Friday, October 09, 2009

The Five Best Books Schools Should Have Kids Read (And The Five Crummy, So-Called Classics They Should Replace.)

I am not a fan of "classic" literature. Most "classic" literature stinks, and I've read enough of it to consider myself an expert on the subject.

Of course, I consider myself an expert on every subject, but on the subject of "classic" (stinky) literature, I am an expert, because I've read so much of it, and because so much of it was... is... terrible.

Moby-Dick? Boring. The Canterbury Tales? Infathomable, and then boring, too. Anna Karenina? By the time I was halfway finished with it -- a task that seemed to take centuries -- I wanted to throw myself under a train. If that was what happened. I can't be sure, because that book was so stultifying that I scarcely remember any of it, beyond the fact that there were roughly 1,000,000 pages-long descriptions of the Russian countryside, descriptions that all boiled down to this:


Dostoevsky could have used a good editor.

Why do we make kids read these books? What's the point? To turn them off of reading forever and create a race of people who find Man vs. Food to be the highest form of human expression? That's the only reason I can think of for having people read a bunch of the awful, stilted, incomprehensible, unrelatable, books and poems that were routinely crammed down my throat. For every Great Expectations, a book that was not only genuinely great but which led me to read other, genuinely great Dickens books as well, there were three or four 1984s or Red Badge Of Courages.

Now, I never read that latter book; I just know that other people have read it. I might have been required to read it, at some point, but if I was, I blew that requirement off and still managed to graduate high school, college, and law school and get myself into a job where I can spend Friday mornings thinking about things like this, and about things like how I out-vested my boss, who today is wearing a sweater vest, whereas I am wearing a button-up, pinstripe, belts-in-back vest that is part of a three piece suit.

I never read The Red Badge Of Courage, but I assume it's boring and pointless because (a) the title sounds boring and pointless, and (b) the cover looks boring and pointless:

What's the deal with that cover? Is a poorly-drawn, weirdly-dimensioned image really the best way to convince someone to pick up that book? And (c) the book is by Stephen Crane, who I know best as the guy I think is Stephen Foster, but who obviously is not, because Stephen Foster is the guy who is best known for meeting the lead singer of Squirrel Nut Zippers at the Hotel Paradise:

And I'm pretty sure if "Stephen Foster" had written The Red Badge of Courage under the pen name "Stephen Crane," Squirrel Nut Zippers would have mentioned it in that song, which I assume is historically accurate, aside from the ghost part.

Is there any person, anywhere, who wanted to read The Red Badge of Courage in school? I never met anyone who wanted to read it, and I certainly didn't want to ever read it. Looking at that cover alone makes me yawn and want to punch myself in the eye so that I have an excuse not to start reading it.

So what we're doing, as a nation, is encouraging kids to associate reading with a punch in the eye, and a self-inflicted one, at that. Good job, educators.

Before I began writing this, I looked up, out of curiosity, what were the most-often-required books for college-bound students, and for high schoolers in general (there's a distinction there, about which I think that if there is a high school, nowadays, that doesn't want to consider its students college-bound, we should be closing that school and making the teachers get real jobs.)

I found there is a list of the 43 most-frequently-taught books, some strange ones stand out. A Christmas Carol? Really? We're teaching that to children? I understand that by now, A Christmas Carol is the only allowable holiday movie, but is it really a book to be taught in high schools? Does it prepare one for college adequately to read of Scrooge throwing open the sash to inquire what day it is and have the boy go get a fat goose for Christmas dinner?

There are not one, but two Greek tragedies, Antigone and Oedipus Rex, and I've read both of those and can tell you, if you haven't, don't waste your time. There's nothing about those plays that can't be summarized in a quick line or two, saving you the trouble of parsing through awkward ancient-Greek-to-modern-English translations. Guy accidentally sleeps with his mom and jabs out own eyes; lessons are learned about the weird fates we sometimes endure. There, I just saved you three weeks.

The awkward, hard-to-follow language is a highlight of many high school and college reading lists, the idea seeming to be "If it's hard to understand, they'll overlook how dull and uninspiring and unrelatable the story is." That's the only explanation I can see for including so much Shakespeare on a typical reading list. Five plays from Shakespeare make the top lists. Five. One man makes up 1/8 of the total reading list for college-bound kids. And one man whose writing, while possibly very well-received in his day, no longer resonates with us, in part because it's almost completely unintelligible to us:

Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be
What thou art promised. Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o' the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great;
Art not without ambition; but without
The illness should attend it.

I have no idea what that means, or what it's supposed to mean. Who is Cawdor? If I were to replace some words in that paragraph, would the meaning change? Ballistique thou art, and Der Eisenwolf... (those, by the way, are supervillains, whereas Glamis and Cawdor are either Scottish provinces, or Scottish castles, or Scottish laundry detergents.)

