Summer reading

College Board recommends 101 books for college-bound readers. Most are classics by dead white males. I read most of these in high school and the rest in college or later, except for Achebe, Proust, Roth and Silko. There’s also a short list of poetry and cultural texts. I’ve read it all except for Frank O’Hara’s poetry, but it seems ambitious for high school students. Of course, I guess they’re not expected to read everything before they set foot on a college campus.

See what you think.

Via the Houston Chronicle’s School Zone.

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  1. I had forgotten how unappealing a lot of this stuff is.

  2. Mark Roulo says:

    I’ve read it all except for Frank O’Hara’s poetry, but it seems ambitious for high school students.

    They aren’t recommending that high school students read
    all of these (although I’m sure they would be okay with that,
    too). This is basically just a list of “good books”.

    -Mark R.

  3. Walter E. Wallis says:

    No Heinlein? No Clarke? No Asimov? How dreary.

  4. The list went around as a meme in 2004

    Have You Read These?.

  5. It’d be a great exercise for people to compare the list to the reading list at their local high schools.

    It’s a great list (although certainly not all inclusive) of culturally significant writers, and you might be appalled at how few of them are taught to high school kids. Even when they appear in the curriculum, what kids actually see are lame excerpts from longer works, and even then, the next time your school does English or “Language Arts” textbook adoption, take a look the lack of substance in what major publishers put out. The books are usually about ten pounds of nothing worth reading.

  6. Classics are classics and they’re good to be familiar with for the purpose of cultural literacy, but just because something is a classic doesn’t necessarity mean it’s good literature.

    Some of items on the list I don’t think can be appreciated by an 18 year old.

    Has anybody read the Last of the Mohicans and then felt glad they did?

    To tell you the truth, I have more questions than answers.

    What is good literature? is a good question.

    A broader question that isn’t often asked is, Why teach literature?

    If we want students to read and write well, I’m not sure that classic literature should even be in the same room with them.

  7. Walter E. Wallis says:

    My big objection to book banning. If Catcher had not been banned, It might have sold 37 copies.

  8. Walter, you may not like Catcher in the Rye, but the fact that it was banned isn’t the reason it became popular, though that might have contributed to sales later on.

    Initial reviews were so-so but it was selected as a Readers’ Digest Book of the Month which gave sales a good jump start.

    Whit Burnett, who was very influential in the publishing world at the time, taught a writing class that was Salinger in and took a looking to the strange, quiet young man. Burnett is probably the reason for the Readers’ Digest selection.

    After a period of moderate sales, it slowly gained a following on college campuses and it’s popularity spread by word of mouth. The same thing happened later with Kurt Vonnegut.

    The book has the F-word in two places. Holden imagines that with his bad luck somebody will write it on his gravestone.

    Salinger violated a taboo by including it in his book but I don’t think it makes it obscene.

    Why Catcher in the Rye was and is so popular is kind of a mystery. Salinger is a wonderful writer but only because of what he wrote later.

  9. Walter E. Wallis says:

    The “hero” was a contemptable swine, and I have no interest in those.
    I felt cheated when there was no redeeming virtue.

  10. Robert Wright,

    You don’t think reading complex literature makes people better readers and might make them better writers? (I don’t want anyone learning mechanics and punctuation from Faulkner, so in that regard, I take your point.)

    Do you buy into the idea of Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy or even the idea that shared literature contributes to a shared culture? You may not, but if you do, it’s hard to figure out how you’d do it without classics.

  11. NDC, you write,

    “You don’t think reading complex literature makes people better readers and might make them better writers? ”

    I’m not sure. That’s the operational theory. I just wonder if it’s sound.

    And your write,

    “Do you buy into the idea of Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy or even the idea that shared literature contributes to a shared culture?”

    Yes, cultural literacy has value, but at what cost?

    Teaching Latin used to be standard in every high school. I don’t think anybody questions the value of knowing Latin, just the cost.

  12. Actually, I don’t think the cost of teaching Latin was the reason it was dropped if you mean monetary cost. It shouldn’t be any more expensive to offer than any other language, and we still offer others. I think it’s the same belief that the value of learning something is in its immediate utility that you are getting at here that did it in. The social and political cost of having to sell Latin to the disinterested was too great. But I think if you surveyed people, they’d say high school graduates were better educated in the days they took Latin. (Not this is was the Latin itself, but that more was expected generally of students in the days that Latin was taught.)

    Moving towards a public high school curriculum based on immediate and universal utility hasn’t really served us that well.

    For me, producing a shared culture is one of legitimate functions of public education, so the cost of teaching literature likely to produce cultural literacy is as valid as teaching any core subject.

    Now, teaching literature with the enjoyment of reading as a sole end kind of baffles me. Once you’ve acquired the skill of reading, it seems like the merit should come from the content and quality of the work itself, rather than something completely subjective.

    I don’t mean that teachers should all require the Last of the Mohicans, but that we should carefully consider what all the kids should be required to read and make sure that there’s something other than entertainment, student interest, or “bibliotherapy” behind it.

