Assigned reading gets a bad rap. Or perhaps I should say it gets an accurate rap: why do our best attempts to introduce children and teens to great literature often end with bored kids swearing off reading forever?
I have always loved reading, yet I have plenty of memories of trudging through tedious required reading that felt like it could be so much better. Is there a former student among us who hasn’t felt at one time that assigned reading in school was turning them off reading, instead of on to it?
My seventeen-year-old daughter stopped me in my tracks this summer with a comment on this topic. I was thinking aloud about writing this post, and she said, “You could talk about how I don’t like reading anymore.” When urged to elaborate, she spoke of how she once loved reading: she read, and read voraciously, because it brought her joy. But then, she entered high school—and was required to read texts she didn’t like and sometimes doubted were even good. But, of course, she had to read them anyway, because that’s how English class works.
Those experiences sapped reading of its joy for her. She said that after being forced to read dull books as duty, it became hard to pick up books for pleasure. Reading had lost its shine.
Her comments called to mind my own years as an adolescent reader. I loved assigned reading in grade school, but by the time I hit late middle school it had turned into a chore. I’ve thought a lot about what went wrong, exactly. Is it fair to say the less-than-enthusiastic modeling of some language arts teachers contributed? I imagine so. Did the impenetrability and glacial pace of some assigned texts blunt the joy of a good book? Undoubtedly. (I’m looking at you, Song of Roland.)
I’ve always loved to read, though I certainly had some rocky years as a reader—with assigned reading being the main culprit. But even in those bumpy times, every once in a while I’d read an assigned book that absorbed me. One that I was happy to dive into with a skilled teacher and (moderately) engaged class. One that made me read ahead so I could find out what happened next. One that reminded me why this reading thing was worth it.
In today’s book list I’m sharing assigned reads I’m grateful for: some books I read and loved as a high schooler, and some my daughters have read and loved. I hope you enjoy perusing the list, and even more so, I hope this reflection reminds you of some of the required reads that shaped you as a young reader. We’d love to hear about those reading experiences in the comments section.
Fitzgerald's classic was the topic of my first high school term paper—I wrote about the concept of time and can still picture the Harold Bloom text I relied on—and despite that, I still love and admire what Fitzgerald accomplishes in his taut story. Fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby built a mansion on Long Island Sound in order to woo his lost love Daisy Buchanan, who married another (loathsome) man while Gatsby was serving overseas. Gatsby's doomed attempt to recapture what was lost—or perhaps, what never really existed—works on so many levels. This classic American novel captures the Jazz Age in all its decadence and excess, while weaving a wistful story of love and loss, related by a perhaps-unreliable narrator. My kids didn't hate this assigned reading, but they didn't love it like I did. More info →
My "favorite" Austen novel changes with the season, but Emma spends much of the year in first position; this was my first taste of Jane Austen as a teenager. The story centers on an unusual household of two: Emma Woodhouse, "handsome, clever, and rich," old enough to marry but independent enough not to want to (and wealthy enough to avoid the shame of spinsterhood), and her well-meaning but exceedingly nervous father. Distinctive friends, neighbors, and love interests spin their way into the Woodhouse orbit throughout the story's course—some quirky, some endearing, some downright obnoxious, and ALL entertaining. I can still viscerally feel the way my 17-year-old mind was blown when my friend Amy raised her hand in English class and asked, during our teacher's introduction to the text, "Isn't the movie Clueless based on this book?" Jane Austen, somehow relevant to life today—even teenage life in Beverly Hills? I was hooked. More info →
I never read Jane Eyre in school: I picked it up in my mid-twenties during my classics catch-up phase I wrote about in I'd Rather Be Reading. I loved it, and was glad I was never forced to read it in school: what if I hadn't been ready for this great book? That's why I was understandably nervous when my daughter read this as a high school sophomore. I was afraid she would find it boring—maybe she should wait till she was in her twenties, too?—but to my relief and very great surprise, she called it the best book she'd ever read. This groundbreaking classic is a gothic romance, mystery, and psychological thriller all rolled into one; its themes were astonishingly modern for 1847. It features one of literature's greatest—if not universally beloved—heroines. Jane is an orphan who becomes the governess for a brooding Byronic hero's children, learns to speak up for herself, and makes bold choices. Those who have read it will spot its influence everywhere. More info →
Speaking of nerves: this was assigned high school summer reading for the senior class, and I was willing to bet my daughter would find it a bit dry. I was delighted to be flat wrong. Apparently toxic friendships make for absorbing reading at any age? This first installment of Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet revolves around the complicated friendship between Elena and Lila, from the intriguing beginning when the girls are in first grade and carrying through the jaw-dropping cliffhanger ending during their adolescence. Thought-provoking, beautifully written, realistic enough to be quite difficult in places. Readers who love this Italian novel LOVE IT. More info →
Some of my best and most meaningful school reading experiences came from those moments when I sat back, stunned, and thought I didn't know an author could DO that on the page! So it goes with Flannery O'Connor, widely regarded as one of the all-time finest writers of short stories and Southern fiction. I encountered this specific groundbreaking collection, highly regarded even today for its originality, as a high school junior, and was by turns captivated and repulsed by its shocking, reverential, almost mythical, and often grotesque content. I can still remember reading my first O'Connor story in English class: we dove straight into the deep end with "A Good Man is Hard to Find." A jarring introduction to be sure, and one that kept me coming back for more. More info →
I don't like to throw around the word "should" when it comes to reading, but I do hope you'll consider reading this classic-for-a-reason. In this great Russian novel, Raskolnikov wonders whether it’s possible to murder someone without remorse, and reaches the conclusion that yes, it’s possible for an important person to kill someone they deem unimportant. He sets out to do exactly that—but he doesn’t count on a growing conscience or an investigator's subsequent pursuit. You could read this book every year for the rest of your life and discover something new every time. This is the book that first showed me what a talented writer could do with theme, symbolism, and imagery, which may sound dry but was revolutionary—and exciting!—to my young mind. Translations abound; mine is by David McDuff. More info →
When my daughter was assigned this book as a high school junior, I had no idea what her young generation of readers would make of this unusual novel. It's a haunting and atmospheric coming of age story that centers on three teens, students in a 1990s British boarding school. Ishiguro expertly combines speculative and literary fiction to weave his tale, with prose that says so much while revealing so little, as it slowly dawns on the reader what is not-quite-right about these children's lives. It's a troubling read, but one my daughter was so glad she got to experience. (I talked about my love for this one in Volume III of One Great Book .) More info →
Tell us about assigned reading you actually enjoyed! What was the best book you were assigned to read in school? What early experiences with required reading shaped you as a reader? Please tell us all about them in comments!
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