“I never learned anything at all in school and didn't read a book for pleasure until I was 19 years old.”Well, with all due respect Mr. Kubrick, I do find that hard to believe, even though as a teacher I know students hate to be told what to read, and few read for pleasure. The quote did, however, get me to thinking about the novels and plays I "make" my students read, and the novels that my teachers "made" me read. Some I liked, and of course, some I disliked. This post is about the ones I actually enjoyed, even though I was required to read them. No, I'm not going to give anything away. You, too, may have to read them.
#10-William Shakespeare's Hamlet. Hamlet is by far one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. In high school, we had to read Romeo & Juliet (hated it), Julius Caesar (no comment), and Macbeth (loved it). I didn't get to Hamlet until college. It has everything-conspiracies, love, betrayal, ghosts, insanity, and murder. Once you get past the iambic pentameter, it Hamlet is a great read. The plot follows Prince Hamlet of Denmark as he embarks on a quest to discover the murderer of his father, while dealing with the new marriage of his uncle and his mother.
#9-Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. Published in 1959, Lorraine Hansberry became the first African-American woman to debut a play on Broadway. The play follows the Younger family as they each try to fight for the success of their individual dreams. Like Hamlet, I didn't read A Raisin in the Sun until college. You find yourself fighting the good fight right along with the Youngers who face racism, negativity from each other, and betrayal. A wonderful play about not deferring your dreams, standing up for yourself and your beliefs, and finding hope where you least expect it.
#8-John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. John Steinbeck published Of Mice and Men in 1937. The novel follows the friendship of two migrant workers George Milton and Lennie Small, and the tragedy that befalls them. Like Raisin, the two men have been holding to a dream that is constantly jeopardized by Lennie's "bad" behavior. Students fall in love with Lennie who is a child trapped in a giant's body. It is always one of my students' favorites.
#7-Native Son. Picture it-1992, my senior AP English class. My teacher passes out a book list for our research paper. Scanning the list my eyes fell upon Native Son. I had heard of Native Son, because Richard Wright was born in Natchez. Then, I picked up the book. I'm not usually intimidated by the size of a novel, but this book was pretty substantial. Well, I tackled it and was not disappointed. The 1940 novel follows the travails of Bigger Thomas, a bitter African American chauffeur, who on one fateful night accidentally commits a crime that devastates every one connected to him.
#6-The Scarlet Letter. Written in 1850, it's hard to believe that we are still reading this novel over 160 years later. The novel follows Hester Prynne, a Puritan woman, who has been condemned to wear a scarlet letter "A" for the rest of her life as a consequence of her adulterous affair. Part of the novel is spent trying to find out who her lover is, how her husband reacts, and exactly what is the deal with her daughter Pearl. The novel is mostly a story of redemption and accepting the consequences of one's actions. Today, Hester would just be given a reality show.
#5-Mythology. Part of the reason I like Edith Hamilton is that she was an educator. She compiled her Mythology collection in 1942. She recounts Greek, Roman, and Norse myths. The text introduces you to the basics of mythology from the creation myths to the pantheon of the gods. It also introduces you to heroes like Achilles, Hector, Odysseus, and Jason. It recounts the Trojan War and the House of Thebes-Oedipus, Antigone, and Creon. I use it to introduce archetypes found throughout literature much to the chagrin of my students.
#4-Things Fall Apart. When I began work at my current school, I was in for a bit of a surprise. One-that all high school students, not just honors, had to do summer reading. Two-the senior book was the 1958 novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I felt like read what? By whom? I had never heard of the novel. Now, I'm glad I do. It truly is one of my favorite teaching novels. It follows protagonist Okonkwo as he copes with family issues, maintains his position in his village, and approach of British colonialism and Christianity in Africa. An absolute fabulous read!
#3-The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Several people have asked me why I teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn especially with the over 100 instances of the N-word. The novel is more than that. Mark Twain published the novel in 1885 here in America, a mere 20 years after the end of the Civil War. The novel follows the Huckleberry Finn as he tries to find freedom from "sivilization" along the Mississippi River. He is accompanied by runaway slave, Jim. Both characters find out much about themselves and each other as they develop their friendship during their trip south. It is that friendship development which makes this novel one of my favorites.
#2-Siddhartha. This was another novel that I didn't learn about until I started teaching. It was on our list of required novels. Published in 1922, the novel follows young Siddhartha the son of a Brahman on his quest for enlightenment. Not only does he share the same name as Buddha, Siddhartha embarks on a similar journey and meets the Buddha along the way. I teach this novel to my seniors who are also embarking on a journey to find their "Self." If you haven't read it, Siddhartha is a must read.
#1-The Great Gatsby. Anyone who has ever read my blog knows that Gatsby is one of my all time favorite novels. I first read it as junior in High School, again as a Freshman in college, and at least once a year for the last 9 school years. I love it so much I wrote four different posts about it. Check my Gatsby Revisited. The novel, first published in 1925, still has so much relevance today. The story follows Jay Gatsby as he desperately tries to reconnect to his former sweetheart Daisy Fay, who by the way, just happens to be married. There is adultery, deceit, and murder. You find yourself rooting for Gatsby even when your heart tells you he can't possibly win.
There they are ladies and gents. My favorite required reads. Hope you enjoy. Until next time, “Books open your mind, broaden your mind, and strengthen you as nothing else can”-William Feather.