  13. Some great books there but the list itself is so lacking in imagination that its totality seems intended to elicit yawns…

    I do like the inclusion of Melville’s Bartleby The Scrivener, which should be read by all high school seniors since so many of them become stricken with Bartleby’s existential affliction at some point in that final year of HS….

    But for the most part it’s all so obvious. One imagines the list not based upon anyone at the college board having actually read these books but just having heard that they are important.

    Why, for example, The Cherry Orchard rather than The Three Sisters or, my favorite Chekhov, Uncle Vanya…?

    Animal Farm rather than 1984?

    I love Catcher in the Rye and I learn something new every time I read it, but I’m not sure it is essential reading for anyone.

    Grapes of Wrath, on the other hand, I think ought to be essential reading for everyone….

  14. Larry,

    From the perspective of the College Board and AP English testing, I don’t think even the CB is prepared to argue the merits of any one book by one of the represented authors over another. Sometimes, it seems to me that they list shorter works when they choose one from several possible. Even Bartleby seems like a way of including Melville while getting out from under recommending Moby Dick more than an authentic assertion that Bartleby as the more significant work.

    What do you think ought to be on there that’s missing?

    And a more interesting question, I think: which of them are actually required in your district?

  15. I see that they’ve actually included Moby Dick and gone with Portrait of a Lady rather than Daisy Miller for James, so that blows my length theory.

    I’d be curious to know why they think it’s better for kids to read The Sound and the Fury over Absalom, Absalom.

  16. Walter E. Wallis says:

    As someone who came West to escape the Dust Bowl, I question the starvation in Grapes. Obviously Steinbeck’s fellow Salinasers also saw overkill. Hoffer did better.

  17. A quick glance and some mental counting leads me to believe I’ve read perhaps 15 of these (or at least selected excerpts — I mean, does anyone read all of Beowulf and live to tell the tale?) and don’t feel as though I’ve missed out on much. I still do quite well at Jeopardy!, and my writing hasn’t suffered horribly.

    Certainly, one must wonder why the hell I ever read Antigone or Chopin’s lukewarm mush about burgeoning sexuality and female infidelity. Stupid college instructors.

    I must admit, however: I do feel that pang of guilt/sting of pride when one of these is being discussed by my pretentious, literati friends and I am unable to contribute in a meaningful way. Ah, well. No one is going to convince me reading Steinbeck, Hemingway, Kafka, or Faulkner is a good idea at this stage of life. I’m on board with Orwell, however, and you might tempt me with Vonnegut. Maybe.

  18. Hemingway and some Steinbeck you might actually like although I’m not really prepared to say that about Faulkner or Kafka.

    Dropping the pretentious, literarti might be enjoyable too. Life’s too short.

  19. I think that most college-bound students would be better off reading a decent non-fiction book or three on topics that they find interesting. Something like James McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom”, or Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, or Douglas Hofstadter’s “Goedel, Escher, Bach”, or something else. I suspect that just about every college-bound student has read (or at least was supposed to have read) some “great literature”, but very few have read any decent non-fiction.

  20. “But I think if you surveyed people, they’d say high school graduates were better educated in the days they took Latin. (Not this is was the Latin itself, but that more was expected generally of students in the days that Latin was taught.)”

    I really don’t know if more was expected then; back in the ‘good old days.’ I know that when I tried to take a high school general knowledge test from 1900, I performed poorly, and for a time I thought that I was stupid.

    But then I realized that that test had limited chemistry, remarkably limited (and in hindsight incorrect) biology, no fun stuff physics (radiation, electricity, and quantum theories), no aviation at all. (No drivers ed 🙂 )And I realized that I had learned all about this stuff in my high school, and yet the people in the past didn’t.

    So I’ve come to the conclusion that there is so much more to learn now than there was 100 years ago. Something has to go. I really am well educated even though I’ve only read 12 books on that list. I’ve started another 25 or so and was so bored out of my mind that I could not finish them. Because it was the best of times and the worst of times for calling Ismael or something.

    But I have over a thousand books in my home library that I’ve read and many more to go…and besides it is the reading that is important. I started with comic books….moved onto the Hardy boys….and then Stephen King. I read fiction for enjoyment, not to suffer through the prolonged run-on 18th and 19th century sentence structure. Only Dickens I ever got through was ‘A Christmas Carol’

    Oh well “the horror, the horror.” (Yes I made it through that one.)

  21. I remember being very impressed when I read Antigone.

    Maybe Steinbeck, Hemingway and Kafka aren’t for everybody, but I can’t imagine life without them.

    One of my favorite writers, William Saroyan, never makes these lists. Richard Rodriguez wrote an interesting essay about that:

    Another of my favorite writers is Juan Ramon Jimenez. Even though he won the Nobel Prize for Lierature in 1956, not very many people are familiar with him.

    A lot of this just has to do with culture.

    In Russia, the greatest American writer is thought to be Jack London. In Spain, it’s thought to be Edgar Allan Poe.

