A Better High-School Reading List

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NR writers reflect on which popular books high schoolers should ditch, and what they should read instead.

Editor’s Note: In their enthusiasm for children to read the classics, school curricula often kill love of literature in students by requiring them to read difficult books without seriously considering readability or purpose. Below are nine suggestions from NR writers to better prepare students for a life of great books.

Zeitoun Instead of The Jungle

The Jungle is a seminal American novel, meticulously researched and famously impactful (though that impact took the shape of food-preparation reform more than the national reexamination of capitalism Upton Sinclair had intended). But the book’s closing rally cry for socialism ultimately presents a simplistic, and obviously faulty, solution to a complex set of problems. Zeitoun also tells the story of ordinary people caught in the “system” — only the system is America’s national-security and criminal-justice apparatus and federal emergency-response bureaucracy today, not its meatpacking industry and capitalist free-for-all a century ago. As such, it’s a more relatable story, deftly constructed, and it presents an equally infuriating social portrait without the tidy indoctrination play. The fact that it is nonfiction makes the details more dramatic; Dave Eggers tells the story of a Syrian immigrant who stayed in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, only to be arrested on dubious grounds and shipped into a makeshift detention facility, denied even a phone call to his family. There’s a host of classroom discussions to be had, and a lot to unpack. It should be noted that the protagonist of this story was later convicted of felony stalking, but this doesn’t change the very real hell he and his family went through post-Katrina. If anything, the full arc of his story captures the moral complexities of real life — that a figure can be good, bad, and indifferent, in different circumstances, and that the system can torment him just the same — instead of serving ideological nostrums. That said, if a teacher’s goal is to create more vegetarians . . . The Jungle is probably the better option.

— Judson Berger

Twelfth Night Instead of Romeo and Juliet

It’s time to finally kill off Romeo and Juliet. And I’m not just talking about the characters. According to the Folger Shakespeare Library, which produces the most popular texts used in American high schools, this tale of star-crossed lovers is typically their top-selling play. It’s a shame that for many students, their only exposure to the greatest writer the English language has ever known will be one of the Bard’s weakest works, filled with saccharine lines and focusing on two whiny and hormone-crazed teenagers whose entire tragedy is driven by nothing deeper than their lack of impulse control.

Instead, high-school students should read another love story, Shakespeare’s finest comedy, Twelfth Night. Much more contemporary and attuned to our cynical age, the play parodies shallow infatuation while simultaneously delivering a charming romance. It has many of the classic Shakespearean motifs, including disguise and mistaken identity. And at times, it is downright hilarious, as with the drunken shenanigans of Sir Toby and Malvolio’s “some are born great” speech (especially epic in live performances when he enters the stage in full yellow stockings). If schools would rather stick with tragedy, then Othello is a better bet — a much more complex romantic conflict than that of Romeo and Juliet, pitting a tragic anti-hero against one of the greatest fictional villains ever created.

— Phil Klein

The Sun Also Rises Instead of The Great Gatsby

If high-school English teachers are going to insist on inflicting The Great Gatsby on every last American teenager (“It’s not even Fitzgerald’s best book!”; “It’s fine, but on the whole, quite overrated!”; okay, I’ll stop now before I go on, and on . . .), they should at least leaven the Fitzgerald with the much-superior Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms.

Those two novels plus Hemingway’s memoir of Lost Generation–era Paris, A Moveable Feast, offer a better window into the horror of the Great War and the anomie and decadence of the Twenties than anything in Gatsby. A dozen so-so film adaptations and a million “old sports” won’t change that.

And while I’m at it:

Can we also ditch Kerouac’s On the Road? Replacing it with Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion would be a significant upgrade.

Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is a slog, and the fact that it’s a work of proto-feminism is no excuse for its sloggishness. Replace it with Little Women and Anne of Green Gables. Better heroines. Better books.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is, of course, a must, especially if you compare and contrast it with Huxley’s Brave New World. But any reader of Orwell should also read Homage to Catalonia and, I would argue, The Road to Wigan Pier and “Politics and the English Language.” Catalonia and Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls are superficially similar and yet so different. Can our nation’s youth explain how and why?

