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4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars
Old School
Format: Hardcover|Change

on 23 June 2004
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. Here is where the book becomes more obviously fictional and inventive, with a straightish plot involving plagiarism and dishonour. It is also where Wolff is at his best, in the scenes where Frost and later Ayn Rand visit the school, and in the build-up to the visit by the great white shark of boy's own American literature, Ernest Hemingway, the narrator's literary idol. Wolff has great fun at the expense of Randy Ann's (to almost anagrammatize her) swivel-eyed right-of-Hitler madness, and puts in Frost's mouth an eloquent rebuttal to a questioner who demands agreement that formal rhyme and rhythm in verse is inadequate in the face of 'modern consciousness', beaten and blustered as it is by war and angst:
"Don't tell me about war. I lost my nearest friend in the one they call the Great War. So did Achilles lose his friend in the war, and Homer did no injustice to his grief by writing about it in dactylic hexameters. There've always been wars, and they've always been as foul as we could make them. It is very fine and pleasant to think ourselves the most put-upon folk in history - but then everyone has thought that from the beginning. It makes a grand excuse for all manner of laziness. But about my friend. I wrote a poem for him. I still write poems for him. Would you honor [that word again: a theme in Old School] your friend by putting words down anyhow, just as they come to you - with no thought for the sound they make, the meaning of their sound, the sound of their meaning? Would that give a true account of the loss?
"I am thinking of Achilles' grief. That famous, terrible grief. Let me tell you boys something. Such grief can only be told in form. Maybe it only really exists in form. Form is everything. Without it you've got nothing but a stubbed-toe cry - sincere, maybe, for what that's worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo. You may have a grievance but you do not have grief, and grievances are for petitions, not poetry."
And there you have it. A short book which is a breeze to read and which is filled with things that you will keep coming back to (I'm damn near tempted to start it again right now). What are you waiting for?
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on 10 June 2017
lots of fun
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on 26 May 2017
Definitely subjective.... I enjoyed a good few bits in this book but, upon finishing, I thought "What have I learnt from this?" and the answer was nothing. I think it's because I never read fiction, and this just read as someone talking about their school life.
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HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERon 3 January 2004
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. The limited setting of a New England prep school expands as the speaker ages and moves from school to the crueler outside world, and in later chapters, in which we see him as a mature writer, we also see how he uses some of his school experiences in his fiction, some of which appears within this novel.
Old School is a novel which students of writing will treasure--for its revelations of what it means to be a writer, its insights into the thinking of a perceptive teenager who is both idealistic and pragmatic, its irony, and its remarkable narrative voice. The themes are beautifully realized, and not one word is wasted or rings false. Though Wolff says that "No true account can be given of how or why you become a writer," he comes as close here to illustrating that process as in any other novel I've ever read about the writing life. Mary Whipple
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VINE VOICEon 14 February 2007
I was drawn to this book after reading some excellent reviews and the fact that it has been described as "Dead Poets' Society meets Catcher in the Rye" i knew this was one i had to read.

Old School is set at a prestigious American school for boys during the 1960's and describes the rivalry which emerges among the classmates as they compete against one another to win literary regocnition for their writing and the chance to meet a celebrated writer. Only one writer visits the school each term and only one boy can win the competition to privately meet with the author. The sense of competition really escalates, however, when it is announced that the last writer to visit, during the final term before graduation will be Ernest Hemmingway.

I found the initial chapters of this book, while beautifully written, a little slow and the plot a little weak, however, once i reached the half way point things became a lot more interesting. The descriptions of the boys relationships with one another and the descriptions of their dorms as well as the touching relationships which emerge between them and certain teachers were reminiscent of 'Catcher in the Rye'.

For me the final chapters in which the narrator describes his early adult life, after leaving school are the most effective as the novel really comes into its own and has some lengthy but insightful character descriptions which can be quite moving.

I think this novel is really successful in capturing a certain time and place in recent history and is a great read for anyone who loves adolescent fiction, in a distinguished academic setting, with some interesting literary references... well worth a look!
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on 30 December 2009
Set in the early 1960s, the old school of the title is a prestigious American boys school, for its time relatively liberal in many of its values but snobbish in its approach to, particularly, literature. The narrator is a scholarship boy who carefully conceals this aspect of his background, along with his Jewishness. The central thrust of the plot is the literary competitions focussed on the termly visit of a famous writer - an ageing Robert Frost, a combative Ayn Rand and, as the novel moves smoothly towards its climax, an advice-dispensing Ernest Hemmingway. The boys produce poems or short stories to be judged by the eminent termly guest, with the winner granted an hour's private audience in the headmaster's study or garden.

Within this framework, Wolff fashions a sensitive and witty novel - an evocation of time and place and a society on the edge of convulsive change, the beautiful and cloistered security of a privileged and cut-off subculture, thoughtful reflections on major literary debates and controversies, - and all in a most clear and compelling writing style. The latter, whilst never abstruse and erudite, nor overloaded with poetics, creates a beautiful reading experience - thoughtful, celebratory and elegant.

