". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Thinking About What to Read and When

I saw this on my friend Indiana Jane's blog. It's a list of 101 books/stories that the College Board recommends college-bound students read before leaving high school.


I am a lover of classic literature. I have Bachelor's and Master's degrees in English and have taught at the high school and college levels, but I have not read everything on this list. I have always loved to read, and I (unlike many) actually enjoyed my high school English classes, but I didn't read most of these selections until college or beyond, and there are quite a few I don't think I could have gotten through in high school.

Following Jane's lead, I have highlighted the list with the books I have read in red. If I counted correctly, there are 57 of them (woo-hoo! I beat Jane the book queen!) :-) I have also indicated when I first read them, and made occasional comments.

Beowulf - high school
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
A Death in the Family by James Agee
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen - in college, because they made me. (Sorry, Austen lovers.)
Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin
Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett - college
The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte - high school, by choice. Loved it.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte - college. Hated it. Jane Eyre is so much better.
The Stranger by Albert Camus - college. Dreary.
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (I saw the movie; does that count?)
The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer - both. But I'm not sure if I've read them all.
The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov - college.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin - college. Suicide as feminist statement. This is not high school material.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad - college. Yuck.
The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper - college. Cooper is not my cup of tea.
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane - high school.
Inferno by Dante - college.
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens - both.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky - college. Hard, but worth it.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass - college, but recommended for high school. Very easy and worthwhile read.
An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser - no, but I did read Sister Carrie. Great classic soap opera.
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Selected Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson - both.
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner - how did I miss both of these Faulkner novels?
Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald - college.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert - college. More soap opera.
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Lord of the Flies by William Golding - when I taught it to students.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy - college. Yet more soap opera.
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne - both.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller - college, recommended by a professor (thank you, Dr. Warde!). One of the best books I have ever read.
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway - don't remember.
The Iliad by Homer - both.
The Odyssey by Homer - both.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley - as an adult, because I thought I should. But I didn't like it much. Dreary and hard to get through.
A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen - don't remember.
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James - college. For some reason I took an entire semester of James in grad school. This was the first and best of the assigned novels. But I can't imagine assigning it to a high school student.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James - college.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce - college.
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka - don't remember.
The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee - as an adult, by choice. Great high school material.
Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
The Call of the Wild by Jack London - high school.
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville - high school. Hated it. But as an adult I get it. Why put high school students through this?
Moby Dick by Herman Melville - college.
The Crucible by Arthur Miller - college.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor - college.
Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill
Animal Farm, by George Orwell - high school. (What? No 1984?)
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Selected Tales by Edgar Allen Poe - both.
Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand
Call it Sleep by Henry Roth
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger - don't remember.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare - both.
Macbeth by William Shakespeare - both.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare - college.
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare - both.
(Note on Shakespeare: I didn't really learn to read him until college. It takes a while to get one's Shakespeare "legs" and it only comes with a lot of reading. I think throwing Romeo and Juliet in its original form at high school freshman just sets them up for a lifetime of Shakespeare loathing. Better to read some of the abridged/simplified/side-by-side versions and watch some plays to get their feet wet, doing a little more each year of high school until they're ready to read a play without the training wheels.)
Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw - when I taught it to high school students. Great play, and fun to follow up by watching My Fair Lady.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn - college.
Antigone by Sophocles - both.
Oedipus Rex by Sophocles - college.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck - as an adult, because I thought I should. So glad I did.
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift - both. But I'm not sure if I've read the whole thing.
Vanity Fair by William Thackeray
Walden by Henry David Thoreau - part in high school, the whole thing in college.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (I tried, years ago, along with Anna Karenina; couldn't get through either.)
Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev - college.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain - countless times as a student and teacher.
Candide by Voltaire - in college because I wanted to. Highly recommended, but R-rated. One of the funniest things I have ever read in my life.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
Collected Stories by Eudora Welty - not sure if I've ever read any of her stuff.
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman - both.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams - in high school and again when I taught it. Very accessible for high school students.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Native Son by Richard Wright

I used to believe strongly in a canon, but as I look at this list there are very few things that I would say one absolutely MUST read. I'll think about that question and maybe turn it into a future post. I will say that as a homeschool mom, I have totally changed my approaching to teaching literature. I used to be one of those nasty English teachers who stamped the love of literature out of my students by picking works apart. I didn't mean to; I just didn't know any better. I had these kids, day in and day out for 50-minute stretches, and I had to do something with them, you know? And I had to come up with some sort of way of "measuring" their "learning." The school wouldn't have looked too kindly on my just turning in a list of books that we had read and discussed over the course of the semester along with the assurance that the students had actually enjoyed some of them. But that's where I am with my own kids and the few additional students I now teach literature to. All I really want is for them to read and think and--at least some of the time--enjoy. Oh, we do some writing, too. But I have gotten far away from the "beat it to a pulp" approach to literature: the lists of vocabulary words, the endless answering of questions at the end of the story, the dissecting of the work down to the most obscure details. It took a while for me to decide all of that wasn't necessary. But now that I'm at that point, I don't know if I can ever teach in a "regular" classroom again. because I don't know if I can ever go back to that.

The way we do "school" in this country, by and large, kills the love of learning and turns it from gospel into law. It's a travesty. And to think that year after year, the government tells us that they need more money so they can do more of the same. Don't even get me started on that soapbox.


Elephantschild said...

I can't believe you actually completed a James Joyce novel. I'm very impressed.

Melody said...

So...As I am, or was, just about to, buy a curriculum that included vocabulary words and comprehension questions, and as I studied geology, not literature, can you help me figure out 1) how to get my daughter engaged in some of these great high school reads you're talking about (many of which I also loved) and 2) "teach" them to her in a way that shows me she "gets" it?
And also, help me teach her not to write run-ons. Can't do that by example! :)

Gauntlets said...

I also hated Wuthering Heights--a horrible, baleful, droning celebration of the macabre. Poor Emily--she just tried too hard.

Phillip Magness said...

Mr. Roundunvarnished checking in on a day that finds me not very motivated to work!

Overall, not a bad canon - though I agree there are a couple of things that should not be on a high school list.

Given the number of "lefty" things in there, one would hope for a little more balance than Solzhenitsyn. I'd recommend Ayn Rand's "Anthem" and Bradbury's "Farenheit 451" be added, along with 1984, of course.

And you are right: there are several things on there that are just too THICK (either in content or length) for high schoolers. One wonders if they are just trying to get the canon 'out of the way' so that college is filled with politically correct junk?

Still, overall, this is not a bad list. I expected much worse.

Back to work!


Cheryl said...

I think as much as anything I'm just blown away by the sheer volume.

So, Mr. RUT, how many of these have you read? :-)

Jane said...

It was interesting to see when and why you read the books. I read a surprising number of them in high school or before, including some--like Candide--that I am surprised passed muster for high school English in Anderson, Indiana.

Cheryl said...

Wow--Candidate in high school? Might it have been an abridged or sanitized version? Gilgamesh and Shakespeare and Canterbury Tales and more all generally "cleaned up" for high school students.