— Mark A. Wright

Encouraging True Love of Poetry

When you think back to your school days, do you remember having to read an assigned poem, then dreading the moment when the teacher asked, “What do you think it means?” I’m for letting kids hear good poems read aloud and then pretty much leaving them alone. No forced discussion. No papers. Just listening and reading. That might rescue poetry from being ruined by schools.

For younger grades, I’d recommend Opposites and More Opposites, two collections of short, rhyming, comical poems (and illustrations) by the great Richard Wilbur (1921–2017). (“What is the opposite of riot? / It’s lots of people keeping quiet.” Another two-liner: “The opposite of opposite? / That’s much too difficult. I quit.”)

For older grades, the Caedmon Poetry Collection: A Century of Poets Reading Their Work (CD) would be a fine addition to the classroom. Once you hear Dylan Thomas reciting “Fern Hill” (“down the rivers of the windfall light”), you can’t forget it. It’s in your mind’s ear. You might even decide you’re for poetry, and poetry is for you.

— Jessica Hornik Evans

All the King’s Men Instead of Ethan Frome

None of the novels I loved in my teens had been assigned to me in high school, though I reviled many of the books that had been. Most Americans my age, I assume, were also forced to endure the insufferable whininess of Catcher in the Rye or the ham-fisted allegory of The Scarlet Letter. But perhaps the most incomprehensibly bleak and aggressively unentertaining book foisted on us was Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. The 1911 novel is set in the fictional New England town of Starkfield — get it? — where we learn of the self-inflicted burdens of the eponymous sad sack, who falls for his shrewish wife’s cousin, Mattie. When Mattie and Ethan finally decide to put themselves out of their misery, the reader is momentarily fooled into believing the story might have a happy ending. But Frome can’t even accomplish this task.

Perhaps rereading Ethan Frome as an adult would provide a different experience. But there are numerous books I know teens would find more exhilarating. Fight Club, The Right Stuff, Scoop, or The Master and Margarita come immediately to mind. Or All the King’s Men, perhaps the greatest novel ever written. What better way to prepare young minds for the real world than having them read the story of a liberal reformer’s descent into power-hungry corruption?

— David Harsanyi

’Salem’s Lot Instead of Dracula

Let no one deny that Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula has earned its literary immortality — even as, while reading it, one fervently hopes for the mortality of its titular vampiric antagonist. Though it was not the first vampire tale, it did originate or enshrine many of the tropes and templates now associated with this particular subgenre of horror: vampiric aversion to Christian iconography; vampiric sexuality; “the children of the night,” etc. (though many of these were later refined and immortalized by Todd Browning’s 1931 film adaption).

Yet certain aspects of Dracula make it challenging for the modern reader. Its epistolary structure means that the entire story is conveyed via such means as journal entries (and even shipping records), unnecessarily complicating the story and significantly undercutting its intended horror and suspense. Its Victorian-era trappings can, at times, be insufferable and distracting even for reactionary souls. It is somewhat inconsistent on what vampires can and can’t do. And it is ultimately not that scary.

That’s in part because others have picked up where Stoker left off. Perhaps the best example is Stephen King’s 1975 novel ’Salem’s Lot (his second), which unfolds on the basic premise of: What if Dracula (or, in this case, “Kurt Barlow”), came to a small town in (of course) Maine, instead of London, as in Stoker’s novel? King’s tale is at once a surprisingly rich portrait of a small town; an unconscious meditation on King’s own persona (three of its main characters are basically King as a boy, King as a young man, and King as an old man); and, above all, a gripping horror yarn — one scene in particular will surely inspire nervous nocturnal glances at windows.