In this way, Wolff alludes to issues that particularly foxed me as a teenage student - the detection of authenticity in literature, the battle between artifice and experience, the primal human need for narrative. By showing us readers how such matters translate into, and can be unobtrusively embedded within, superb story telling, Wolf throws aside arid and self-serving debates while at the same time brilliantly illustrating why they persist in occupying critics and more seriously-inclined readers.

Had this book actually been available in the period in which it is set, I might well have been able to sign up for and enjoy higher level study of literature. A wonderful book, one to eke out by daily rationing, whilst fighting the intense temptation to devour it in one sitting.
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on 12 March 2004
Old School is the latest work from Tobias Hill, once again trailing through the story of his youth, this time - of course - he is running through his school days.
The plot centers around the school's tradition of inviting authors to come and visit the school. In advance of the visit boys are asked to submit a piece of writing. The winning piece - selected by the visiting writer - wins the boy a chance to meet the great writer themselves.
During the early part of the book we live with Wolfe as he tries - and fails - to win the audience. And then one day the school announces that the next guest will be Hemmingway and the race to meet the great man is on.
If the plot seems a bit obvious well it isn't and the last couple of chapters take us in an unpredictable direction, sad, moving and poignant.
This is wonderful writing in that deliciously sparse and classic North American style. This is the kind of book that you can sit down and read in one setting in the most effortless style. Aside from Richard Ford, Wolfe is probably as good a writer as there is at the moment in the USA.
Great stuff. Can't wait for the next volume of the life story,
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HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERon 18 January 2006
Tobias Wolff's "Old School" is one of those books for people who love literature. Dedicated to the soul of twentieth-century literature -- the good, the bad, and the arrogant -- it's a spare, deceptively simple book with some startling twists.
It takes place at an elite prep school in the 1960s, when the world was shifting under people's feet. A working-class boy secures a scholarship, and manages to pass himself off as one of the carelessly moneyed types who populate the school, hiding his middle-class Catholic/Jewish background. He and his classmates adore the (then-modern) classics, and are thrilled when major writers are called on to judge writing competitions at their school.
But the boy doesn't make an impression on Robert Frost. And because of a nasty cold, he can't even get into a competition judged by Ayn Rand. But when he learns that Ernest Hemingway -- his literary hero -- is the next judge, he's determined to catch the great man's attention. But to create a true-to-life story, he delves into a real-life story from his own school -- with disastrous results.
Don't read "Old School" if you need a lot of thrills. Like the school itself, "Old School" is a quiet, restrained book. And without preaching or being arrogant, Wolff manages to show us how important honesty of all kinds is to good literature. And at the same time, he can give his straightforward story twists and new dimensions.
Wolff shows exceptional insight into literature -- and how a teenage boy sees it. For example, the narrator becomes enamored of Ayn Rand's books at one point. Then he meets the author herself, and her arrogance and disdain strip away his appreciation for her works -- he sees how writers like Hemingway focus on people who may be ordinary, but are magnificent in their ordinariness.
Wolff's writing is spare and quiet, and his characters are sort of the same. There's the narrator, a naive young teen boy who grows up a lot over the course of the book -- even if he is the least alive of the characters -- the quirky classmates and the imposing Dean. And he does a wonderful job of translating Frost, Rand and Hemingway into his own words: Frost is faux-humble, Rand is unabashedly hypocritical and self-absorbed, and Hemingway is endearingly rambly.
"Old School" is an ode to good literature, and the "old schools" of the mid-20th century. A quiet, nostalgia-laden and surprisingly poignant book, this is a solid and satisfying read.
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on 29 January 2006
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. With the arrival of each writer, expectations are confronted head-on by the living, breathing person suddenly in their midst: in the case of Robert Frost, expectations are awesomely exceeded; in the case of Ayn Rand, they are dashed in the most splendidly awful and brilliantly funny chapter in the book (for my money). This is a novel about the power of reading, and about writing itself. As the story unfolds, the young narrator slowly comes to realise that if he is to be the real thing as a writer he must find the courage to accept, and speak of, his own life openly and with brutal honesty.
I've not read Tobias Wolff before. This man's the business: precise, elegant, and a pleasure to read through and through. A review in the inside cover says: "Some readers may wish to turn from the last page to the first and begin again." I agree. Pure gold!
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VINE VOICEon 31 May 2005
The idea of august public schools steeped in history, tradition and prestige would seem more suited to a story set in Great Britain. But America's private schools are an element of its class stratified, oligarchial society. What ends in the Upper East Side begins in the wilds of New England in one of the region's top private schools. This world is ruthlessly and earnestly protrayed in this moving story of life in one of these elite academies.
The story revolves around a group of literary minded students who intend to break into the vaunted and gilded world of literature and writing. The school promotes their interest by inviting famous writers, and offering the tantilising prize of a private audience to the student who writes the best story. The competition is intense, but when the school announces that the next author to speak will be Hemingway, the rivalry threatens to destroy the delicate fabric of the school.
This is a story that opens up a secret world, of precocious youth, ambition and status. It is a world more usually represented by tales of Oxford colleges, or reminiscent of the Dead Poets' Society. In the end the story becomes a morality tale, a warning against blind ambition and unbending tradition. The world of the old school dies, both literally with expulsion, suicide and exile, and metaphorically with the dawning of a new, truly egalitarian age. It is subtly and beautifully told, and a delight to read.
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