I did a lot of reading in high school, both in and out of class. I was in Honors English until the 10th grade; for 11th and 12th grade I took advanced placement English courses, earning college credit. We were pretty smart kids. We had good teachers. I think this formula led the (teacher? curriculum?) to add some literary works to our reading list that were terribly boring as well as inappropriate for our age. And when I say inappropriate, I don’t mean movie-ratings appropriate (sex, vulgarity, violence, etc.). I mean that we did not have the maturity and life experiences to enjoy and appreciate these works.
With the reading rate declining along with the enormous amount of online distractions, I think it is more important than ever to nurture and encourage a love of reading in schools. This means not having kids read stupid, boring shit that they don’t enjoy and can’t appreciate. I remember my aunt (now in her 60’s) saying that her eighth grade teacher made them read Homer’s The Odyssey in full, by themselves, for homework. She had no idea what was going on. The experience was so poor that it turned her off of reading books. She’s still not a big reader. This, folks, makes me sad.
I can think of a few glaring examples of books that high school ruined for me. My friends and I still talk about these with a passionate hatred.
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
This is, by far, the most egregious example. As part of the AP program, we were tasked with reading this ON OUR SUMMER BREAK between 10th and 11th grade. Yep, that’s 15- and 16-year-olds trying to get through Thomas Hardy, alone, during the most glorious and care-free time of our young lives.
As far as we could discern, Jude the Obscure is a miserable tale about a miserable man and his miserable life. Jude yearns to get to the university but never makes it. He marries a vulgar woman then hooks up with his cousin (ew). His children hate him so much they hang themselves. Then Jude falls ill and dies miserable and alone. Why would anyone make 16-year-olds read this?
I now understand that there are complex issues of religion, marriage, society, education, hope, and disappointment woven throughout the book. Did we absorb any of that? Of course not. What does a 16-year-old know about not fulfilling your life’s potential, of yearning for something for years but not reaching it, of utter despair and disappointment because your life has not turned out as you hoped?
Thomas Hardy is completely inappropriate for kids that young. We simply did not have the emotional and intellectual maturity and experience to understand and appreciate a novel of this capacity. Unfortunately, this bad experience turned me off of Thomas Hardy forever. I have never read any other Hardy novels and I doubt I ever will.
The Pearl by John Steinbeck
We read this book in eight grade. We were thirteen. We wondered why someone was obsessed with a pearl. We wondered why so much violence surrounds this pearl. We wondered why Kino would throw the pearl back in the ocean at the end of the novel if everyone was so obsessed with it. We wondered what the point of this novel is. Also, The Pearl is. so. boring.
I understand that The Pearl is a high school staple. But, why? What adults do you know that read The Pearl? Who, besides the curriculum writers, thinks that this is a thought-provoking, timeless work? I think this continues to be read in school simply because that’s what’s been done for so long. There’s not much reason to it.
The same year we read The Pearl, we also read sections of Dante’s Inferno. As part of a creative writing assignment, we were to create our own circles of hell. My friend put John Steinbeck in the lowest circle with his punishment being that he has to read all his own books. Let’s STOP MAKING MIDDLE SCHOOLERS READ THE PEARL.
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
Full disclosure: I like Waiting for Godot. Unlike many other works they make you read in school, I don’t think it’s boring at all. But it’s also complex – absurdist, existential, open to interpretation, and dealing with very intangible and obscure themes. Some high schoolers may grasp these concepts while others simply won’t. I think this play is best read and understood in college or later in life.
Bonus pic! Here is a terrible picture of Samuel Beckett’s grave in Paris:
I warned you this picture was bad.
I am not implying that high schoolers should be relegated to reading The Hunger Games or Goosebumps books. I’m also not underestimating the intelligence and the maturity of students. However, I think that the works I mentioned above, along with others, make a poor impression on students when they are not old enough to appreciate them.
That being said, there are plenty of classic literary works that are age-appropriate and enjoyable to read. Some works that I think are a great read at a high school level are:
- The Catcher in the Rye – Holden Caufield and his teenage angst, anxiety, and feelings of alienation speak to young people in a special and engaging way.
- The Great Gatsby – my review is here. A timeless book, this can be understood, appreciated, and loved by students.
- Crime and Punishment – such a page turner! So much psychology! I remember my high school class really enjoying this book.
- To Kill A Mockingbird – my favorite, favorite, favorite of all the classics. Beautiful story, engaging subject manner, expert writing.
- A Raisin in the Sun – race, poverty, hope, family; this play encompasses important and poignant concepts for students.
Which books did high school ruin for you? What books do you wish you read at that age?