My Book Lists a la High School

There's a general idea out there that being profound necessarily entails being depressed, depressing and generally angst-filled. It's the Occam's Razor approach: if there is a negative explanation for something, it is probably the right one; any positive assumptions made about the "dominant narrative" (that is, the facts that most people know about an event) are probably wrong and only naïve, gullible people believe them.

I think this attitude goes a long way towards explaining High School reading lists. Being profound about tragedy is a good deal easier than being profound about comedy and gets you a lot more kudos. If you debunk things like middle-class America (a favorite Hollywood occupation), people say you are "edgy," and "hard-hitting," but heaven help you if you go wry and positive and life-affirming.

To illustrate, below I have included two lists from my profile. The first is Depressing Books I Read in High School. The second is the Reading List I Wished I'd Had.

Depressing Books I Read in High School

1. The Pearl by John Steinbeck

The quintessential depressing book.

2. Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare


3. The Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne

See Hester with her "A"; see Hester in the woods; see the soulful preacher; see the brooding husband. Oh, the angst.

4. Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Hardy

Actually, I might have read it in college; it's the ultimate Fate Hates You book.

5. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

I quite like Conrad (see #6).

6. Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

I read this voluntarily in High School and LOVED it: go figure.

7. Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Also voluntary; it blew me away, but I doubt I'll ever read it again.

8. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Yick, yick, yick. Yick.

9. Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya

An East Indian Tess of the D'Urbervilles.

10. The Crucible by Arthur Miller

Nowadays, I get tired of everything being compared to McCarthyism, but as a teen, I liked this play very much.

11. A Separate Peace by John Knowles

Dead Poet's Society, sort of.

12. MacBeth by Shakespeare


13. A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens

I remember liking this although I never read anything by Dickens now. I think it was the handsome, brooding Sydney C. who got my attention.

14. Cancer Ward by Solzhenitsyn

A voluntary read, I have no idea why; 10th graders are strange.

15. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

I've never been able to understand why we read this; it isn't particularly classic or good; it's kind of pointless and squishy.

So, it wasn't all bad but here's the Reading List I Wished I'd Had (or List I Would Use if I were an Literature Teacher)

1. Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Would add much needed variety to the curriculum and still satisfy the "it can't be good unless it is depressing" crowd. 100 Years of Solitude is better but too long.

2. Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

Good for interdisciplinary approaches: historical analysis; is Tey right or wrong?

3. All the Trouble in the World by P.J. O'Rourke and Lasso the Wind by Thomas Egan

Political/social commentary from two writers on both sides of the political spectrum. Similar approaches, although O'Rourke is funnier. Just a couple of chapters from both to give some examples of essay writing/travelogues.

4. Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

Not as difficult as Shakespeare or Shaw but still fun and good exposure to witty playwriting.

5. The Goats by Brock Cole

Good addition of YA (YA!) literature, a hugely ignored section in most English programs.

6. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Wonderful author and fun book. Good introduction to 19th century English prose.

7. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Much needed addition of great children's literature to curriculum.

8. Her Stories by Virginia Hamilton

African American fairytales (two ignored subjects in one).

9. "The Bear" by William Faulkner

Only the greatest American writer ever!

10. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

Much needed addition of sci-fi to the curriculum.

11. Divine Comedy by Dante

Difficult but worthwhile; I suggest The Inferno and a prose translation.

12. On Writing by Stephen King

Possibly the best book on writing out there and much needed addition of popular writer to a curriculum that pretends nobody wrote anything after Go Ask Alice.

13. Bible

So it's not P.C., so get over it. It's a HUGE part of Western literature and absent any religious training, any self-respecting humanities major ought to be familiar with it.

14. Poems by Rilke

Actually, I just like "The Panther" but it's a change from the Romantic poets.

15. Much Ado About Nothing by Shakespeare

Great teenage topics: note writing, gossip, love at first sight, brothers who don't get along, partying, friendship, jealously. It's chock full!


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