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Old School

3.83  ·  Rating details ·  11,310 ratings  ·  1,272 reviews
At one prestigious American public school, the boys like to emphasise their democratic ideals - the only acknowledged snobbery is literary snobbery. Once a term, a big name from the literary world visits and a contest takes place. The boys have to submit a piece of writing and the winner receives a private audience with the visitor. But then it is announced that Hemingway, ...more
Paperback, 196 pages
Published February 7th 2005 by Bloomsbury (first published 2003)
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Queen I also found the last chapter disappointing until I came across an interview with the author that explains the ending. The last chapter is a story the…moreI also found the last chapter disappointing until I came across an interview with the author that explains the ending. The last chapter is a story the narrator wrote; it reflects his own struggles and experiences.

TH: I wondered why you called this section of the novel “Master.”
TW: It’s a double-edged title. Of course the section just before this ends with the word “masters.” The narrator’s listening to his teachers in the headmaster’s house. “These sure and finished men, our masters.” That’s his vision of them. And then he writes something called “Master,” and what we read is a story of a very unsure man, who’s unfinished and full of self-doubt, and self-recrimination for allowing a certain misunderstanding to persist, one that he continues to profit by. It’s also the narrator’s own story of himself. What writers do is they tell their own story constantly through other people’s stories. They imagine other people, and those other people are carrying the burden of their struggles, their questions about themselves. We’ve never actually seen the narrator write a story in this whole book. He can’t know from the brief conversation he’s had with the headmaster all the things he tells us about Makepeace. How would he know what the weather was like when Makepeace goes for a job interview at this military academy? So it’s clearly coming from the narrator. And suddenly he’s giving us a story that he’s written, and the story at its heart is about duplicity and the willing tolerance of peoples’ misunderstanding of him, which the narrator himself has been guilty of. And it’s about estrangement, a feeling of not being home and struggling to get home in some way. So those concerns all come together for me in this end piece. Some people have said, “What’s that all about? Why didn’t the narrator finish his own story?” I was surprised when people had that response, because I thought that it would be apparent that the narrator was really telling his own story. (less)

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Average rating 3.83  · 
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Aug 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
What a book! Despite the tranquil title, it's been an engrossing emotional roller coaster, which made me feel dizzy.

The setting of 'Old School' (2003) by Tobias Wolff is an elite boarding school in the United States in 1960–61. The unnamed narrator is one of the students, 'book-drunk boys', obsessed with literature and creative writing: 'one could not live in a world without stories'. The school regularly organizes a competition and the prize is a private audience with a notorious author. The d
Dec 29, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Everyone

Want to read something funny and literate? Read this memoir.

There are few books that provide this much hilarity, wisdom and grace.

Old School, though categorized as a novel, is a thinly veiled memoir of Tobias Wolff’s own experience as a scholarship boy in an elite prep school. The action largely centers on the boys’ writing competitions. Three times a year, a famous author would visit the school and choose one boy’s writing as the best. As a reward, that boy earned a private audience with the au
Feb 28, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Imagine yourself as a young writer at a prestigious boarding school. A prominent member of the faculty has just read your submission for a contest. He is genuinely excited for you. “A marvelous story! Pure magic. No—no—not magic. Alchemy. The dross of self-consciousness transformed into the gold of self-knowledge.” Pretty heady stuff, isn’t it? Old School’s protagonist was at an experiential high point when he heard that one. The truth is there are moments within the book where you could congrat ...more
Anna Luce
★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)

“A true piece of writing is a dangerous thing. It can change your life.”

Old School presents its readers with a concise exploration of the complexities of writing and interpretation. Tobias Wolff exerts exquisite control over his prose, evoking through his sparse yet vivid language the rarefied world in which his unmanned narrator moves in. Wolff brings to life the youth of the days past and their strive for artistic recognition, capturing the various undercu
Meredith recommends reading This Boy's Life or In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War, 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 s
Mar 03, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I imagined as I was reading this book what a contemporary YA literary agent or editor would say upon receiving Tobias Wolff's story of a young man's experience in a New England preparatory school (one of those that can claim a U.S. president as an alumni but is way too classy to ever mention this fact outright). I see my imaginary literary agent, my imaginary editor, asking where's the conflict, the plot twists, the romance, the Big Ideas, the high stakes? And it saddens me to think that today t ...more
Sep 29, 2010 rated it really liked it

So, I want to live in this book. This is a bittersweet book about myth...the myth of being innocent, and the myth of what it's like going to a private school. . . a private, cloistered high school. As a big-time literature nerd aficionado, the school in this novel is every bit as magical as Hogwarts: visits from writers like Hemingway, Ayn Rand, Robert Frost, writing contests to actually get to hang out with them...knowing they'd actually read something you'd WRITTEN.