Stephen King’s work is sometimes disrespectful of Christianity (see his first novel, Carrie), but here he mostly maintains a distinction between good and evil in which Christianity plays a significant role. ’Salem’s Lot thus shares with Dracula the possibility of transcendent good implied by the presence of diabolical evil. So, much as I possess a conservative’s aversion to striking anything from any curriculum, I must admit that a generation raised on Stranger Things (which bears a strong King influence) would probably be likelier at least to read ’Salem’s Lot instead of resorting to Shmoop/Sparknotes/CliffsNotes/Wikipedia, which is a win in these overstimulated times. And those truly besotted with vampirism (one hopes just in fiction!) after reading ’Salem’s Lot will always be free to travel to Transylvania.

Jack Butler

Benito Cereno Instead of Moby Dick

The writings of Herman Melville should be taught in schools, both for their grasp of human fallenness and his peerless exposition of the human experience. That said, there’s no need to subject schoolchildren to the 400 pages of whaling manual in Moby Dick. Some texts require the reader to be a more seasoned individual, and Moby Dick happens to be one such text. Melville’s novella Benito Cereno is a worthy substitute. It’s a suspenseful tale, with an American captain coming to the rescue of a seemingly derelict Spanish ship and discovering it full of slaves and a small contingent of Spanish sailors. Without ruining the ending, Benito Cereno explores assumptions associated with race and class, as well as grappling with the dehumanizing effects of chattel slavery. In our modern age where race is reduced to slogans, Benito Cereno challenges the reader with complex actors, sympathetic villains, and moral conundra. Every chapter can produce robust discussion in class, as it is tightly written to keep the action moving toward the climax without many of the asides from which Moby Dick suffers.

— Luther Ray Abel

A Tale of Two Cities Instead of David Copperfield

I was assigned David Copperfield as summer reading leading up to my junior year of high school. The book’s claim to serve as an introduction to Dickens is strong enough: It’s a quintessential bildungsroman that contains some of his most memorable characters — the unctuous Uriah Heep, the cheery bankrupt Mr. Micawber and his devoted wife — as well as being perhaps the novel closest to Dickens’s own heart (understandably, since it’s semi-autobiographical). But it’s also one of his longest, and even as a bookish teenager with an affinity for British lit, I found young David’s winding path from boyhood to manhood a bit of a slog at times. (I also had no use for the book’s two exasperating female romantic leads — the childlike Dora and the angelic Agnes.) A much better gateway to Dickens is A Tale of Two Cities, his fast-paced historical novel about the French Revolution. Out of the frenzied mob violence of the Terror (he relied on Carlyle for the history), Dickens spins an immortal tale of sacrificial and redemptive love. I might even call it a page-turner. If you want to be captivated by Dickens’s moral universe, his gift for apprehending the great sweep of humanity, and the sheer force of his storytelling power, start here.

— Katherine Howell

Don’t Neglect Homer

No child should go through school without spending precious moments of their time in utter frustration with Achilles’s mother. But will they get the chance?

Often given short shrift in college and generally ignored in the lower grades, Homer deserves more than a cursory glance. Indeed, the foundational nature and mighty influence of his poems on Western literature begs that they be introduced to young students.

Since the original Greek and Latin might be daunting to developing readers, an entry-level choice is The Children’s Homer by Padraic Colum, and it is my humble suggestion that this be done as a read-aloud once in middle school and then again in junior high. This book captures the essence of the stories without dumbing down the material, giving children a chance to meet friends and enemies to accompany them on their literary journey. From there, high schoolers could then be introduced to the Robert Fagles or Richmond Lattimore translations, and, already having a grasp of the story, can dive more deeply into the nuances of the mythology and grapple with the age-old themes. Finally, the intrepid college student, with this solid background, will pick up Fagles or Lattimore again and argue of the merits of each with fellow classics lovers. Hector, Paris, Penelope, Helen, Agamemnon — all the friends and foes of youth come back, and perhaps they will accompany the student as she studies their rich tale in the beautiful mother tongue.

— Sarah Colleen Schutte

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