20 December 2006

Great Books? Well, some of them are just OK.

News flash! Our children no longer read the classics! Siena College took a list of 30 "Great Books" and surveyed freshmen and faculty on whether they had read these classics. The article goes on to (unfairly) pick on an English professor who includes books by Julia Alvarez (living Hispanic female) and Ernest Gaines (living African-American male) in her Great Books class. In the footsteps of pages turned I decided to look at the list myself and do some fessing up.

So I've read 18 out of these "Great Books," which I consider to be pretty good. I'm not sure, though, that we need to make room for WAR AND PEACE and MOBY DICK in high schools. Plato's REPUBLIC, on the other hand, would have been good, and I can think of several books I was made to read -- DELIVERANCE, HOUSE ON MANGO STREET and THE SHIPPING NEWS, for instance -- that could have been replaced by works of more merit. But don't take my word for it; after all Britney Spears has me beat on the Greeks.

1. The Works of Shakespeare -- I've read most, but not all.

2. The Declaration of Independence

3. Twain, Mark, Huckleberry Finn

4. The poems of Emily Dickinson -- Selections

5. The poems of Robert Frost -- Selections

6. Hawthorne, Nathaniel, Scarlet Letter

7. Fitzgerald, Scott F., The Great Gatsby

8. Orwell, George, 1984

9. Homer, Odyssey and Iliad -- I complained a lot about having to read THE ODYSSEY in ninth grade, but I think it's worth it.

10. Dickens, Charles, Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities -- I read GREAT EXPECTATIONS on my own, though. We did read A CHRISTMAS CAROL in middle school -- gotta love those amendment exempt private schools [although I celebrate Christmas, so at the time it didn't bother me].

11. Chaucer, Geoffrey, The Canterbury Tales -- I think we might have skipped some of the minor ones.

12. Salinger, J.D., Catcher in the Rye

13. The Bible -- Selections, although by then I had already been exposed to it in church, so I thought reading the Bible in school was silly. I'm sure my ninth grade English teacher made a very good argument as to why the Bible is so crucial to Western Literature, but I probably just rolled my eyes and wrote in my journal, "Yeah, whatever." Sorry.

14. Thoreau, Henry David, Walden

15. Sophocles, Oedipus

16. Steinbeck, John, the Grapes of Wrath

17. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays and poems -- Selections, but not until college did I read him in any depth.

18. Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice -- And oh, how the boys complained...

19. Whitman, Walt, Leaves of Grass

20. The novels of William Faulkner -- Now here's a place I always thought was an Actual Hole in my education. When I took American lit in high school, we had a semester of it, but because the semesters were not equal in length, people who took the class in the spring read one more book than we in the fall did. That book was AS I LAY DYING. I feel like I've made up my Faulkner deficit from reading that book, plus ABSALOM, ABSALOM!, GO DOWN, MOSES and THE SOUND AND THE FURY, but none of that happened before I got to college.

21. Melville, Herman, Moby Dick -- Not in school. Not, I think, really necessary for people to read in school.

22. Milton, John, Paradise Lost -- Just selections.

23. Vergil, Aeneid

24. Plato, The Republic

25. Marx, Karl, Communist Manifesto -- Some excerpts.

26. Machiavelli, Niccolo, the Prince -- Excerpts.

27. Tocqueville, Alexis de, Democracy in America -- Excerpts, although I do own it. Points for trying?

28. Dostoevski, Feodor, Crime and Punishment

29. Aristotle, Politics

30. Tolstoy, Leo, War and Peace -- But no one made me, I spent most of the second semester of my freshman year reading this.


Scott Hughes said...

I was a slacker in high-school, but I remember liking most of the book titles that we were assigned. I read them on my own, though, not in school. That's a great list though!

Scott Hughes
Online Book Club

Alexandra said...

The Grapes of Wrath is awesome. Steinbeck is legitimately one of my favoritest authors ever. I didn't read it in high school, though. Other things I didn't read in high school: Faulkner, Hemingway (I finally read The Sun Also Rises last summer), Moby Dick, anything by a 'manners novelist,' anything by a non-native-english-speaking author. I have a long rant for someday about how badly my high school english education sucked.

And I haven't read War and Peace, but I read Anna Karenina and decided that was good enough for the first 50 years.

Elizabeth said...

Hooray for Chicago's Common Core! Thanks to soc, I read the Republic, the Communist Manifesto, the Prince, Democracy in America, and the Politics, but I never would have otherwise (and I certainly wouldn't have understood them). But where are Locke, Hobbes, and Nietzsche on the list?

But I will go on to say that I wouldn't expect people to read them in high school.

As another note, I like the Iliad so much better than the Odyssey there's really no comparison. Why DID we read the Odyssey?