Book Review: Old School by Tobias Wolff

Old School by Tobias Wolff is a wonderful novel and I highly recommend it, especially if you’re interested in books or writing. Fellow bookslut Brad Feld also has raved about it.

Instead of a simple plot summary (it is a simple plot), I will excerpt below some of my favorite sentences, ideas, or words from the book. Wolff rewards the slow reader.

On sensing the faults of your father’s character:

Say you’ve just read Faulkner’s “Barn Burning.” Like the son in the story, you’ve sensed the faults in your father’s character. Thinking about them makes you uncomfortable; left alone, you’d probably close the book and move on to other thoughts. But instead you are taken in hand by a tall, brooding man with a distinguished limp who involves you and a roomful of other boys in a consideration of what it means to be a son. The loyalty that is your duty and your worth and your problem. The goodness of loyalty and its difficulties and snares, how loyalty might also become betrayal — of the self and the world outside the circle of blood.

On the importance of taking risks, putting yourself out there:

George’s benevolence did not serve his writing well. For all its fluent sympathy, it was toothless.

On how privileged prep-school kids think about their privilege:

Class was a fact. Not just the clothes a boy wore, but how he wore them. How he spent his summers. The sports he knew how to play. His way of turning cold at the mention of money, or at the spectacle of ambition too nakedly revealed. You felt it as a depth of ease in certain boys, their innate, affable assurance that they would not have to struggle for a place in the world, that it had already been reserved for them; a depth of ease or, in the case of Purcell and a few others, a sullen antipathy toward the padding that hemmed them in and muffled the edges of life. Yet even in the act of kicking against it they were defined by it, and protected by it, and to some extent unconscious of it. Purcell himself had a collection of first editions you’d almost have to own a mine to pay for.

On striving for greatness a la Ayn Rand:

To read The Fountainhead was to feel this caged power, straining like a dammed-up river to break loose and crush every impediment to its free running. I understood that nothing stood between me and my greatest desires — nothing between me and greatness itself — but the temptation to doubt my will and bow to counsels of moderation, expedience, and conventional morality, and shrink into the long, slow death of respectability.

5 comments on “Book Review: Old School by Tobias Wolff
  • Hi Ben,
    I’m an ’09 Computer science major and have been reading your blog on and off for about 3 years now, but that’s beside the point of this post.

    I go to Notre Dame and the quote about prep kids hits the nail on the head. My roomie saw nothing amiss at the idea of driving a BMW while in high school or college, etc. I don’t really blame him for it, but it could get really aggravating at times, especially when he made comments to the effect of “well, you’d be in the same spot if your parents only had 3 kids.” He thought everyone was like him, and my family was the odd one out because I have 6 siblings.

    Anyway, just wanted to leave a personally attest to the truth of that quote. Keep up the good work!
    Patrick BH

  • Hi Ben,

    I took a living writers class at Syracuse University, and Tobias Wolff was one of the guest lecturers. He read off some highlights from “Old School,” which sounded even better in person. Great book! Interesting read for young aspiring authors, especially college aged, who are learning about expectations to succeed.


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  • If you liked Old School, I would recommend Wolff’s memoir, This Boy’s Life. It’s one of the best portraits of growing up male in the U.S.

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