Literary Blog Hop-Required Reading

Friday, January 21, 2011

Literary Blog Hop This week's topic for the Literary Blog Hop, hosted by The Blue Bookcase, is one that is near and dear to the hearts of every person ever to take a literature class.  Near and dear, that is, if you like to talk about books that you hated.  Here's the question:

Discuss a work of literary merit that you hated when you were made to read it in school or university.  Why did you dislike it?

Anyone who reads this blog even semi-regularly already knows of my hatred of all things Joyce (I'm looking at you, Portrait of the Artist!), so I will skip my usual diatribe against narcissistic stream-of-consciousness.  However, that means I can't really think of a book I had to read for one of my classes that I disliked enough to qualify for this question.  So, let's discuss a different but related question near and dear to my heart-why are certain works chosen over others to teach in high school and basic college classes?

This question occurred to me while thinking about books that I could write about for this post because in going through the ones I remember in my head, I realized that almost all of them have male protagonists or were written by men or both.  Now, granted, I was in high school and college in the 80s, but you'd think somewhere along the line I would have read a few women.  Let's examine the list of titles I can remember:

  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • A Separate Peace
  • Lord of the Flies
  • Julius Caeser, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet
  • A Tale of Two Cities
  • The Iliad
  • 1984
  • Jane Eyre
  • Heart of Darkness
  • Death of a Salesman
  • J.B. (Archibald MacLeish)
  • L'Etranger (The Stranger)
  • La Peste (The Plague)
From that list, which spans mostly high school, there are only two female authors, and two female protagonsists-Jane Eyre and Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird-though Lee certainly goes out of her way to make sure we know that Scout is a tomboy, not one of those prissy girls.  Even the books I read in my French classes were male-centered.  While I enjoyed and appreciated most of these books well-enough, some diversity would have been nice.  After all, I enjoy vanilla ice cream too, but if all I ever ate was vanilla ice cream I'd never get to know flavors like rocky road or triple chocolate fudge ripple.

I thought that maybe this lack of female voices in my high school English classes was just a function of my age, so I decided to check out the books being taught the most today.  While my research is in no way scientific or exhaustive, by looking at the most popular SparkNotes I can say that students are looking for information on the following books more often than others.  And they are:

  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • The Great Gatsby
  • The Adventures of Huck Finn
  • Lord of the Flies
  • The Scarlet Letter
  • Of Mice and Men
  • The Crucible
  • Catcher in the Rye
  • Frankenstein
  • The Odyssey
Seems like American high school students are still be treated to vanilla ice cream an awful lot of the time.

Now I can hear some of you saying, "Those are just the high school books.  You can read so many more diverse books in college."  Which is true-if you go to college.  And if you are in a major that requires more than basic English classes, where some of the above titles are actually repeated in more depth. So, why has so little changed in the 22 years since I graduated from college?  With the wide range of excellent literature out there, why are American high schools still stuck in a dead-white-guy rut?  Anyone have suggestions for title we could add to these old standbys? 


  1. I was lucky enough to read a more diverse grouping of authors but I was also lucky enough to go to college, major in English and have a professor that stressed the importance of authors outside of the male and white genre. I'd love to see some Toni Morrison added to the regular curriculum.

  2. For the oldies, Jane Austen and the Brontes are perfect for high school. Sappho is a must. Maybe some George Eliot.

    I'm a huge fan of Eudora Welty and Flanner O'Connor--and many of their short stories would be good for hs kids. And _Their Eyes Were Watching God_ is great, too.

    I've been thinking a bit about the fact that in general, women writers produced much more work in the 20th century--and a lot of 20th cent women's writing deals with complexities that aren't always appropriate for hs students. Talking about themes of marriage and mature relationships with all their limitations on a person might just not click until people are a little older. Like Ethan Frome, or Mrs. Dalloway...?

    Great discussion.

  3. I'm not from the US, so I can't really comment on the state of the country's education system. However, your post made me realize how poor the literature curriculum in my old high school was. When I was a senior--I'm ashamed to admit this--we only discussed The Odyssey. That was it. I read books like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, etc. on my own, and I think it's sad that my classmates missed out on such great works.

  4. Thanks for hopping by my blog. I answered your question re Canadian authors there :) I don't quite understand the "dead white guy" syndrome, either (LOL). In Canada, we are moving towards providing more varied literature such as graphic novels & contemporary lit but sometimes resort to stand-by classics.

  5. I think Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan would be a great addition to a Freshman or Sophomore class - it's an easy read, but an important topic re: diversity and acceptance (AND it's very well done, to boot).

  6. Adam, I just reviewed that on my childrens/young adult blog, Second Childhood Reviews. I loved it!

  7. Although you claim a sparse list, there's is a greater range of writers than I faced, I mean Camus, I would have loved to have discovered him whilst at school as opposed to by myself following a trail of different authors.. Scratch that I think i preferred my route.

  8. I worry more about encouraging people to be lifelong readers over requiring a diversity of texts. I don't like the idea of required reading at all. I prefer students to have choices.

  9. My children were in high school just yesterday - well, really, the youngest graduated 2.5 years ago. To Kill a Mockingbird was on her reading list, but so was The Prince (Machiavelli), Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury), and Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe). I remember reading Achebe in college, never mind how long ago that was.

    Som of my own suggestions: Octavia Butler - one of the most original voices in speculative fiction, her books explore multiple themes. Sheri S. Tepper - another speculative fiction writer, often on feminist and/or environmental themes. Kim Stanley Robinson - speculative fiction, environmental/technology themes. Connie Willis - her book, Passage, is a good story and a good conversation-starter about death, dying, and what comes next from a non-religious perspective. Others: Alice Walker, Alice Hoffman, Barbara Kingsolver - all good contemporary writers.

  10. I love Octavia Butler and Sheri Tepper! The Gate to Women's Country is one of my favorite feminist books.

  11. Deb, I think there needs to be a balance. Teaching students to think critically about literature means making sure they read books that showcase various literary styles and perspectives, but keeping them reading means making sure they also get to choose their own independent reading. Granted my students are in elementary school, but I make sure that I choose high quality literature for reading instruction, and have plenty of diverse books for them to read independently. Maybe that's the key-high schools need to balance required texts with more independent reading.

  12. I loved The Scarlet Letter. :)

    My read was STONEHENGE DECODED...uggh. Did anyone else have to suffer through it?

    Stop by my blog if you like to see my full answer...I also have a giveaway that isn't very literary, but check it out.


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