Today’s post is part of Top Ten Tuesday, a project currently organized by the book blogger Jana (aka That Artsy Reader Girl). This week’s prompt is an education-themed freebie, as it’s back-to-school season here in the United States.
I was trying to think of a good topic to fit that theme when I came across an article on the New York Times website that asked a number of authors, from John Green to Yaa Gyasi, which books they would like to see added to high school curricula. I found that a difficult question to answer for myself, not because I couldn’t think of any candidates, but because there are so many directions to take that prompt. What exactly do high school reading lists miss? What are the ultimate goals of education? Which books best address such concerns?
To try to capture the whole breadth of that discussion, I’ve come up with a list of ten books that I feel would add something of value to a high school education. The only criterion for possible consideration was that I couldn’t have read the book while I personally was in high school. So, if any of these books were already required reading for you, then…well, you clearly went to a cooler school district than I did.
And so, proceeding chronologically:
1. Edward II, by Christopher Marlowe (c. 1592)
English classes have an odd relationship with early-modern English drama. Shakespeare is all but mandatory as part of the curriculum, but his contemporaries hardly get mentioned, let alone read: none of Ben Jonson’s intricate city comedies, none of Thomas Middleton’s tragic bloodbaths. But I feel Shakespeare’s dominance is especially a shame when it comes to Christopher Marlowe, whose work not only influenced the Bard’s but also matches it in pure, visceral pleasure. Marlowe’s characters are larger than life, always scheming, and elicit viewer sympathy despite their many, many vices.
Edward II is my favorite of his works, and I would love to see it taught for two reasons. First, as a history play, it would slot well into a discussion of Shakespeare’s Richard III or Henry IV, Part 1, as the monarchs in each play respond quite differently to the dissenting nobles threatening to take the crown. Second, teaching the play would be an excuse to show students Derek Jarman’s striking 1991 film adaptation, which turns the homoerotic subtext of Edward and Gaveston’s relationship into text. It’s the perfect demonstration of how queer themes, rather than being a recent development, have been part of the Anglophone canon for centuries.
2. Washington Square, by Henry James (1880)
There are some writers whose works, while critically lauded and oft-studied at the university level, rarely make their way onto high school reading lists because of their perceived difficulty. I’m thinking of authors such as William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, and the dean of this odd school, Henry James. Untangling James’s syntax is a true challenge that every student of literature must eventually face, but Washington Square is an exception in his bibliography. Indeed, it reads less like James and more like that mainstay of English classes, Jane Austen. (Apparently this was much to James’s chagrin, but what does he know?)
Of course, I don’t count Washington Square so highly because it’s merely approachable. Instead, I think the book, by the example of its characters, is uniquely instructive in how relationships work. Over the course of the novel, Dr. Sloper judges that his daughter Catherine’s suitor, Morris Townsend, is only interested in her inheritance. As it happens, he’s right on the money (so to speak), as Townsend leaves Catherine after Dr. Sloper disinherits her. Yet in proving himself right, in proving his concerns for his daughter’s well-being were justified, he permanently damages his relationship with Catherine. Students will learn a difficult lesson by the end, one that the educational system seems particularly ill-equipped to impart: sometimes, being correct just doesn’t matter.
3. Passing, by Nella Larsen (1929)
One of the best literature courses I took as an undergraduate was called Capital Fictions, which was an exploration of economic themes in late 19th- and early 20th-century American literature. I was tempted to try shoehorning half the syllabus onto this list—ooh, people should actually read The Jungle! ooh, McTeague is a masterpiece of literary naturalism! ooh, “The Tenth of January” is a fantastic short story!—but in the end, I exercised something resembling disciplined and settled on the one book that I found the most eye-opening.
I don’t think we ever used the term in Capital Fictions, but that course was basically my introduction to the concept of intersectionality, and no book on the syllabus better demonstrated the interweaving of societal oppressions quite like Nella Larsen’s Passing. The novel tells the story of two light-skinned black women, Irene and Clare, who must navigate the racial, gender, and class expectations of 1920s Chicago, forces which strain their friendship and ultimately lead to sudden tragedy. It’s also a work where the prose style, empathetic but startlingly blunt, is perfectly suited to the subject, making it worthy read for any aspiring writers.
4. White Noise, by Don DeLillo (1985)
Don DeLillo writes the accessible sort of “weird” books that I’m certain would have totally blown my mind when I was in high school. White Noise isn’t “funny,” exactly, but there’s a lot in the book to quietly snort at, and unlike, for instance, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, one doesn’t need to be well versed in Jacobean revenge tragedies to get the joke. The fact that the protagonist, Jack Gladney, is a leading scholar of Hitler studies (snort) who doesn’t speak a lick of German (snort) is amusing no matter one’s stage of cultural awareness.
Hidden beneath the humor is a prescient depiction of media and advertising saturation (written before the Internet exacerbated those problems), chemical degradation of the environment, and medicinal fixes for anxiety, as well as a sympathetic meditation on the ever-present fear of death. White Noise is the sort of novel I expect (hope?) a fair number of students will want to throw back at the instructor, frustrated with the apparent pointlessness of its events. But even that reaction would be heartening—those people might just try to patch up this world before its own version of the Airborne Toxic Event.
5. Collected Sonnets, by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1941)
Poetry tends to get short shrift in English classes, with maybe a few weeks dedicated to the entire tradition. A Brit lit class might touch on the Romantics, an American lit class on Whitman and Dickinson, but not much beyond that. Still, most students graduate with at least some understanding of what a sonnet is, or at least an understanding that they exist and that Shakespeare wrote a whole bunch of them. The sonnet has proven to be an enduring form, and if anyone’s work demonstrates the power of a well-turned sonnet, then it’s Edna St. Vincent Millay.