Try this one on for size:

Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell;
Though all things foul would wear the brows of grace,
Yet grace must still look so.

I've been trying to parse that through for about 10 minutes now, and still can't tell what it's talking about.

You see the problem here. These stories and poems are boring, and hard to understand, and pointless, and long, and dry, and dull, and they're part of the problem with school, and teachers, and kids. They're teaching kids to hate reading and teaching teachers to hate kids because the kids hate reading, and that vicious circle goes on and on until eventually, we, as a society, must suffer through Joy Behar having a television show of her own.

I'm not content to live in a world where people who appear to be doing a bad impression of Mike Myers' bad impression of Barbra Streisand get to be on TV, and so, to remedy that ongoing cultural debasement, I've come up with a list of

The Five Best Books Schools Should Have Kids Read (And The Five Crummy, So-Called Classics They Should Replace.)

Teachers, take note of this. Students, go demand that your teachers teach these books instead of those books. Parents, quit worrying about how you're going to pay for your Lexus and instead talk to your kids for a change. And school administrators, go on doing whatever useless tasks you were doing. You're a waste of money, but harmless.

Note: I've deliberately left off of this list all the books I've mentioned on this blog before. Those books are great, but I can't keep talking about them.

1. Nothing Like It In The World: The Men Who Built The Transcontinental Railroad, 1863-1869, by Stephen E. Ambrose (who is not Stephen Foster or Stephen Crane.)

Why It Should Be Read: Schoolkids have to read some nonfiction, I guess, despite the fact that our entire lives are nonfiction and reading ought to be an escape from that. If you're going to read nonfiction, it should be nonfiction that not only makes a point about what life was like during the era the book's set in, but also makes a point in a non-weenyish, non-flowery-meditative-language, way. If possible, the point should be made by focusing, as Nothing Like It In The World does, on men carving their way through mountains using, more or less, their bare hands.

Nothing Like It In The World tells, as its title suggests, the story of the building of the transcontinental railroad, which sounds boring but isn't, because Ambrose pays attention not just to details, but to the impossibility of the task that America set out to do. Building this railroad would be hard now, and we've got spaceships and lasers and robots to help us. Building a railroad across America in the 1860s seems impossible, and probably was. Except they did it.

Bonus Lesson Schoolkids Will Get From It:
They'll learn that something besides the Civil War and Lincoln getting shot was happening in the 1860s. When I first read this book, it took a while to sink in that this is happening at the same time as the Civil War. Schools present a distorted view of history, making it seem as though only one thing happened at a time. First we settled America. Then we killed the Indians with smallpox. Then Ben Franklin wrote some 'witty' sayings. Then... But, as we know, at any given time, lots of important things are happening, and schoolkids could do with a dose of that knowledge.

Stupid Book It Would Replace:
Walden. Published in 1854, "Walden" has, so far as I can tell, no reason for existing. It doesn't purport to demonstrate anything about "typical" life at the time, presents no new or unique thoughts, and rambles on incessantly about things which I'd be more specific about except that I stopped reading it at page 7, when Thoreau was still blathering about the grain of the wood on his log cabin. For 155 years now, students have been subjected to the transcendentalist ramblings of a rich man who took a vacation, and asked to believe that they're important. If the Internet had existed in 1854, Walden would have been a blog, and not a very good one at that.

2. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman.

Why It Should Be Read: Great literature is about telling a great story, and Neil Gaiman does that, first and foremost. But great literature isn't just here's a story, read it. It's also about creating a sprawling, interlocking world that resembles our own except for some critical little difference, and in the tiny gap created by that distance live revelations about our own lives and thoughts and beliefs, and Neil Gaiman does that, too, in spades. In his story about newly-released ex-convict Shadow going to work for the old gods in a battle against the New Gods, Gaiman presents a society in which the things people believe have power actually exist -- but as belief in them fades, they start to lose power while new gods rise up, gods who don't go by names like Odin and Thor but instead have names like Internet. And, Gaiman creates scenes of intense emotion and vivid imagery, as when Shadow has to play chess against an old god, who, if he wins, gets to hit Shadow in the head with his hammer.

Reading American Gods will help schoolkids appreciate the intricacies of a modern novel, as the story begins small and expands out to include even a murder mystery, and will help them appreciate a longer story, as the book is allowed to flower with language and themes and plot. None of this 100,000-word-or-less modern publishing stuff for Gaiman.

