The 23 Books You Didn’t Read In High School etc. article caught my eye. I believe I reposted it to Facebook with the following text:
“In order: No, yes, yes, snore, no, regrettably yes, never offered to my chagrin, yes (well ahead of high school), no, no, no, yes (again, as a child), our school was never that awesome, nor that awesome, nor THAT awesome (but I was), no, no, on my ooooown pretending he’s beside me, not at school and DNF, possibly, Fridrikr should’ve taught that one, squirrel, no.”
Which is not to say I’m poorly read or detest anything that could remotely be a classic. It’s just that what I read has to interest me somehow, and some of what’s there is decidedly not in my wheelhouse. Others weren’t taught well, and some were just not taught at all. I will therefore expand on my nos, my yeses, and my squirrel, and see if I can’t cobble together an offbeat-classics sort of list.
1. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald. If it was assigned, I don’t recall slogging through it. Something about it isn’t to my tastes. Jazz Age people being terrible to each other? Bollocks to that, no matter how magnificent the writing! But at university, I did pick up Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, which was utterly fantastic. Carrie was relatable in ways the people in Gatsby just weren’t.
2. To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee. Read it, loved it.
3. Night – Elie Wiesel. Read it, loved it, loved the follow-up assignment where I got to adapt one screen for film.
4. Lord of the Flies – William Golding. Snored through the whole thing. I already knew kids were ruthless little shits when it suited them. Doesn’t have to happen in the wild, either; Robert Cormier covered that material nicely in The Chocolate War and Roald Dahl in his memoir Boy.
5. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad. We were never asked to read this. Looking at the synopsis on Wikipedia, I’m thinking it’s not inappropriate to substitute a narrative by an actual African man dealing with imperialism. Give me Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe any day.
6. The Catcher in the Rye – J D Salinger. God save me from self-important teenage boys. I suppose a character with so few redeeming values is a novelty indeed. My teacher paired this with “Dead Poets Society”; I’d say the better cheese for that wine is Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, which unfortunately did not appear on the scene until I had all but graduated from high school.
7. Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck. Never had this, but we did do The Grapes of Wrath in AP English. It was on the not-AP curriculum, and I probably would’ve enjoyed it.
8. Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell. Read it long before it was assigned.
9. Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut. Wasn’t assigned, would probably not have read it anyhow. It lost out to Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness in the awards, which I would happily pick up.
10. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley. I’m kind of “eh” on classic horror. Okay, really “eh”. At this point, I’m also noticing that of the novels on this list, exactly one is both female-authored with a female protagonist. Why the sausage-fest? I’m going to be bold and suggest Mira Grant’s Newsflesh novels as a great substitute. They’re fast, they’re fun, and they feature equally mad scientists. What’s not to love?
11. Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Harriet Beecher Stowe. Never assigned, alas. I did read Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and that may even have been on a school book list. Couple it with To Be A Slave by Julius Lester and once again, you are getting the actual perspectives of actual people of color.
12. Animal Farm – George Orwell. Read it, loved it.
13. Waiting for Godot – Samuel Beckett. For some reason we gave this one a miss. Couldn’t we at least have done Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead instead? I’d have liked either. Apparently the scope of theatre required for high school graduates is Shakespeare and, if they’re really lucky, a shred of Miller.
14. Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf. Nobody ever had the balls to teach us Virginia Woolf. Rumor had it one bunch of students got to read The Handmaid’s Tale, though.
15. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley. Read it when I was too young to really get it. Never assigned.
16. As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner. Another one we never got to read. Truth be told, I don’t remember the curriculum as very daring, morally speaking; we weren’t asked to think a whole hell of a lot, not about what really mattered. You want something gorgeous and Southern and modern? Try Kaye Gibbons’ A Virtuous Woman.
17. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller. Another one that has me yelling “Heaven forfend we should think!” I’m not sure how many people would’ve understood it, which is sad. Well, there were copies of M*A*S*H sitting in my junior year classroom, and I have been pushing for more theatre on this list…
18. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey. In a pig’s eye. I had to find it myself. Could’ve done with a teacher in this case. I had, however, read and been horrified by Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes aged ten.
19. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath. This was a DNF for me, but I did start it. Never assigned. Decidedly about more than “sweat[ing] the small stuff” (h/t Gayle). I didn’t need to finish it; I was living it.
20. Death of a Salesman – Arthur Miller. Now that I think of it, I did read this in high school. Like I said, theatre consisted of Shakespeare, except for Miller. This play. Oh, and there was Pygmalion in ninth grade. That’s about it.
21. Beowulf – my favored translation was Seamus Heaney. Which, because I had to drop AP English mid-semester, I never finished. Depression’s a beast! But we were given Sophocles’ Oedipus and Antigone before I left. Or perhaps we were just given Antigone and I read Oedipus on my own.
22. Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka. Never assigned. Apparently influenced in part by Venus In Furs, which would’ve been a hoot. Well, if we’re not having Kafka, we may as well have Remarque, with his All Quiet on the Western Front. I’d gladly have subbed that in for The Red Badge of Courage (which is Sir Not Appearing On This List, but was assigned and bored me to tears).
23. Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston. Not one I was ever personally given. I understand it, too, was an option for the non-AP seniors. Honestly, I wish I’d had it.