Thursday, April 23, 2009

Book Lists

National Review Online has linked to a list of the books high school students should supposedly read before graduating. K. J. Lopez has already said she's gotten feedback from folks saying The Great Gatsby doesn't belong on the list. I read Gatsby in ninth grade; the only thing I remember from it is that one of the towns was West Egg. Dumb name, that. A supremely unmemorable book, I recall thinking even as I was reading it. Perhaps I was too young too appreciate it, but I doubt it.

The worst inclusion is the one I read most recently: The Catcher in the Rye. The only reason I finally picked it up last year, to be honest, was that I felt a little like Mel Gibson's character in Conspiracy Theory: it was a classic that everyone had read, except me. I suppose I wanted to feel "normal".

Guess what? Normal sucks. Catcher is a lame excuse to force (or, alternately, allow) high-schoolers to read the F-bomb approximately one thousand times in one hundred pages.

So here are the other ones that I've read: The Bible (duh); Declaration of Independence/Constitution/Gettysburg); Huck Finn (though I preferred Tom Sawyer); Macbeth; The Iliad; Great Expectations; 1984; The Scarlet Letter; Chaucer's Canterbury Tales; Frost's poems; Dickinson's poems; and Machiavelli's Prince. Those are the ones I remember, anyway, and without exception I'd recommend them. I'm still partial to John Wesley's quote regarding The Prince (tip o' the cap to this blogger, who perhaps has been raised on the A Beka Book curriculum, as I was):
“In my passage home [from Scotland], having procured a celebrated book, (the Works of Nicholas Machiavel,) I set myself carefully to read and consider it. I began with a prejudice in his favour, having been informed, he had often been misunderstood, and greatly misrepresented. I weighed the sentiments that were less common; transcribed the passages wherein they were contained; compared one passage with another, and endeavoured to form a cool, impartial judgment. And my cool judgment is, that if all the other doctrines of devils which have been committed to writing since letters were in the world were collected together in one volume, it would fall short of this; and, that should a Prince form himself by this book, so calmly recommending hypocrisy, treachery, lying, robbery, oppression, adultery, whoredom, and murder of all kinds, Domitian or Nero would be an angel of light, compared to that man.”
UPDATE: Jeff the Baptist linked - thanks!


Paul C. Quillman said...

Perhaps the value I gained from Gatsby was not the book itself, but the story of the author. Gatsby was written when Fitzgerald was in good times economically. His later works were not nearly as good (and I use good loosly) as Gatsby, mainly because he was in despirate need of money. The lesson is art for the sake of creating is good, but art because you are hard up for cash, may not be so good.

deidre said...

I read Gatsby a couple of years ago, and it didn't do much for me. But I totally agree with you about Catcher in the Rye...I read it because I felt like I "should." I was an English major, even, so I don't know how I escaped it for so long...and then I HATED it!

I also preferred Tom Sawyer to Huck Finn...

Anonymous said...

It's so funny; I read "Rye" when I was in high school (shortly before the invention of the wheel), and I though Holden Caulfield was an idiot then. I never dared tell anyone, however, because I feared ridicule. You were very cool if you were a misunderstood, confused adolescent. I was happy, if unrepentant, in those days, so his plight never touched me with sympathy.

I honestly think there's a great deal of nonsense that passes for great art, be it of the literary, musical, or visual sort. Sooner or later, someone needs to stand up and yell, "THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES ON!!" So here goes:

1. Holden Caulfield is an idiot.

2. High school English teachers who love the book about him need to find another way to reach out to their students and make themselves feel relevant around young people.

3. Teenagers are not stupid. Most of them understand that Rye was written by an adult who thinks very little of them. ("Let's write a book about high schoolers... Hmm, I know! Put in lots of cursing and sex! Kids'll love it!") I never met ONE who got anything more than that out of reading this book.
Love, Mom
p.s. John Wesley is the man.