

As I wised up, very slowly, I realized most only wanted the membership fee. Those that weren't money-focused were honor-focused, trying to capture minds at a peak of idealism and carry it forward into a community of do-gooding. The secret ceremonies (one was held in complete darkness with Greek letter code names and we had to vow never to speak of what was spoken, hah) and symbolisms (the ring was placed while holding your hand through a larger display-sized ring - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Order_of_the_Engineer) were used in an attempt to create gravity and impress upon us the importance of their mission statements.

One of the themes of this novel is the living in and loss of idealism. I think. I have trouble understanding this literature/English stuff. These young boys at boarding school view literature, their lit teachers, their school, and authors with an awe and innocence that hurts because you know there will be disillusionment. Let's call it an end of a golden age. I think we want to have a reverence for something, anything. Religion, life, love, knowledge, an abstract that can be projected onto and we can lie to ourselves to make it just so. This fails when the abstracts attach to faliable people or groups or agencies (or book websites) who are revealed to be not quite up to the mistaken mental construct.

I've always linked my readings to my own life and experiences, but maybe this is a mark of an immature reader? The main character, in part of a very funny jab at Ayn Rand, reads The Fountainhead and over-absorbs her message - such a funny section. I see I'm doing the same with this book.


*Aww man! I wikipedia-ed this and learned that it's not true! There was a bridge collapse but the rings are just plain old steel, no special burden of tragedy attached. Another blow. ( )
  EhEh | Apr 3, 2013 |
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Robert Frost made his visit in November of 1960, just a week after the general election.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375701494, Paperback)

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

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:59:06 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

Determined to fit in at his New England prep school, the narrator has learned to mimic the bearing and manners of his adoptive tribe while concealing as much as possible about himself. His final year, however, unravels everything he's achieved, and steers his destiny in directions no one could have predicted. The school's mystique is rooted in Literature, and for many boys this becomes an obsession, editing the review and competing for the attention of visiting writers whose fame helps to perpetuate the tradition. Robert Frost, soon to appear at JFK's inauguration, is far less controversial than the next visitor, Ayn Rand. But the final guest is one whose blessing a young writer would do almost anything to gain.… (more)

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