So, it’s that time of year again when I and many of my ilk (underpaid and often underappreciated English teachers) must churn out another summer’s reading list for the parents of prospective students. Each year I face this seemingly simple task with a mix of horror and aversion many would save for root canal work or a trip to the DMV. Years ago, a naïve version of me, ideals intact, looked forward to the opportunity to pass my love of literature on to future generations. I was all too eager to recommend books that I viewed as both topical and scholarly, a satisfying mix of canonized favorites, forgotten gems and cutting edge contemporary works.
Now, older and more cynical, I have realized that despite my best efforts I’ll never satisfy even half of my incoming sophomores. Worse yet, I’ll have to endure their expert criticisms. These are often expressed with a sigh of resignation that bespeaks a universal familiarity of the literary cannon both past and present, a condescending, almost pitying acknowledgement of my efforts which is traditionally vocalized via the humble request that next time we read “something good.” Complicating my efforts are real world considerations such as cost, thematic relevance and moral fortitude. Basically I have to wow and impress the hipster generation with books that are cheap, tied into my existing curriculum and as inoffensive as possible…aka boring.
My goal is simple. I want to create a list of books that will challenge and entertain next year’s sophomores. Original, yet respected choices that will force students to look at the world in new ways, get them to open up to new possibilities or at the very least prevent them from rolling their eyes and assaulting me with the dreaded incantation, “why are we reading this?”. In the past I’ve done my best and below I’ve listed some of my tried and true picks, but I’m open to suggestion. Do you have fond memories of a book that was forced upon you in your youth? Please help! My sanity and the future reading lives of 150 or so students rest in your knowledgeable hands.
Looking back, this was an obvious choice, a “safe” book that still had the potential to generate interest via subversive themes and subject matter. My loyalty to the author has made this book appear on my list at least six of the past seven years and student reactions run the gambit. Challenges I’ve encountered, include a difficult syntactical construction and an abundance of imagery that may confuse some readers.
I picked this book based on fond recollections and a weakness for books featuring prep schools. The text is approachable and many of the literary techniques are readily recognizable for average readers. A possible downside is the psychological complexity of the two main characters’ friendship which may be interpreted as homosexual.
This book is my ringer. A graphic novel on a required reading list…I rule. The upsides are obvious and include gorgeous artwork and Shakespearian credibility reinterpreted via the genius of Neil Gaiman. The downside is equally apparent and include a lack of credibility based on medium and the graphic nature of the material that bookcases the story which is of a highly suggestive nature.
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