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Old School Paperback – 7 Feb 2005

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Product details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC (7 Feb. 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0747574650
  • ISBN-13: 978-0747574651
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 271,620 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

Amazon Review

Tobias Wolff's Old School is at once a celebration of literature and a 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 centre 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 realises, 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.

Near the end of the novel, the narrator 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.


"An absolute classic. a great work of literary criticism as well as a beautiful memoir and a brilliant novel" -- Paul Morley, Newsnight Review

‘A wonderful, subtle novel’ -- Geoff Dyer, Books of the Year, Daily Telegraph

‘I liked Toby Wolff’s Old School – a droll, brilliantly achieved evocation of literary competitiveness and self-delusion’ -- Ian McEwan, Guardian Books of the Year

‘Think Dead Poets’ Society crossed with The Catcher in the Rye ... a beautifully crafted all-American coming-of-age tale’ -- Esquire

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By John Self on 23 Jun. 2004
Format: Hardcover
Like Wolff's other books, Old School can be read in a day or so thanks to its triple virtues of brevity, readability and moreishness.
I am convinced that it's as much memoir as fiction, since the nameless narrator fits Wolff in age (at high school in 1960) and goes on to fight in Vietnam. The book therefore fits in chronogically, very neatly between the end of This Boy's Life and the beginning of In Pharaoh's Army. Several of the early set pieces, too, have the ring of truth in that they're neither outlandish nor neat enough to be exclusive hand-tooled fiction. But that's not to say it isn't well written, which it is - perfectly - and of which the first paragraph should be evidence enough:
"Robert Frost made his visit in November of 1960, just a week after the general election. It tells you something about our school that the prospect of his arrival cooked up more interest than the contest between Nixon and Kennedy, which for most of us was no contest at all. Nixon was a straight arrow and a scold. If he'd been one of us we would have glued his shoes to the floor. Kennedy, though - here was a warrior, an ironist, terse and unhysterical. He had his clothes under control. His wife was a fox. And he read and wrote books, one of which, Why England Slept, was required reading in my honors history seminar. We recognised Kennedy; we could still see in him the boy who would have been a favorite here, roguish and literate, and with that almost formal insouciance that both enacted and discounted the fact of his class."
The opening line refers to the meat of the book - visiting writers come to the school, and one boy will get to have a private audience with him or her. This boy is the one who writes the best story, to be judged by the esteemed visitor.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By CATHERINE JORDAN on 29 Jan. 2006
Format: Paperback
This book is too short. 195 pages of sheer joy, not nearly enough! Part of the way through, I found myself doing something I remember doing all the time as a kid – clocking how much of the book was left, and thinking: "No, please let it last longer!" I honestly can't remember the last time I felt like that, but this one had me smiling all the way through. I didn't want it to end, it's just too delicious for words … but I'll have a go.
On the back cover its says: "Think Dead Poets' Society crossed with The Catcher in the Rye". Well, not exactly. The adolescent narrator isn't Holden Caulfield, he's not cracking up; and the school isn't the philistine institution of DPS, quite the contrary. Set in 1960-61, this school has a literary tradition that it's extremely proud of, and its boys are actively encouraged both to read widely and to write themselves. To this end, prestigious writers are invited to the school three times a year and on each occasion a competition is held. The boys are invited to submit a piece of their own writing and the winner receives a private audience with the visitor. This honour is coveted more than just about anything else in the life of the school. The story's narrator is one of a number of hopeful young writers at the school, and in his final term the visiting author is to be his hero, Ernest Hemingway.
This novel delivers all the sweet seriousness and passion of youth. It gives you full-blooded aspiration not yet blunted by bitter experience, though you know this is just around the corner.
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30 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on 3 Jan. 2004
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. He is interested in poems and short stories and philosophy and writing, all of which he talks about in detail, not in the observation of his surroundings.
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