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Monday, April 27, 2009

Reading Corner

Bill Bennett has a list of books that everyone should have read by high school graduation (link via KLo). This shows up on my radar as quickly as Darth Vader at a Klan rally, for reasons I blogged back in 2003:

Here's a word for both the pop educators and the "hooked on classics" crowd: balance. In between the old kid-unfriendly classics such as Great Expectations and The Great Gatsby, uber-depressing nihilo-crap like A Separate Peace and Catcher In The Rye, and ancient works such as Beowulf and Canterbury Tales that require an advanced degree in linguistics to read, there's gotta be some fun stuff. Kids need to be able to develop the discipline to read challenging works, but for the sake of morale and future reading habits they've got to be exposed to literature they might actually enjoy.

John Derbyshire airs one reader's complaint: that the reading list is slanted heavily toward well-above-average IQs.

There's another factor that Bennett's panel may have failed to account for: time. Leaves of Grass in its entirety? The novels - plural - of William Faulkner?? The two-volume Democracy in America, which alone would require the better part of a semester??? War and Frickin' Peace????

I'm going to attempt a systematic approach at cranking out a list of must-reads. First, I'll list questionable and outright atrocious Bennett selections:

  • Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald: Cultural significance is overstated, I think.
  • Pride and Prejudice, Austen - A possible assignment, but why this over the works of other writers of this genre? (I haven't read it, which is why I ask.)
  • Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky - College-level reading. (Haven't read; I'll trust the NRO reader.)
  • Faulkner - ditto.
  • War and Frickin' Peace, Tolstoy - It's not nearly as long as Les Miserables, but I'm averse to assign a single reading task that large.
  • Paradise Lost, Milton - College-level mammoth poem.
  • Catcher in the Rye, Salinger - This novel's cultural relevancy rests largely on the fact that it's required reading in so many schools. Piffle with the educrat status quo. Anyway, I'm leery of the notion of socially maladjusted youth - which is no small number of the teen population - reading a first-person novel about a socially maladjusted youth. It sounds like an unscrupulous psychology experiment.
  • Politics, Aristotle - see below.
  • Homer, Virgil - see below.

Now I will fit contenders from Bennett's list - and my own additions (by no means an exhaustive list) - with various school courses.

Greco-Roman literature. I would confine this subject to a single course, perhaps at 9th grade level. That doesn't leave much room for three epic poems. If one is doable, I'd pick Odyssey, because it involves Greek mythology (which the kids would have learned in the previous semester's Ancient Mythology class). Sophocles' Oedipus is the obvious choice to represent Greek theater; given time I might also throw in its sequel, Antigone (which I have read). One item Bennett's lexico-luminati omitted which I believe is a must is Aesop's Fables - but that could be taught at a much earlier grade level. Not sure about Roman works; never read Cicero, so I can't comment there.

Poetry. Bennett's list cites only four post-ancient poets, and they're all American: Dickinson, Frost, Emerson, Whitman. I'd definitely add Poe's works and various classic poems ("Rime of the Ancient Mariner," "Rubaiyat," "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "Harlem," etc.)

Literature (American). Literature is a course that recurs from grade to grade, so there's lots of room for reading material. Because this is America, most lit will be Amercican lit. Start with Bennett's list. Scarlet Letter pioneered the psychological novel. Moby Dick has its flaws (including some errors about whaling, which should be pointed out in class), but it's a unique novel and is one of the most culturally relevant American novels, in that class with Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn (the latter is on Bennett's list). Grapes of Wrath I haven't read (I saw the movie), but it probably belongs. Ditto on Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, which amazingly did not make the list.

Literature (the rest of the Anglosphere). Shakespearean plays are a staple of junior high and high school, and my school would be no different on that mark. I'd issue the Folger Library paperback editions that have play synopses and translations of key archaic terms opposite the original text.

Orwell's Animal Farm (not on the list) and Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities are quite readable at junior high age. I will insist on modern translation of Canterbury Tales. I'd throw in two of the great horror influences, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and (going out on a limb to endorse a book I haven't read) Irishman Bram Stoker's Dracula. Hound of the Baskervilles is an excellent representative of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series; I've also heard good things about A Study in Scarlet. Wells' The War of the Worlds also makes my list.

Literature (World). I'd have a single course, in high school. I'd have to toss a coin between The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo for the token Alexandre Dumas selection. Haven't read Goethe's Faust, but it's culturally relevant, so it's a contender.

Political theory. I would have a single course focusing on key writings influences on the subject. 1984 would not be assigned in this class, but would crop up in some general poli-sci course. (Orwell's prose gets quagmirish in sections.) Found here are Bennett selections Plato's The Republic, Machiavelli's The Prince, Marx's Communist Manifesto, and the Declaration of Independence.

There is a way to include Aristotle and de Toqueville without requiring any actual reading: if such productions exist, show film documentaries that explain each of these books. There is such a film associated with Milton Friedman's Free to Choose; both the film and the book might be worthwhile. I would also seek such a film about the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers.

That leaves a hole to be filled: modern socialism. Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward was a utopian novel that deeply inspired socialist movements in the early 20th century.

Whether in book form or video documentary form (probably the latter), I'd want Keynes' General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, and Hayek's The Road to Serfdom.

Update: A more exhaustive list, which I will not attempt at this time, would address my concern about the balance between challenge and enjoyability. Here I limited myself to the must-reads (and must-views, in the case of documentaries).

Update: The original post cited Faust without mentioning its author. This has been changed.

Update: Andrew Ian Dodge links this post, and has a few literary suggestions, including Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead.


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