You know, THIS kind of scho
Becca Becca
Oct 08, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Literary folks, book lovers, nostalgic blokes
Recommended to Becca by: Rasputin
Shelves: favorites
Hot damn. I do realize this was on my 'currently-reading' shelf for one long stretch of time, but I must confess, I had only done a cursory read of a few pages.

Well, last night, I visited the land of IKEA (dreadful place that I rarely venture to) and bought myself a reading lamp. Wanting to try out my latest device, I picked up this book and began to read. This was at Midnight (I'm a bit of a night owl). Well, I got so engrossed in this book that I read the entire thing! Finished around 4 in the
Meredith Holley
Jul 07, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: English majors
Recommended to Meredith by: The New Yorker
A review dedicated to and inspired by my friend Eh!, who reads things backwards.

This book is way literary meta. It’s so meta that there are prereq reading requirements for an optimal experience. Everyone knows Robert Frost, right? So, I’m not putting him on the list. But, I require you to read Atlas Shrugged, The Sun Also Rises, and (if you liked The Sun Also Rises, but not if you hated it) A Farewell to Arms before you read Old School. If you don’t care for Hemingway, you’ll probably not care f
Sep 23, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2016-reads, lit-fic
I picked this one up at the library on a whim and was hooked with the first chapter. It's a short, and I gather semi-autobiographical, novel about an elite boys prep school somewhere in New England. The protagonist is a scholarship boy from who fits in with his peers mostly by allowing people to think he's something that he isn't. The lies are more in omission, rather than commission. But gradually he lives the lies until they become him.

This is also a book about books--poetry, novels, writing
Jonathan K
May 01, 2020 rated it liked it
A gift from a neighbor, I decided to read it based on the review quotes on the back cover, many heralding it as a 'tour de force" and "achieves a real profundity". It does indeed pay homage to the art of story, but not without some strong opinions, of which one in particular stood out. A fan of Ayn Rand's books, as well as 'objectivism', the theme that drives both "Atlas Shrugged" and "The Fountainhead", he makes her look like the anti-christ. Regardless, a story focused on writers and the skill ...more
Clif Hostetler
May 29, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: novel
OLD SCHOOL is written in the form of a fictionalized memoir of a student at an elite, circa 1960s, prep school full of "book-drunk" boys. Through a series of student writing competitions to win the prize of a private audience with a well know author, the reader of this book is treated to a profile of Carl Sandburg, Ayn Rand, and Earnest Hemingway. Along the way we are taught a lesson in how ambition disguised as passion for writing can lead to unfortunate outcomes. There is a hilarious bit of hu ...more
Erin Foster
Mar 27, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
the prodigal paragraph

this book had one of the best final paragraphs i've ever read. ever since i finished the book a few months ago, i am oftentimes reminded of it:

"Arch stopped and looked down the garden to where the headmaster stood by the drinks table with another master. The headmaster said, Late for his own funeral! and everyone laughed, then he put his glass down and came toward Arch with both hands outstretched. Though the headmaster was the younger man, and much shorter, and though Arch
Donna Kirk
Oct 06, 2009 rated it it was amazing
At Donald Hall's house, he talked quite a bit about formalism and style in literary traditions. He told me that a person can't really move into the contemporary unless they have read pre-1800's writing and beyond. In Charles Simic's classes, he taught a more delicate, elegant modern aesthetic. his approach was more arachnid, mysterious, dark and removed. his writing is about the hidden and therefore, he admires any approach used to unleash what one can usually only whisper about. while Billy Col ...more
Stef Smulders
Aug 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: five-stars
At first this seems to be 'just' a straightforward, well-written and enjoyable memoir but then you notice that the author has woven in several themes and motifs, in very subtle way. Truth, honesty, loyalty, self knowledge are touched upon in each of the chapters as the story itself continues. There is the tension about the narrators Jewishness, and class difference that stirrs underneath the surface. The novel is about writing and writers as well, discussing and portraying Ayn Rand, Hemingway, F ...more
Apr 28, 2012 rated it really liked it
A strong 4.5 only because the ending lost some momentum for me (which may have been intentional since for the first 2/3 of the book, the narrator is reflecting back on his last year of prep school which ends rather suddenly). Definitely a book lovers homage to American literature, to the teachers who are passionate about it and to the early 60s, before the deaths of JFK and Ernest Hemingway and the general upheaval later in the decade. Wolff's writing pulls you right into the narrator' ...more
Mar 23, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Monica by: Rory
Shelves: 2009, favorites
So this was beautifully written and set in my absolute favorite sort of boarding school setting, but what I REALLY loved about it was Wolff's ability to connect the experience of being a young reader. The relationships that the boys in the book have with literature makes me feel so nostalgic for the first time I read Salinger or Vonnegut and I just fell totally, utterly in love with an author.

