03 September 2009

Your Assistance Please: All high school students should read this book.

If high schools around the country aren't already back in session, they'll be in by Tuesday. At some of them, a computer will suggest what students should read. At others, the students will get to pick.

Readers, we can do better, being neither computers nor still in high school. Even if you are still in high school, you probably have some strong opinions about what should be read. Say, in a sitcom-worthy twist, you have found yourself working at a high school (doesn't have to be yours) and you get one pick to assign the kids. What do you choose?

Unlike a normal teacher, assume you are not constrained by time period, nationality or conflicts with other courses. It can be something you read in high school or something you only wish you had read in high school.

I'll put my pick in a comment, but first, here are the picks of two newly minted high school graduates with whom I am well acquainted! Since their Google searches are relatively unbesmirched, I will refer to them as I met them, as "Twin A" and "Twin B." Keep in mind, I virtually cornered them to help me with no preparation:
  • Twin A picks THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO because it was "exciting, well written and had the best plot ever." Also thinks more nonfiction should be assigned in general, because it isn't represented in either history or English curricula.
  • Twin B picks THE GREAT GATSBY because "not only is it an amazing book, but it also teaches you a lot about symbolism. Everything in that book represents some greater idea which ties into what Fitzgerald is trying to say. It's also beautifully written, and the imagery is striking."
(Thanks, guys.)


Ellen said...

First, my pick is going to cause a lot of eye-rolling, so I suggest you get it done now and save yourself the headache. That said, I have my reasons, which I am about to go into.

This pick is kind of a cheat because I was almost exposed to this author and his work in high school -- I would have been, had I taken American lit in a different semester. Because spring semester was so much longer than fall, while I was trying to write a paper about the word "hope" (pre-pre-pre-Obama era; I assume kids these days would just staple a couple good headlines to the page and be done with it) my classmates got their first taste of William Faulkner.

The book I'm picking is THE SOUND IN THE FURY, and this is the reason: Without hyperbolizing too much, this is the book that allowed me to get the "big picture" on modernism, a period not covered at all by anything else I read in high school. That's a major cross-section of literature to leave out; the closest we got was A FAREWELL TO ARMS, which we barely discussed and isn't the best test case anyway. I don't even think the M-word ever even came up in my high school literature classes, and that is a damn shame. In terms of themes and discussion points, it could go right in between HUCK FINN and SULA -- or THE ODYSSEY and CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY.

Now granted, because I didn't do THE SOUND AND THE FURY in high school I had the expertise of an amazing professor to guide me through it in college. But I think high school students could handle it given enough time. (The one my school assigned was AS I LAY DYING, which I like but not as much; I wouldn't tackle ABSALOM, ABSALOM or LIGHT IN AUGUST with the same age group.) Besides, it's my high school, and that is my choice.

8yearoldsdude said...

Faulkner is great for the smarties, but I think it might be a little opaque for average students.

I am voting for 1-2 short stories from "A supposedly fun thing I'll never do again"--either the eponymous story, the one about tennis, or the one about television.

One of the biggest gifts of hihg
school is teaching kids that reading non-garbage and thinking/talking about it can be fun. and I think these would achieve that end.

Elizabeth said...

HUCK FINN. Hands down.

Ellen said...

Elizabeth, I revisited HUCK FINN this summer -- stay tuned. But would you like to elaborate on why?

8, I tried to think of a book I read in high school that was fun and drew a complete blank, so in that I agree with you. (One of my interviewees up top was assigned THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY for summer reading, but did not have fun with it... kids these days.) I haven't read A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING... except the title essay, but I want to get to it after IJ.

Wade Garrett said...

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again is one of my favorite books ever, and I agree with 8YOD that it is exactly the sort of thing high schools should be assigning, because a lot of students will never take a proper literature course after they graduate from high school, and so their senior year is the last chance we would have to spark their imaginations and show them that serious reading can be fun and rewarding. ASFTINDA would be great for that purpose.

Also, my high school had an elective film class, for seniors only. Its point, as far as I could tell, was that, since these kids are going to be buying move tickets for the next sixty years of their lives, they might as well be buying tickets to good movies. In addition to the classics, they also showed action movies, animated movies, etc, to show the students what to look for, and how movies for grown-ups are really just movies for people with brains in their heads.

But, it is non-fiction. If I was to choose a work of fiction, I may go with The Corrections. Now that is a book you can sink your teeth into - it is funny and engaging, it has moments of real tension, well-drawn characters who are always real people, not just 'types,' it touches on a lot of themes about the changing world that we live in, and a couple of the sub-plots, particularly the one involving Denise and her boss' wife (whose name I am for some reason blanking on) would have . . . won the book a lot of fans at my all-boys high school. Kavalier & Clay would probably be my second choice.

For what its worth, my high school assigned The Bonfires of the Vanities, probably with this purpose in mind, but twelve years later I don't think it would have the same effect on young people, who wouldn't understand as many of the 80's references.

Ellen said...

I like what you said about THE CORRECTIONS being about real people, not just types. Our modern assigned reading tended to lean towards... not the fanciful, but the extreme situations (people being kidnapped by guerrillas in ANIMAL DREAMS, Newfoundlanders in THE SHIPPING NEWS). The closest we had to this was probably Russell Banks' THE SWEET HEREAFTER, which is a really good book that yet should not have been assigned over winter break in Wisconsin.

It is pretty long, but since this is a theoretical high school, we'll assume there's plenty of time to fit it in.

I would have liked to read more nonfiction essays as well, outside of the senior year college-essay-writing window. If correctly structured this could have the side effect of raising a new generation of magazine readers as well since you could pull from the New York Times Magazine and Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone and so on to supplement more classic pieces in the genre.

Wade Garrett said...

Jake Taylor and I have talked about this, because we both loved some of our assigned essays - like The Cat Bill and E.B. White's pieces from The New Yorker. Like inspiring a student to read serious fiction, inspiring a student to read sophisticated non-fiction is important to our society, and being able to write good expository prose is obviously more important to most people than the ability to write good fiction.

If I had to guess, the reason that more good non-fiction isn't assigned in high schools is because there is not a recognized canon of classic non-fiction in that way that there is for fiction, epic poetry, and drama, and most high school english teachers wouldn't want to put themselves out there and pick a syllabus on their own and risk being criticized for making their choices. E.B. White and Orwell, sure . . . but The Education of Henry Adams and The Varieties of Religious Experience and so forth are too long and too advanced for most high school students to process.

Ellen said...

It would be both worthwhile and fun to assemble that kind of canon, either in shorter works of nonfiction or book-length. Then again, there are probably a thousand anthologies that attempt to do the former, and some of them are probably being taught in some high school. I can't remember running across one that stood head and shoulders above the others -- and my favorites are all too specific for the purpose.

Got a great across-the-board nonfiction anthology to promote, anyone?