The Pains and Prize of Assigned Readings

If you were tasked with creating an assigned reading list for a classroom, what would you submit? Were there any particular stories or novels that you read in school that you hated or felt forced to drudge through? Were there any that you loved enough to want to read again?

My wife and I took a road trip down to Tennessee this past weekend (from Ohio). During our drive we listened to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; a book that often appears on lists such as “Best Novels” and high school English class assigned readings. And not without reason; it is the epitome of dystopian literature.

I couldn’t help but marvel at how seemingly modern a novel published in 1932 seemed. I won’t bore you with what your high school English teacher has likely already covered ad nauseam, but if, like myself, you made it out on the other end of your high school years having never read Brave New World, I would point you to it. While I was never assigned to read this one, I do remember being assigned the dystopian classic Fahrenheit 451. I remember enjoying that one a great deal at the time. It could be that a novel entirely about the horror of burning books en masse has much to do with my adoration for literature. It is entirely possible this was an intended consequence of assigning said book, and if that was the case, I would have to say it did the trick.

To be perfectly honest, the majority of the books I was assigned to read I either breezed through in order to take a test or participate in some class discussion, or I simply bought the CliffsNotes and winged it. But now having gone back years later and read a handful of the books I’d previously passed over, I have been often surprised how much I can enjoy a book when it is not required that I read it (in a time crunch). That’s not to say everything we were assigned is good. Certainly I’ve gone back to start a few previously assigned readings and found them as dry and unreadable now as they were then. Two books I have since revisited that I have found I really love and am sorry that I didn’t give them their due adoration the first time around are The Great Gatsby and Ethan Frome. Both of which I’ve read at least a couple of times long after they were originally assigned to me.

As I was listening to Brave New World this weekend, I found myself asking, “What would I choose to assign a high school English class were I their teacher?”  When it comes to dystopian lit, it would be hard for me not to assign the entire Hunger Games trilogy, or at very least the first of the series (because who wouldn’t choose to read the other two on their own?). I would almost certainly assign Ethan Frome, because I think that is story telling at its best.


Comments (1) -

I had the task of assigning reading material to my home schooled son.   I nearly gave him a list similar to what was forced on me in school.  (I have absolutely loved reading since I learned how at three years of age and that list made it a chore.)  Then I thought about it, "What might capture the imagination of a teenager who had never voluntarily picked up a book on his own?"

I started with Dune.  Then I crossed my fingers, hoping that he would actually read it instead of heading over to Blockbusters® to get the movie version.  I gave it to him, then two days later I got a call at work. "Mom, are there any more books after this one.  You know, like a series?"  I was so giddy that I forgot to criticize his typical misuse of "like."  I told him, "Yes, there are others," and I would pick up the next book that day.  (Actually, I owned the entire series in hardcover but I felt it important that he have his own books that would then be placed on his bookshelves.)

After the Dune trilogy (yes, I know there are others, but it was time to move on.) The next book I assigned was The Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe.  This time I told him there were sequels, but if he didn't like it we would simply move on.  He liked it.  Now, he also read A Clockwork Orange and Diary of Anne Frank.  He was angry with me over that last one because I hadn't warned him that she didn't survive.  I happily accepted his anger because it was proof that he had become involved with the book, he wasn't just reading words.  Other assigned reading was part of the Carlos Castenada series which I think left him a bit confused.  A few books picked at random from the best sellers' list to use as comparisons to some of the other books he was reading.  A few children's books early on to allow him to more easily see how words can form mental pictures of what was being described.  There were also ten books he had to pick himself.  At the start, I half expected comic books.  Imagine my surprise when I saw To Kill A Mockingbird on his book list.

I know that these reading lists are supposed to teach something of the world we live in. Expand minds, teach life lessons.  Great literature, however, can often be dry.  I say that instead of assigning books just because someone somewhere says that these are the books that will open a child/student's mind, that, instead, these mandatory reading lists should teach something of even greater value.   A love of reading.  Besides, including books like Moby Dick and The Wizard of Oz is pointless.  You already read them to your child when they were small, didn't you?


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