A recent Grumpy Rumblings post prompted much thought and triggered many musings. First of all, I can’t believe A Separate Peace is still taught in high schools. That book was dated and insignificant in my day. That said, I think books should be added to a syllabus because they are great works of literature, not because of newly prescribed requirements. However, there are so many excellent books to consider and add that no one should have any excuse.
Here are the books I would require high school students (from grade 9-12) to read — in addition to Shakespeare, Chaucer, Mark Twain, Dickens, Joyce, the Bronte sisters, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Kafka and Nathaniel Hawthorne — if I was a high school English teacher. These are Great Books, and they earn their place through sheer merit and brilliance.
- Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. Austen should be as important to the “Western Canon” as Shakespeare. She has arguably as much influence on modern day novels, film and TV shows as any other writer of the English language. Here is just a small selection of recent works inspired by Austen: Atonement, Remains of the Day, Clueless, Bridget Jones Diary, Eligible, Ayesha at Last, and of course Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I’d argue even the uber masculine Master and Commander series is influenced by Austen. She was a proto-feminist who spotlighted the deeply unfair issues with being a woman during her time period. And she did so with unmatched wit, intelligence and gripping plot twists.
- Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust. (First novel in Remembrance of Things Past). As challenging to penetrate as the tedious Artist as a Young Man (which I had to suffer through for AP English), but so much more rewarding. No other book I have ever read has actually changed the way I perceive the world. The focus on time, memory, obsession, art and most of all our own senses is unique, as is the outsider perspective from Proust himself, a Jewish gay man trying to assess how, if at all, he could fit into French bourgeois society.
- The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje. More like poetry than fiction, this outsider version of World War II challenges the reader to reconsider such grand concepts as patriotism, colonialism, love and loyalty. I can’t think of the last passage, where one character picks up the cup another character drops a continent away, without bursting into tears.
- White Teeth, by Zadie Smith. If there is a better book about the modern 21st century multicultural city, I haven’t read it. The clashes and humor that inevitably rise from the confrontation of several disparate cultures in London is inspired by Dickens (and would make a great companion to Tale of Two Cities). This debut from a twenty year old (!) is the work of unique genius. White Teeth is fun, freewheeling, breathtaking, shocking and prescient, and spawned a million inferior copies. The introduction of the fundamentalist organization KEVIN is one of the funniest passages I’ve ever read.‘We are aware,’ said Hifan solemnly, pointing to the spot underneath the cupped flame where the initials were minutely embroidered, ‘that we have an acronym problem.’
- Midnight’s Children by Salmon Rushdie. My dad interviewed Rushdie back in the fatwah days. He was shuttled to two different decoy locations by security personnel before finally being ferried to a third unidentified, secure location to meet the famed novelist. I love Moor’s Last Sigh too, but Midnight’s Children wins the day. A modern-day telling of India post-colonial times within a fantastical framework, this book is what the more well-known and inferior God of Small Things tried to be, and failed.
- A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini. Kite Runner is excellent as well, but I loved this take on misogyny and what strong women can achieve, even during the worst of circumstances.
- Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. Swoon city. This ambitious tome, so much better than that other well-known Márquez work, showcases the myriad versions of romantic love, in all its numerous and colorful forms. The last chapter is so beautifully written, it’s almost as if a god came down to earth and possessed a human writer.
- Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood. Has there ever been a scarier book about being a teenage girl? Anyone who has seen Mean Girls (Cordelia is a terrifying prototype for Regina George) will recognize the same issues herein, albeit in a much darker version of how awful girls can be to one another. Chilling, yet beautifully told. I read Cat’s Eye on my honeymoon and that was a mistake.
- Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward. This is a masterpiece, transposing a teenage coming of age tale within the uniquely American tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. I think about passages from this haunting elegy often. More subtle, revealing and devastating than The Hate U Give.
- Winter’s Bone, Daniel Woodrell. Woodrell’s writing got under my skin and then lived there. Based in the Ozarks and featuring a dysfunctional yet close-knit group of kin, Winter’s Bone features a uniquely determined, grim yet forthright heroine. The movie is great, too.
- Night, by Elie Wiesel. My public high school had a mandatory Holocaust class requirement for graduation, and this should not be an anomaly. Senior year, after learning the whole long history of anti-semitism until Auschwitz, we watched World War II footage of concentration camp victims being freed, as well as former guards filling mass graves with skeletal corpses of those who did nothing wrong other than be Jewish. No one who sees that footage will ever, ever forget. This book is a stark reminder that the most ordinary people are capable of great evil, as well as unthinkable resilience.
What books would you add to the high school syllabus, if you were an English teacher?