Bonus Lesson Schoolkids Will Get From It:
Here and there, classes glance at mythology and discuss it, but they never get into what mythology really represents, and never discuss how understanding the way people used to believe in God might help analyze the way people nowadays believe in God. Remember, at some point in the past, a group of people looked at Mount Olympus and swore that their Gods really existed and were right -- and then went and killed some people to prove it. A book that compares and contrasts religious beliefs with cultural signifiers might just help sort things out a little.

Stupid Book It Would Replace: Moby-Dick. Melville's so-called "classic" tale of man and nature, obsession and madness, is as exciting as reading a statistical abstract. Nobody learns anything from a book which has, as its main reaction, "Oh, God, how long is he going to be talking about rope, now?"

3. The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury.

Why It Should Be Read:
Hey, remember all those great short stories you read in high school and college? No? Me, neither, and here's why: they all sucked. Short stories in high school and college classes uniformly fell into two categories: there were the "excerpts from longer works" that were hard-to-follow and meant nothing because you hadn't read the larger work, and then there were short stories by Ambrose Bierce, who's the only author ever to write a short story, at least so far as I can tell, based on my educational background. If you go by my English classes, nobody wrote a short story after An Occurence At Owl Creek Bridge, unless you count Jack London, who wrote all those stories about those cute husky dogs freezing to death or something.

Short stories, as a result, have fallen into disfavor. Everyone everywhere takes it for granted that people don't read short stories anymore, which would make James Thurber extremely sad if I knew who he was.

People don't read short stories because, like most other forms of literature, schools have ingrained in us a belief that short stories are awful and boring. But short stories would be very useful to society right now, when we don't have the time or patience to read novels all the time and when we do have the Internet, which allows for quick, cheap publication of short stories, stories which could be downloaded easily or read on your lunch break. If you can spend 15 minutes watching LOLCatz, you could also read a short story.

The Illustrated Man will cure all that. I read it when I was about 12 or 13 and I have never forgotten it. Never. Ray Bradbury expertly places out succinct narratives that are quick to read but which embed themselves in your mind. Each very quickly creates an entire world with rules unique to that realm, where the characters come alive for a short time and play out their brief episodes, and then retire offstage, while lingering in our minds. These are scary, surprising, fascinating short stories that can be read one at a time, but you'll likely read the entire book in one sitting.

Bonus Lesson Schoolkids Will Get From It: Ray Bradbury's a sci-fi writer, so they might just get interested in science, as men walk under Venus' eternal rainfall or drift helplessly in space after a rocket explodes, or as children use a television-room to recreate an African veldt, with possibly murderous results.

Stupid Book It Would Replace:
Sorry, Ray: Fahrenheit-451 has to go. Schools pick this book out because it sends an Important Message: Censorship is wrong, reading is right. But the book is dull and dry and hard to read, so kids likely side with the firemen. It just goes to show you that the message has to be secondary to the story, a lesson schools have never learned.

4. The Harry Potter Series, by J.K. Rowling.

Why It Should Be Read: Okay, first off, I know this isn't a book, but a series of books. Still, it tells one story, really, one epic story, so I'm counting it. If it makes you feel better, duct-tape all seven of the books together.

People have long said that J.K. Rowling made it fun to read again and saved reading for kids, the way Dan Brown saved reading for adults, while other people have said No, she didn't. Well, other people, you're wrong. J.K. Rowling did save reading -- for adults and kids. She made reading not only fun for these books, but made reading newsworthy. Think back to before 1997: When was the last time before 1997, when the first Harry Potter book hit the shelves (in the U.S., at least) that you recall a book making the news, let alone news stories about people lining up to buy it. (Answer: The Satanic Verses, which made the news but which nobody bought. I read it; you can skip it. Instead, read Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories.)

Harry Potter changed all that, and brought reading front-and-center again, making it socially acceptable to read books again and talk about it. Before that, books were going the way of ... well, whatever other entertainment had been nearly driven out of society. Opera, maybe.

The Harry Potter books do more than just that, of course: they present a time-honored literary tradition, or a couple of them, in a new and fun light, taking concepts that seem familiar and re-presenting them in such a way as to make them fun and interesting again. If, as has been said, there are only so many story lines to go around, then it's important that those storylines be told in a fresh way, and Harry Potter does that be imagining a Britain that doesn't exist inside the Britain that does, presenting the alienated stepkid who's actually the hero-in-waiting, the multiverse idea, the Second coming of unknowable evil, all those old tropes, as something new and bright. Harry Potter's adventures are similar to that of many kids who stumble into magical realms; he'd probably get along well with the Pevensies, and as a kind-of adopted kid who turns out to be a world-saving hero, I bet he and Clark Kent could trade some anecdotes. But his story is told in a new, fresh, modern way.