So short and affecting and totally consuming.
Aug 16, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ficciones
Star rating means little - this cut real deep.
Jul 28, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: good
for a short book about an all boys school in the 60s (? i think), i felt oddly Seen by so many passages, guess really unlocked something in me i guess... like the class issues, the pretence, the feelings around graduation, the elitism? hoooo boy...

some thoughts dump

1. it does take real authors as some of its characters and they do come across as more one dimensional but it works for what this book is about imo as they embody stages of the main character's development and the theme of writing c
Apr 27, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I don't have much to say about this one, except that I was disappointed and thought it would be more entertaining. Some references were made about Hemingway, but nothing was mentioned about him that I didn't already know. This book took me a long time to read, due to my life's circumstances, during this time. ...more
Carol Storm
May 16, 2019 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Desperately sentimental, yet at the same it feels like a put-on of epic proportions. Try to imagine Pete Campbell from MAD MEN writing an elegy to the lost snobbery of a bygone age.
Dec 12, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Remarkable book...elite school for young men who compete for chance to have private conference with famous authors among other things. For lovers of literature.
Published 2003; Setting US prep school in 1960's; Literature "Greats" include Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, Ayn Rand; President Kennedy's era and aura and the very real and beautifully portrayed "growing-up angst" experienced by the school's population as well as their teachers.

This is my first book by this author although I recently re
Short review:

This is a spare yet touching fictionalized account of Tobias's Wolfe's teen years spent an East Coast boarding school in the early 1960s. Poor, on scholarship, ambitious, and desperate to fit into this affluent and competitive environment, the young narrator adopts the aloof mannerisms of his wealthier school mates. He also utilizes dishonesty as a means of staying ahead of the game. The following passage warns the reader that his fall will be hard:

"I guess he finished his story, I
Tami Bussing
Feb 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An elegant story of life, trials and tribulations in a private boys school. A thoughtful, insightful memoir-like telling in beautifully-written proper English.
Oct 11, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: cannonball-read
I’m a public school kid. I spent my elementary years in an inner city school where the teachers manually cranked out math assignments from the old mimeograph and our school books were donated by richer school districts. From sixth until twelfth grade, I moved into one of those richer school districts and enjoyed the novelty of a Xerox, but watched as our 30 year old natatorium began to collapse in on itself. I finished off my educational career at a state university, where funding was ample enou ...more
Simon Smith
Jul 09, 2007 rated it it was amazing
WOW... this is a damn fine book. Some amazing writing here... In fact, I think the best way to prove to you folks that this Wolff guy is "a beast," as the kids say these days, is to quote some passages right here.

"The heat from the fire brought a flush to her face and made her perfume thicker, headier. She turned to Mr. Rice, an English master and a southerner himself, who was tapping his ashes from his pipe into the fireplace. Do you think she'll come tonight? she asked."

"Patty was his second w
Aug 27, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
i read this book on the advice of nick hornby after reading a collection of articles he wrote for the mcsweeney's magazine "the believer" which had been compiled into book form. i pretty much hated the nick hornby articles (for their cutesy, self-satisfied tone, i think, and also for the way he kept faux-dissing the believer as an overly fey literary mag and therefore underscoring himself as a salt-of-the-earth regular type of guy; basically the whole book is packed with obvious false modesty an ...more
Jan 22, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I enjoyed this novel very much, perhaps most of all because it reminded me of my own reading experiences in high school--how falling in love with Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Tom Robbins, Sandra Cisneros, and Flaubert shaped my sense of self--or my desire to have a specific kind of self. And just like Wolff's narrator, I had a brief love affair with Ayn Rand's Fountainhead, which ended when I tried to read Atlas Shrugged.
It's a simple novel that does something bold (yet still subtle--how can that
Amy Kitchell
Mar 30, 2012 rated it really liked it
Old School reads like a memoir and although the fictional prep school set in the 1960s is nameless, the photo on the front cover was taken of Hill School, where, coincidently Wolff was a student. No matter, I think this was a story of finding oneself and gaining insight into others.

It’s written in simplistic style and I loved how Wolff interposed authors throughout the novel such as Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway. He even gave a nod to the author James Jones (From Here to Eternity
Annie Monson
Apr 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: literature, 2020
A story of pretending and belonging, and an homage to the teachers who help us find our way home.

Wolff writes sometimes gorgeously, sometimes subtly, and always richly, about what it is and how it feels.
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Tobias Jonathan Ansell Wolff is a writer of fiction and nonfiction.

He is best known for his short stories and his memoirs, although he has written two novels.

Wolff is the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University, where he has taught classes in English and creative writing since 1997. He also served as the director of the Creative Writ

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