    When Americans travel to Spain and express their appreciation of Garcia Lorca, Spaniards cringe.

  22. NDC, my district — the Los Angeles Unified School District — leaves English Departments to invent their own requirements. They must purchase state approve “standards based” — back breaking — text books but no one says how or when they must be used. I’ve heard that might be changing — at least in theory….

    If it were up to me I think I’d just expand the list and tell students they’d do well to get through two or three of those books during one summer. Mostly, I think, high school students ought to read what they like on their own and high school teachers should help them read the difficult texts. Perhaps if we do a really good job at that then by their last few years of HS they’ll do much better on their own. But it takes work. Most of these books were written for people living in a very different world — a world in which the language of the day, at least for the more educated, was much more like the style of these novels. The writing, in some cases, is so good — is operating on so many levels simultaneously — that it requires a level of concentration not so easy to come by in the 21st Century.

  23. Maybe Steinbeck, Hemingway and Kafka aren’t for everybody, but I can’t imagine life without them.

    Oh, it’s probably because I see existentialism — and all born of it — as an enormous load of BS. Somehow, I just don’t see an elderly man nursing from a woman whose child died as “hopeful.” But that’s just me.

  24. I’m with you, Larry. I think most of the works on the list have to be actively taught these days, not just assigned and read. But I still think there’s a value in doing it.

    I’m not prepared to make a case that literature (or history) is more important than learning science to people actually learning what’s available to be learned, but I think in the olden days, a high school graduate actually has a shot at mastering a well-defined, relatively broad body of knowledge, and today I don’t think they do.

    We haven’t exchanged Latin and seemingly esoteric grammar for more people mastering atomic physics; we’ve created a system that basically doesn’t allow you to assume that a high school graduate actually knows any particular thing.

    I might take AP English and read a lot of what’s on the list, or I might take ESOL Language Arts and barely pass my exams for graduation. Either way, I’d be likely to get the same diploma. You might take two types of AP Physics, or you might take Ecology and Oceanography to satisfy your science requirements. Having a high school diploma manages to not mean anything and yet be elusive for an “unacceptably” large segment of public school kids anyway.

    I happen to believe that dropping requirements in the name of immediate utility is part of what got us where we are today, so I’m extra suspicious of the “does anyone really need to know this” kind of discussion.

    I claim you need to teach literature: a common body of works recognized for their significance that people read to create a sense of shared culture. I’m open to including works not on this list, but it still needs to a well-known and pretty-close-to-universal list.

    About the non-fiction suggestion, I agree that non-fiction is as valuable as fiction certainly. I suspect you might be able to find a College Board list of works connected somehow to the AP English Language course that might be what you’d be looking for. The AP English Language class tends to incorporate more non-fiction.

  25. Walter E. Wallis says:

    I suspect the nursing scene was tossed in to slip one past the censors. Any of my aunts [and I had a flock of them] would have had that guy nursing a broomstick.

  26. I’m wondering why these lists are so skimpy on Non-Fiction?

  27. Why is this list so weighted with fiction and poetry? Where are classic non-fiction works? Some scientists and historians write with an elegance and precision which students would do well to model.

    Higher education is a ponzi scheme anyway. You want to learn US Diplomatic Histroy or 18th Century French Literature (in translaton)? Read a book; you don’t need to kiss some professor’s


  28. Richard Aubrey says:

    Since not all life is lived in the reading chair, some knowledge of the real world can be useful.
    So, I would add
    “This Kind of War”, Fehrenbach,
    “War; Ends and Means”, Seabury and Codevilla.

  29. Heh, The Last of the Mohicans made the list. Mark Twain must be spinning in his grave.

  30. Ragnarok says:

    Maybe “Red Sky at Morning”? I read it in college, and it seemed to speak to many of my friends as well.

  31. Check this for non-fiction:

    Check AP English Language representative authors.

  32. Ah…. Summer reading. Many of my freshman will arrive next fall having read little if anything over the summer. The reasons will vary, the results will not. For many of these students reading borders on the line of some form of torcher. The reading level of many children so low they can barely decode the words let alone comprehend at grade level. Why are they promoted you ask? Among several, simple; Politics!! The very people who claim to be anti-social promotion are at the mercy of local politics. Unfortunately a disproportionately large number of these students are infact minority. If they are withheld from promotion “community leaders” demand to know why? Quickly they will assert that the reasons have nothing to do with education level. Therefore, the schools choose the lesser of two evils hoping students will catch-up. They err on the side of social promotion. Will any of them admit to this? Of course not, it is not politically expedient. Oh what a tangled web we weave. Dale Carnegie said decades ago: I paraphrase, people have two agendas; the one they tell you and the real one. Sadly the biggest losers in this educational quagmire are the students. Imagine if we allowed children to learn swimming by throwing them in the deep end regardless of their level of skill. A ludricrous idea of course, yet that is in essence what people of many concerned camps in reality do to children pertaining to reading and education. Hopefully soon we will put children and not politics first!!


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