Bonus Lesson Schoolkids Will Get From It:
Not everything everywhere is like it is in America. The original book's title changed from a Philosopher's Stone to the Sorceror's Stone, and language was edited around before later books became more British. Little differences in culture can be starting points for understanding the vastness of the world, so if Harry wants to eat a cookie and call it a biscuit, let him.

Stupid Book It Would Replace: The Catcher in The Rye, by J.D. Salinger. From it's too-obscure title to its rambling writing to the fact that this book has been owned by every psychotic ever to make the news, The Catcher In The Rye has no place in schools. I don't even know what the title is supposed to mean, and if The Catcher In The Rye has anything to say to me, or about life in general, or literature, or anything, it was lost in the deranged but somehow still boring ramblings of the author. The whole time I was reading The Catcher In The Rye, I kept thinking "Really? This book? Really?"

5. The Bonfire Of The Vanities, By Tom Wolfe.

Why It Should Be Read
: I finally picked this as book 5 out of a list of about 20 remaining, opting to put it ahead of A Prayer For Owen Meany, Never Let Me Go, The Professor and The Madman, The Corrections, and more. Here's why: Never has there been a book which so accurately captured a moment in time, a feeling, an era, as The Bonfire Of The Vanities. What The Great Gatsby is to the 1920s, what The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is to the late 19th century, The Bonfire Of The Vanities is to the latter 20 years of the 20th century, and then some. In prose that never stops being entertaining and never seems to drag or dawdle, Wolfe spins the tale of unforgettable characters who are archetypes and yet still real: The Wall Street Trader. The Floozy Mistress. The Social Climbing Wife. The Drunken Reporter. The Grasping Public Servant, and more, all make an appearance here, all interacting in a story that starts from a minor car accident and spins more and more out of control, and then refuses to end even when it ends. Here, in one book, is both enough social commentary and enough entertainment to fill a whole year. It almost seems unfair to other books that The Bonfire Of The Vanities should exist.

Bonus Lesson Schoolkids Will Get From It: Again, there's an embarrassment of riches here. The book helps explain how bond trading and the stock market worked, had a look inside the economics of newspapers, the real machinations of a state court system (as opposed to Law & Order: Never A Plea Bargain). And that's just to name a few.

Stupid Book It Would Replace: Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Why, in God's name, are we using 700-year-old, "Olde Englysche" verses to examine the roles played by various people and sectors of a society? Especially of a society that not only no longer exists, but which existed so long ago that it no longer has any impact on our society, outside of Making kids hate English class because they have to read this junk. Here's an actual quote from The Canterbury Tales:

"The serpent Satan, our first enemy,
Who has his wasps' nests in the heart of Jews,
Swelled up: 'O Hebrew people!' was his cry,
'Is it an honorable thing, think you,
That such a boy should walk where he may choose,
In scorn of you, and make of you his scoff,
Singing songs that are an insult to your faith?'"

Um. What? I dozed off, and then gagged, too. Here's an actual excerpt from The Bonfire of the Vanities:

Sherman made the terrible discovery that men make about their fathers sooner or later, that the man before him was not an aging father but a boy, a boy much like himself, a boy who grew up and had a child of his own and, as best he could, out of a sense of duty and, perhaps love, adopted a role called 'Being a Father' so that his child would have something mythical and infinitely important: a Protector, who would keep a lid on all the chaotic and catastrophic possibilities of life.

What's not better about that second one? It's better written, it's intelligible, it relates to kids who themselves are on the verge of adulthood, and it comes in the context of a really great book.

If schools are going to serve as anything other than warehouses for children -- and warehouses for children whose purpose is to scare and bore kids out of learning -- they'd better take my suggestions about these books.

Otherwise, we as a society are about 15 minutes away from Joy Behar vs. Food.

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Japan Used Car said...

Great post. I could not read these books when I was a kid, but I am going to get them for my kids, so that they don't miss what I missed.

Hattie said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


80sMom said...

Haha, thanks for directing me to this! I agree with just about all of what you said, with the exception of Dostoyevsky. There are so many complex moral and character based issues in his work that it is worth poring through. But perhaps NOT for the average high school student :-)

Briane P said...

I agree about the complex issues -- but they may be better presented in ways that kids can understand or relate to nowadays. Not everything has to be hip-hopped up, but there is something to be said for making things relevant.

Rogue Mutt said...

I wouldn't mind most of those. Not sure about the Bradbury though. We had to read "Dandelion Wine" in school and it was boring. He also wrote my least favorite Twilight Zone episode ever, the one where Larry Tate's kids buy a robot to replace their mom and then instead of anything interesting happening we skip forward to them going off to school and bawling with the robot and then it floats off like Mary Poppins or something. Ugh.

When I read "Bonfire of the Vanities" a few years ago it was surprising how much of it is as relevant now as it was in the 80s.

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