An often under-taught aspect of the sonnet is the volta, the turn in the poem’s argument, and Millay’s poems are perfect exemplars of such twists. The movement in poems such as “[Only until this cigarette is ended]” or “[If I should learn, in some quite casual way]” is both clear and surprising. Her poems prove that contemporary concerns and classical imagery are not mutually exclusive, and that rhyme and meter are capable of speaking modern thoughts. But most of all, her speakers are so cool and confident that I think high school students will latch onto their personas. She’s the sort of poet who might convince you to become a poet.
6. Dien Cai Dau, by Yusef Komunyakaa (1988)
Of course, what high school English classes really need is more contemporary poetry, and by “contemporary,” I mean “anyone after Robert Frost.” Students come away from their secondary education with the notion that poetry is a dead art that only deals with archaic subject matter and must sound like the mad ravings of a pantalooned troubadour. And, to be sure, a lot of contemporary poetry is unintelligible to the uninitiated reader. But just as much is plain-spoken, personal, and relevant to the world outside academia, like the work of Yusef Komunyakaa.
Released in 1988, Komunyakaa’s collection Dien Cai Dau is a major work in the literature of the Vietnam War, one which details the day-to-day realities for an American soldier in the conflict. Komunyakaa rarely engages in syntactical or rhetorical fireworks, the sort that drive students batty; instead, his poems are so dense with sensory imagery that they become dreamlike (from “Starlight Scope Myopia”: “Smoke-colored // Viet Cong / move under our eyelids…”). The obvious standout is the final poem, “Facing It,” wherein the speaker reflects on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but every poem is thought-provoking and worthy of classroom discussion.
7. Mother Love, by Rita Dove (1995)
To round out this accidental trio of poetry collections, here’s a book that straddles the line between Millay’s formalist magic and Komunyakaa’s deeply detailed free verse. Rita Dove’s Mother Love is a long sequence of loose sonnets, and part of the fun of reading it is figuring out which aspects of the tradition (length, rhyme, meter, subject, volta) is Dove employing in a given poem and which she is ignoring. In purely practical terms, it’s a great way to gauge students’ understanding of the tradition’s formal requirements.
In less clinical terms, Mother Love is also great way to teach students how to take an old story and make its wholly their own. The collection is a rewriting of the myth of Persephone, with an emphasis on how she relates to her mother Demeter, played out in the present day. The mythological/fairy tale retelling is already a popular genre, but seeing how it plays out in verse could make for a fun in-class exercise. If nothing else, share the joys of the “The Bistro Styx” with everyone you meet. You could cut the mother-daughter tension in that poem with a steak knife.
8. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, by Svetlana Alexievich (1997)
When I was first composing this list, I thought about including some more works of history, such as Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer’s Bitter Fruit or John W. Dower’s Embracing Defeat. But while books like those cover topics which often go undiscussed in high school history classes (the CIA-backed coup in Guatemala, post-WWII Japan), as texts they tend to be dry and rather conventional. The material that these writers tackle is vital to understand, but their particular expression is not necessarily as compelling.
But a book like Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl is another matter entirely. Collecting the personal accounts of scores of people affected by the 1986 nuclear disaster in modern-day Ukraine, Alexievich’s book is a testament to the power of letting people tell their own stories in their own voices. In its arrangement of the individual testimonies, Voices from Chernobyl is also a reminder that just because journalist lets their subjects do the talking, that doesn’t mean they have no power over how the final project is presented.
9. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, by Alice Munro (2001)
Before, I said that poetry needed more presence in high school curricula, but short stories could probably make the same claim. At least in my experience, short stories were either used as supplementary material for a novel (like reading Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” alongside The Awakening), or as a means of chewing up class time after hitting all the syllabus material. And as for contemporary short stories, the sort that would fill out an issue of The New Yorker, well, those simply didn’t exist; I didn’t realize people still wrote short stories until undergrad. So why not at least give students some Alice Munro to chew over?
Munro is, I will concede, a challenging writer for students. Her stories are emotionally intense in a way high school might not immediately relate to, and her use of achronological storytelling and multiple points-of-view can take some getting used to. But at the same, the condensed short story form is a nice way of introducing students to such complications, as opposed to dropping a similarly difficult novel-length work on them. I’ve picked Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage because I’m especially fond of its contents (the title story and “Queenie” are wonderful pieces), but really, any Munro collection could fulfill this role. At any rate, she’s Canada’s first Nobel Laureate—why not put her on the syllabus?
10. So Much Synth, by Brenda Shaughnessy (2016)
I fear this list has become too academic, so let’s close things out with a book that’s a bit more fun. I’ve raved about Brenda Shaughnessy a couple of times on this blog before (e.g., my list of most read authors), and I’ve praised this book in particular. And of all the books on this list, I think Shaughnessy’s So Much Synth is the book that’s most relatable to a high school audience. The early poems in the collection concern people coming to terms with their sexuality, while the “mix tape” poems are wonderful examples of literature in conversation with pop culture.
But it’s the centerpiece of the collection, “Is There Something I Should Know?,” which would most intrigue me in a classroom setting. A sprawling, 27-page poem in which the speaker recounts the various mishaps of adolescence, “Is There Something I Should Know?” is a work which perfectly captures the way that one remembers what it was like to be a teenager, a time when we “just dumped rage and hurt, yearning / for finer feelings, not the indignities [we] suffered.” To read someone who’d survived high school express the sensation of doing so, and expressing it so well, would have been more than welcome when I was fourteen.
* * *
Well, there’s my list, but what do you think? Which books would you like to see added to high school reading lists? Did you in fact read any of these books in high school? Let me know in the comments!